My Story of Aunt Re
As told by Catherine Elizabeth Wayland
wife of John Craig Hoffman
mother of Jackson Wayland Hoffman
mother of Brodhir Wayland Hoffman
hen I was first dating John, he asked me to come to visit his Aunt Re at the nursing home where she was living at the time. As we drove to go see her, John shared some stories with me about Aunt Re. He told me how Aunt Re was his father Clifford’s aunt and how she had cared for him after he lost his parents at a very early age. It was my understanding from the story that Clifford’s father had passed away and his mother had entered a mental hospital. I don’t remember Clifford’s father’s name, I think it was Clifford as well.
Clifford’s mother Grace went into a mental hospital with her daughter Grace. Again, I’m remembering my version or understanding. I understand that there had been a tragedy that had caused a breakdown with Clifford’s sister Grace, and her mother followed her in to the asylum. His mother appeared eccentric and theatrical but not unstable, so I can only assume that is what a mother would do to take care of one of her children. I just might do the same for Jackson or Brodhir.
So, Aunt Re took care of Clifford or as we knew him “Smokey” (Smokey was the name he got from the old coal construction rigs that blew black smoke on Clifford’s face). When Clifford “Smokey” and Betty Benn married, they lived below Aunt Re. John and I have so many pictures of Aunt Re and Betty and Smokey and their children: John (my husband), Carol, Wayne, and Gary outside that house. Each year the children and parents looked older and the house remained the same. That house marked time.
I understand that Smokey and Bette, Carol, Wayne, Gary and John stayed living under Aunt Re until Carol was 12 and John was 6. Sundays were a big dinner at Aunt Re’s house. Aunt Re sounded very strong. I also remember a story about her playing piano in the local mission. Although Aunt Re had boyfriends, she never married. Aunt Re seemed as though her family was the family that needed her rather than the one she went out in the world to seek and create. There was never a shortage of young Hoffman for her to care for. There was divorce, death, war and all of these carried the collateral damage of lost children that if not for Aunt Re, they would have become orphans. Aunt Re sounded like a rock that people could break against. I remember that day driving to the nursing home, feeling as though I was going to meet the matriarch of the family and that I cared very much that she approved of me and liked me.
We got to the nursing home that day, and first John showed me a community room where they had put an editorial up on the bulletin board about Aunt Re playing piano in the mission. Wow, I thought. This woman is not just an important person to this family; she’s a local legend, a celebrity of sorts. My stomach got so excited and nervous to meet her. Smokey and John brought me into Aunt Re’s room.
At first, John and I held back while Smokey said his first hello to Aunt Re. I will never forget that image. To be honest I had so far been very intimidated by Smokey. He was a bit scary to me. Smokey was a broad-chested, large presence of a man. Smokey had been in World War II as a body-tagger and then worked construction. He was a man’s man, and I felt small and prissy around him. Well that day, I saw a young boy holding his surrogate mother’s hand. Smokey looked at Aunt Re and his face softened like in a prayer. He just sat so lightly on the bed next to her, holding her hand and talking so quietly. That is when I saw what came to mean a great deal to me in my growing relationship with the Hoffmans. That day I saw loyalty. And I thought in my heart, I need some loyal people in my life. I want to feel that about someone, and someone to me. My heart grew so big for John and his family that day.
Finally, John and I approached Aunt Re. She was at the time in her 90s. John and Smokey had brought her some of her favorite treats, banana and Fig Newtons. Well, I thought, Fig Newtons are my favorite cookie too. I like this woman. She is just a human being too. And then I will never forget what happened next. As Aunt Re sat eating her goodies, she told us a very plain truth, “My boyfriend (I think Charles was his name), he died last night.” I didn’t know what to say. The way she said it was so plain, it almost sounded funny. But she was serious in the way that she was. A plain speaker. A strong woman who spoke her truths. I was no longer worried that I had to think of something fancy to say to her to make her like me. I knew if I was just a good person, and I just spoke my own truths, that I would be all right in her eyes. I leaned against that thought like a comfortable quilt on a cool autumn night. That comfort stayed with me for years.
llustration Source: Wikipedia
There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe - Illustration by William Wallace Denslow
from the Project Gutenberg EBook of Denslow's Mother Goose, by Anonymous
Original copyright 1902 by William Wallace Denslow