Ambrose Burnside Hoffman was born in Atlantic City, N.J., just before Christmas 1895. He was the only son of Mary Conover and Ambrose Burnside Lincoln Hoffman, my grandparents. “Brose” — his nickname — graduated high school at a time when few of his generation did, and he’d become proficient in typing and shorthand.
Brose had a serious heart condition and couldn’t serve, as others did, in World War One. He spoke often of his time working as the secretary to the head of the Philadelphia Navy Yard — called “Hog Island” in those days –— and how he’d met the man who was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He later started a building business, often doing work for Grace Kelly’s family and some of the Kennedys.
My fondest recollection of daddy was the morning mother woke my sister Jeanne and I to come downstairs from our bedroom in our South Philly home to see our new car, a 1929 DeSoto. The depression hadn’t yet hit our family so quickly as some others; however, I remember visiting my maternal grandparents carrying boxes of food while my mother slipped a few dollars to my grandma. Those two were raising my three orphaned cousins.
Grandpa, a mechanic, was out of work. It was during those years that grandma baked bread and grandpa, driving his old Willis car, would sell the wares door to door in better neighborhoods. We moved from one set of row houses to another as my father’s company lost them. Finally, during my early teens, we ended up in the Germantown section of Philly. It was at that time that I realized my father had an alcohol problem.
My mother had to go to work in a department store. Now looking back I think she welcomed getting away; even temporarily; from the problems at home. Not once, until daddy died and we found 17 bottles scattered around in hiding places all over the house, did she ever acknowledge that he had a problem. My paternal grandparents had moved in with us, grandpa Hoffman was ill and couldn’t work while grandma worked at a department store.
Evenings found us all jammed into our tiny living room. Mother would read the paper, daddy would turn the dial on the radio deciding what program we’d listen to, not that we had much of choice. No TV those days, just Amos and Andy or the Shadow Knows, etc. Every evening, at least once, daddy would disappear down into the basement and when he came back up I knew immediately that he’d had a drink.
I’d slip over and whisper to my mother that daddy had just had something and she would give me that “oh, no, of course not” look. Brose’s neck would turn red, his eyes would bulge and his words would slur, and nobody would say a word. My sister Jeanne and I didn’t dare bring friends home. Daddy held only a few jobs during all of my growing up years, never holding any job very long.
Daddy was never abusive, just — and I have to say it — disgusting when drunk which happened too often. However, Jeanne and I had friends at church and school, but as we headed home we were always afraid of what state daddy would be in. Then, years later my first husband and I, with two little boys by then, had finally managed to save $250 for a down payment on our first home.
One night daddy got arrested for drunk driving and was in a New Jersey jail. Mother wanted me to use our down payment money to bail him out. I refused and she became furious. I knew if I did that it’d take my husband and I a year or more to save that amount again. Daddy spent two months in jail without booze. This proved a real blessing. He came out looking better than he had in years.
It was the next holiday season that daddy became very ill. My husband and I took the boys down to see him in the hospital; however, I went into his room alone. A cancerous growth had pushed out from the side of his neck. I knew he was dying as he looked up at me saying, “I’m sorry, Gum-Gum” my nickname. I replied, “It’s okay Pop-Pop, I love you.”
The phone was ringing loudly as we walked back into our home. Somehow I knew it was my sister. Pop-Pop was gone.
Edna Van Leuven is a Churchill County writer and columnist. She may be reached at email@example.com