by Keith Hoffman

One of the perks of being the last-born of five kids was that I got to stay home while the others had to go to school.

Every Monday morning, even though I was sad my beloved dad headed back on the road to sell pharmaceuticals, I had the great consolation prize of having my mother all to myself. Her undivided attention for those precious hours each day was a dream come true, although I’m not quite sure how she actually felt about spending the majority of her middle-aged life with an overly dramatic, talkative five-year-old.

Every weekday as she did her housewifely duties of washing, cooking, and cleaning, I doggedly shadowed her every step. Anything and everything that popped into my head popped out of my mouth.


“How does the Wicked Witch shower if water melts her?  Does she smell bad?”

“Where do squirrels go when they die?”

“Wouldn’t it be fun to have antlers?”

In later years, my mother confessed that she would often tune out my mind-numbing preschool chatter in order to keep a grasp on her sanity. Every so often she would realize I had asked her a question but would have no idea what it was. Instead of hurting my feelings, she would just guess her answer.





I have occasionally wondered if a thoughtless answer to the question “Should I like boys or girls?” set me down a nontraditional path.

peekingAlways lurking near

When I was six, my mom began cleaning less and less and napping more and more. I was squarely against naps since they came with an irksome “NO TALKING” rule, and my mother counted “whispering in her ear” as talking.

This woman was not really the nap-taking sort.  She was vital and fiery—the type that weeded the yard in her bikini (a decision she deeply regretted when she realized those weeds were actually poison ivy).  She was the neighbor who the randy husbands would constantly come visit and hit on.  When I asked her about this later as an adult she shrugged it off with, “I can’t help it if I have an excess of pheromones.”

phermonesA Plethora of Phermones


And she was the wife who got in passionate fights with my father often storming out of the house while he piled his kids in our blue Buick and shadowed her down the block as we all yelled,  “get in the car tubby!” out of the four windows.   My vain non-tubby mother would finally give in and angrily get in the car where my rascal of a father would seductively charm her back into his good graces.

But now her passion and her pheromones seemed to be ebbing.

She began dragging me along as she went to several different doctors and made me sit in the waiting room reading Goofus and Gallant in old issues of Highlights magazine. I wasn’t worried about these doctor’s visits. Why should I be? Mothers don’t really get sick. If she wanted to submit herself to some guy who stuck things in her ear, poked her with needles, and asked a lot of questions, who was I to judge? My bigger concern was Goofus: He was bad news and I hated him, but was also strangely drawn to his anger and emotional unavailability.

My mother was finally told by one doctor to get a hobby because she was bored and suffering from “Housewife’s Syndrome.”

Although she was feeling weak and tired, she wasn’t about to accept some smug doctor’s patronizing diagnosis. I was dragged to even more doctors and waited in even more doctors’ lobbies until I had soon found every object hidden in every picture of every 1967 issue of Highlights.

Unbeknownst to me, behind one of those doors, on the other side of the waiting room, my mother, who thought she feared the worst, was being told something worse than she feared.

She had cervical cancer.

The survival rate was extremely low.

She needed to go home, pack her things and get to the hospital immediately to begin radiation treatment.

I personally would rather have my mom suffer from Housewife’s Syndrome but nobody asked me. I couldn’t quite grasp why she was leaving me. I knew she was sick but hospitalization seemed like an overreaction.

All I knew was that she wasn’t around to wake me up in the morning and make me Cream of Wheat while the familiar sound of the kitchen radio played in the background. She wasn’t around to gently steer me through the several hundred traumas, victories, and discoveries of each day of my young and curiosity filled life.

Now she was in a place where kids were not allowed.


 My father had to keep making a living on the road, so he hired someone to take care of us while he was away during the week.

Alma was the first black woman I had ever come in close contact with in my middle-class Catholic life. She was tiny with deep crevices in her face and gray hair pulled tight into a bun.  She seemed exotic, ancient, and mysterious to my young eyes. I had never come across a human being like her before. And for the first time in my life I became a quiet child.

I hated Alma.

When my brothers and sisters went to school every day, I was left alone with this weird and alien interloper.

I might have given kind-hearted Alma a break except for the THREE MAJOR OFFENSES she committed.

MAJOR OFFENSE NUMBER ONE: I was blissfully soaking in a bubble bath using soapsuds to style a sophisticated hairdo when Alma boldly swung open the door.

“How ya doin’, sweetie pie?” she queried.

I sat in the water mortified.

“Okay,” I mumbled, hoping this answer would satisfy her without encouraging her to jump in with me.

She eyed me suspiciously, zeroing in on my Mr. Bubble feathered bob as I stared back in stunned soapy silence for what felt like the remainder of my childhood. I didn’t know about her family or if she even had one, but my family certainly did not walk in on each other in the bathroom.

Finally, Alma smiled awkwardly and left with a “don’t ya stay in there too long! You’ll turn into a prune!” before shutting the bathroom door behind her.

She needn’t have worried. I wasn’t going to give her another chance to crash my hairdo party. I put on my pajamas, wrapped my head in a turban, and marched to my bedroom with as much grace and dignity as I could possibly muster.

MAJOR OFFENSE NUMBER TWO: As I trudged down the stairs for breakfast one morning and curtly ordered my Quisp cereal with strawberry milk, Alma loomed over me with something obviously on her mind. Just as I was about to scream “What?! Out with it old woman!” she purposefully sat down next to me.

“Honey, have you been changing your underpants every day?”

I couldn’t believe these words had just tumbled out of her mouth.

“I’ve been counting the underpants when I do the laundry and I don’t think you’re changing yours every day.”

This woman was sick. Who counts dirty underpants in the laundry? So what if I kept mine on three, four, maybe five days a week? Didn’t I still live in a free America? I was very busy with a lot on my mind and just couldn’t be bothered with the daily underpants changing that so obviously obsessed this woman.

I calmly put a spoonful of cereal in my mouth and coldly replied, “I’ll make a note of that. Thank you for your concern.”

Alma’s eyes narrowed as she tried to figure me out. Was I bluffing? Would the underpants count spike after our little talk? I glared slowly and deliberately, chewing my cereal but saying nothing.

Finally, she got up and walked over to the stove muttering to herself. “That child’s an odd one.”

MAJOR OFFENSE NUMBER THREE: Alma was not my mother.

Since I spent the major part of my everyday life with my mother, the sudden loss and loneliness confused and devastated me.

My only reprieve would be when my father would arrive home and load us into the Buick and drive us over to the hospital. Since the younger kids weren’t allowed inside the giant building, he’d drive us to the parking lot outside. Although there were what seemed like millions of windows, by my second visit I could spot her room instantly.

Far above me in the sky, I would see my mother’s face looking down as she smiled and waved. She didn’t look sick. She looked wonderful to my hungry eyes as I gazed upwards. I wanted to scream “get in the car, Tubby!” with all the might my five-year-old lungs could muster. Instead I looked up at the magic window and waved frantically.

My dad would eventually gather us back in the car and we’d start the sad drive home without her. I would stare out the back of the car still waving until that NO KIDS ALLOWED building my mother was trapped in got smaller and smaller.


The upside of my mother’s cervical cancer was that I loved making her homemade cards, and now I didn’t have to wait until her birthday.

I made several cards a day and spent hours on them—each one being a variation on the theme of me and my dog Tiger, drawn on folded construction paper, with little balloon dialogue bubble saying “Get Well!” or “Come Home Soon!”

Each day I focused my energy on making more and more “Come Home Soon!” cards until finally my mother took my suggestion and was coming home soon.

She had been away for such a long time but I still had no clue that some people thought this day might never happen.

When Alma told me she was leaving our house for good, I was so overjoyed I wanted to invite her to hop in the bathtub with me and count underpants.

My arts and crafts skills with construction paper and magic markers were put to the test as I filled our house with “Welcome Home” signs. My sister stopped by as I worked diligently amidst the cornucopia of construction paper and magic markers and informed me that I had spelled beautiful twelve different ways and none of them were right. Since I had a beautiful theme running through each card, this was definitely a setback. But I was not to be deterred. Soon every inch of wall space was covered with colored paper and stick figures. And when the big day finally arrived, I waited for my mother to burst into the door and scoop me into her arms.

It was the slowest morning of my life as all of us kids waited impatiently.

I heard the familiar sound of our Buick’s motor in the driveway. I ran to the window and peeked out to see my father picking my mother up from the passenger side of the car.

As I watched her approach in his arms, she looked weak and small.

My brain took a moment to absorb this image, as if it were flipping through pages of a dictionary looking for this new definition of Mother.

They walked the door and everyone cheered.

I hung back shyly near the corner, uncertain if this new frail mother in his arms would still want to be bothered with me.

After hugs and tears from the rest of the family, my mother, still in my father’s arms, surveyed the bountiful decorations, paused for a moment, and looked into my eyes.

“Keith!” she exclaimed. “These are beautiful!”

Beautiful! B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L. Beautiful.

The sentence wasn’t out of her mouth before I buried myself in the familiar comfort of her touch, smell, and voice.


As I spent the next weeks taking care of her, I pretended to be a feisty English scullery maid who lived off the kitchen and brought tea and crumpets—otherwise known as Tab and ice cream—to the bed of the sickly lady of the house. My mom didn’t seem to mind and even weakly smiled as I banged into the bedroom shouting, “Here ya go, m’lady!” or “Careful, deary, it’s ’ot!” in a bad Cockney accent.

My mother was back and I was blissfully and naively unaware of the bullet I had dodged.

back to normalMe Mum and some of ‘er kids.


by Keith Hoffman

February 2nd 2014

I’m not conceited enough to think I know the answers to the big spiritual questions.

I do not pretend to know exactly what happens when we die or exactly who what or where God is. I guess I should admire those who do have utmost certainty, but I believe there is supposed to be an element of magic and mystery and surprise to it all. The one and only time I went scuba diving I was immediately in awe of how many shapes and sizes and colors there were of just fish alone. Whoever or Whatever made those fish must truly love to create. He or She doesn’t seem to be very much of a black and white thinker (except for zebras and pandas and penguins but, c’mon, those are amazing takes on that color scheme). So my personal God is a mysterious and creative God. And I will someday forgive Him or Her for the fact that I nearly drowned on that very same scuba dive.

I do wish He/She would at least tell us if He/She is a man or woman so my sentences could have a little more fluidity when writing about Him/Her.

What I understand is that if I try to be authentic and kind and forgive everybody and give myself even a little quiet time each day to listen to something besides my own neurotic brain, my life seems to have some purpose and direction. I have many friends who disagree that all the scoundrels out there should be forgiven but to borrow a phrase that is not my own: resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to get sick.

So I try to forgive everybody except litterbugs. I think litterbugs should go to a hell that is piled up with trash.

Anyway this is a big subject and people will start yelling about Hitler, and I really don’t want to start a big debate.

I just want to tell the story of how a homely gargoyle has proven beyond a doubt that life is bigger than me.

Unfortunately this is another story that begins with death.

I’m sorry. I can’t help it.

Ever since my father dropped dead when I was seven, death has been a running theme in my life. I’m not afraid of it. I’m actually kind of fascinated by it (but to be clear not in a serial-killer kind of way.) Which reminds me—do not list all the people who have died in your life on a first coffee date. It is the direct opposite of hot.

So since I was seven I understood we don’t live forever and was very curious exactly what happens after we die.

(Don’t worry we’ll get to the gargoyle. I’m building up suspense)


After my sister Julie died a couple years ago I started seeing orange butterflies.

I noticed them everywhere only a few weeks after her memorial. They would land next to me on the grass or fly in their frantic ragtag way around my head. One day a particularly bold one was hanging around me in the front yard as I talked to my Aunt Jody. “I swear to God there is one that is stalking me right now!” I said in amazement into the phone. When I went inside to get a Diet Coke I happened to glance out the window into the very narrow dark alleyway at the side of my house. And there it was—the same butterfly had flown over the roof and was fluttering on the other side of the pane.

Really, I swear.

Another time three of them flew next to my car on the busy 405 in LA dancing around each other while I was stuck in a traffic jam. Finally I whispered nervously to my sister, “Are you sure you are allowed to send such obvious signs??” I didn’t want her getting in trouble because of me.

Only after these incidents kept happening at a rate that defied logic did I start to read up and find that for centuries butterfly signs came to people after they lost someone they loved. I even happened to come across an old illustration from the New Yorker by Saul Stenberg where he talked about being followed on his bike by an orange butterfly after the death of his good friend Nabokov.

A few years later I was followed on my own bike in New York City by an entire herd (or the more correct term—“rabble”) of butterflies on the anniversary of my sister’s death.

Oh, and also the butterflies were always orange. Soon after they started pushily fluttering into my life, Julie’s husband called to tell me he had a random dream where Julie came to him and announced, “Keith’s favorite color is orange.”

Which by the way it is.


(Orange butterfly in my front yard)

All right, so lets say I kept noticing these orange butterflies in a desperate effort to convince myself that my sister wasn’t really gone. I mean seeing butterflies isn’t as uncommon as seeing condors or giraffes hanging out in my back alleyway right?

But then there were the crows….

My mom died shortly after my sister. It was a fucked-up year. A few weeks after her memorial as I was sitting in my front yard on a February morning in LA, a very straight line of those very large black birds dramatically flew directly in front of me right in my line of vision maybe five feet away. It was something one couldn’t miss. It was like the energy around me shifted as it happened.

I started counting: 1…2…3…4…

There were 13 crows in all.

Some would have taken this as an unlucky omen but after losing two members of my immediate family in four months, I didn’t really worry that my wonderful life might go tragically awry. What I did remember is that 13 was my mom’s lucky number. She actually called Friday the 13th her lucky day. She was contrary like that and if you reviewed the hardship of her life you may think she might have eventually chosen another “lucky” number but she was also very stubborn….kind of like a crow.

And I mean that in the most loving sense.

After that strange morning where I saw the straight line of crows I started to see them everywhere.


It got to the point where I would be with people who knew nothing about my weird “signs” and they would casually mention how odd it was that a crow was swooping so close to us.

One afternoon I was sitting in my office when a coworker began to look a bit frightened.

“What’s wrong?” I asked worriedly.

“There is a huge crow sitting on the window sill right behind you…” he said with alarm. “It’s looking right at us.”

I turned around nonchalantly and refrained from greeting it with a “hello mother” since I decided that may alarm my colleague even more.

Once again I got on the Internet and started reading about crows.

I found out the poor things are horribly misunderstood and maligned. Edgar Allen Poe did them and their relatives no favors and whoever decided a flock of crows should be known as a murder of crows was simply encumbering them with a PR nightmare.

Crows and ravens are revered by Native Americans and thought of as sacred messengers from the spirit world—the link between our ancestors and us. They are a symbol of the idea that from darkness comes light and rebirth. They signify change. And if you know my mom who I can only describe as the love child Dinah Shore and Beatrice Arthur would have had if they hooked up, you’d understand that unlike my gentle sister, this ballsy opinionated woman would have definitely picked a crow when God asked her to choose a sign to send her youngest child.

Let’s just ignore for now that they often eat road kill.

Oh here’s another little tip: Do NOT talk about seeing butterflies and crows everywhere and how they are signs from your dead mother and sister on a first date.

And probably not a second one either.

Trust me on this.

I was so inspired by these signs that I decided to get a tattoo of an orange butterfly on the underside of my right forearm right below my elbow. I figured at the very least when I was on my death bed I could look at my arm and be reminded that if my sister was indeed hanging out in the afterlife, she would be the first one to show me the papers I had to sign and the lines I had to wait in to register for heaven.

When I told the tattoo artist what this butterfly represented he responded quietly, “My sister died too. There is a reason you came to me.”


The crow tattoo was a lot bigger.

It took over my entire upper left arm– its claws perched on a branch near my elbow and its beak and attentive eyes on my shoulder keeping a constant watch on me. This was not a light undertaking as it took about six long sessions over several months to fill in the black of the feathers, but surprisingly this ritual of physical pain seemed to heal my soul. In the process I bonded with the most unlikely companion in my sad stoner amazingly talented and deep tattoo artist.


(with my dear friend Scottie–NOT my sad, stoner tattoo artist)

But this wasn’t the last of the grief tattoos. Just as the crow was getting his finishing touches, Julie’s husband found a colorful old expensive looking notebook in a box in his basement in Ohio. For some reason we will never know, my perfectly healthy sister had copied a poem down inside.

miss me and let me go – when
I come to the end of the road and
the sun has set for me – I want no
rights in a gloom filled room, why
cry for a soul set free – miss me
a little but not too long – and not
with your head bowed low – remember
the love that we once shared – miss
me but let me go and when your are
lonely and sick at heart go to the
friends we know and bury your sorrows
in doing good deeds – miss me but
let me go


Seesh. Talk about your messages from the grave.

He sent me the notebook and I brought it into the tattoo parlor with the idea that maybe we would burn a corner of the page that Julie had written on to mix in with the ink. That way her “essence” would be permanently embedded in my skin.

Hey, mourning makes you do some crazy shit.

But my tattoo artist had other ideas. He made a thermal copy of the diary page and traced it on my right shoulder blade so I had the poem on my back in my sister’s own handwriting.

The process was quick but insanely intense. It was a satisfying conclusion to this healing process and I have zero regrets about any of these tattoos.

Okay…I will admit that sometimes when I’m on vacation and lounging by the pool I’m a bit startled when someone asks me what my “back says”.

Inwardly I cringe. This poem is not exactly light summer reading. Explaining its history throws some people into apoplectic apologies. “Oh my god! I’m sorry!” they say recoiling in horror as if my mom and sister had actually been eradicated right then and there at the pool.

I am also forced into an inevitable and uncomfortable conversation any time I flirtatiously ask someone to slather sunscreen on my back.

“What is this word??”
“And this one?”

On the positive side, the tragic tattoo poem makes me sound awfully deep and wounded, which some people find kind of sexy.

But I’m rambling

Now to the gargoyle…

I bought the gargoyle somewhere in Central California a few hours from my LA home not far from the famous Hearst Castle. I was on a short vacation staying at a motel near the ocean where there were some booths set up in the empty lot next door. Vendors were selling all kinds of unusual and original things and it was close to my mother’s birthday so I had to check it out. I never liked buying my mom traditional gifts. I liked getting her something that was clearly and uniquely from me so that she never forgot who it came from. Instead of a nice sweater or scarf I would buy her lopsided rusty antique-looking chimes that I’d found in the back of some tiny decrepit shop. Once when I was going through my Barbra Streisand phase (from 1977 to the late 90’s) I gave her a Yentl poster with the words “Nothing’s Impossible” written on the bottom that she proudly hung in her bedroom. One day during the last months of her hard life she looked over at the poster with Barbra dressed as a Yeshiva boy and read the optimistic phrase on the bottom musing, “I’m not sure that’s really true…”

So when I saw this odd shaped winged fellow with an angular face, sharp nose, and somewhat wickedly gleeful smile perched on the edge of an old card table with his legs crossed at his ankles, I instantly knew I had found the perfect gift.

To be honest I don’t know how I got it to Cincinnati. I’m not very good at shipping things so at some point I must have lugged it home. What I know for sure is that for years after it proudly sat on my mother’s bookshelf gazing intently at Yentl across the room.


After my mother’s death, my big brother Paul and I had exactly one day to clean out her entire 84 years of accumulated life.

Four months earlier we had spent several weeks in Cincinnati dealing with my sister’s death so now neither of us could take more than a few days off from work. Other family members were busy with their own lives so my brother, his girlfriend, daughter and I volunteered for the task of sorting through her lifetime of things into KEEP, DONATE and TRASH piles.

This was an exhausting and soul-grinding task.

When you discover journals where your mom is writing about her insecurities and low self-esteem do you drag them home with you? Do you trash them? Certainly you don’t donate them. What about those stupid baskets she loved to collect? Sure they were stupid but if they had value to her….

The one bright spot of looking through her old cards was my own humor. Even in my tired grief I was amused every time I found a card with one of my handwritten notes:

“Happy Birthday! Maybe Next Year Will Work Out For You.”
“Get Well Soon But if You Don’t Can I Have Your Cat?”
“Happy Mother’s Day! I’m Sure You Did Your Best.”

“I’m funny!” I affirmed to myself chuckling until Paul walked past and barked me out of my reverie like a deranged drill sergeant. “WE’VE GOT ONE DAY TO DO THIS! KEEP SORTING!”

I read through endless piles of saved cards including one from my now deceased sister.

“Mom, I know I wasn’t the perfect child
But I sure came closer than those other misfits I call siblings”.

I smiled at her brattiness. She didn’t think one of the misfits would ever see this.

“Well at least we’re still alive.” I thought to myself smugly.



Finally we had things in some sort of loose order just as the sun began to set. My brother and the rest were driving home to Indiana that night but my plane wasn’t leaving until morning.

I stayed all night in the apartment that had once been my mother’s home but was now just 4 very empty rooms strewn with piles of stuff. It killed something in me to endure that emptiness all by myself but eventually the sun impossibly came back up again.

I looked around at the piles that were left for Paul and the rest of my family to haul out of the house the following weekend.

The poor gargoyle was sitting crookedly on the DONATE pile—his smile seeming a little less enthusiastic as he wondered what his future would hold.

I finished packing and began to lug my suitcase to the door before I took one more glance back.

He looked so abandoned.

Finally I scooped him up and jammed him in my suitcase.


I regretted this impulsive act only a few hours later as the woman at the check in counter at the airport told me my luggage was over the allowed limit. I had to frantically redistribute the weight of my bags feeling vulnerable and ashamed as my shoes; underwear and toothpaste were exposed to world of people in the line behind me.

My regret was gone by the time I got to Los Angeles where the weird little guy sat peacefully in my front yard for the next several months. Out of all those piles in her apartment this was all I really needed to remember us by.

When I got an offer I couldn’t refuse to move to New York, Paul flew out to help me load the huge moving van that was going out ahead of me. (We were getting quite proficient at these big life transitions.). Some special things I held back to bring with me on my drive across country. I was taking a week just for myself—a week of freedom where I belonged nowhere and had to answer to no one. I needed a few magical things for this mystical journey including my nativity scene (see my JESUS, MARY AND GLORIA blog), my lumpy old pit bull Sasha and my mother’s old gargoyle. I kept the gargoyle sitting between Sasha and me in my Mini Cooper as a sort of Good Luck Talisman.

We made the trip pretty much unscathed until somewhere in the flat lands of Kansas when Sasha dived after an errant McDonalds French fry I was devouring and knocked the gargoyle into my gear shift throwing us into neutral on the interstate. We all survived but the gargoyle lost a foot in the process that still sits in the cup holder of my car to this very day. Sasha was mostly a good companion during these trips—quiet unless she spotted a dog in another car, which would send her into an apoplectic frenzy while I tried desperately not to drive to my death in a ravine. More than one trucker yelled,  “Nice Pit!” to me at rest stops that for some reason turned me into a southern coquette. “Why thank ya sir!” I would reply like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind or more likely the tragic aging Blanche Dubois in Streetcar Named Desire.


I had been in New York a week and a half when the real estate woman brought me to the apartment in Brooklyn. Her name was Janet, which I quietly noted was also my mother’s name. She was brash and opinionated just like my mother too. The very first place she showed me was the ground floor of a brownstone that had a fantastic backyard but a very small bathroom. I didn’t realize at the time that no place in New York on my non-millionaire budget was going to have unlimited space and that any apartment with a backyard was a huge find. We went to other apartments but one seemed to be worse than the other until we finally were afraid to knock on the nicked and chipped door at one location because its dingy and dangerous hallway served as a fair warning of what might lie on the other side.

Discouraged, I asked Janet if she would take me back to the first place one more time.

I stepped into the empty apartment and looked around with a new point of view.

The kitchen was huge which maybe would perhaps make up for the tiny bathroom. I mean this bathroom was tiny—you could use the toilet, brush your teeth and shower pretty much without moving. The living room and bedroom were nice but really what made this place so special was that backyard off the kitchen. It was long and rectangular shaped with a huge tree in the back and a stone walkway on the side. Outside the kitchen door was a patio followed by a lawn and garden all surrounded by a tall wooden fence.

And that is where I finally saw it.

I walked closer to the fence to see if it was really what I thought it was and a jolt of electricity made the hair rise on arms and neck.

It was a gargoyle with a pointed nose and its legs crossed at the ankles.

It was exactly the same gargoyle as the one I drove across country.

Nothing else had been left in this apartment.

No furniture.

No pictures.

No knickknacks.

They only thing left behind was this single gargoyle sitting expectantly on the fence.

I caught my breath as I processed this.

And then I noticed something else.

His left foot was broken.

The two gargoyles were an exact match.

“I guess I need to move here.”

“Well, I don’t know about you but I believe in signs.” Janet said after I told her the backstory.

I looked down at the butterfly on my forearm.

Did I believe in signs?


“She was a bossy old woman when she was alive and she’s a bossy old woman still,” Paul said as I sat on the phone with him in my new kitchen in the apartment I already adored.

I laughed as I looked out at my two gargoyles hanging out together on the fence.

My friend Mark suggested I was going to meet my soul mate in New York and that he would have a hooknose, pale complexion and a slight limp.

When I told my therapist about them he said simply, “Wow, there really is no such thing as time.”

And I knew what he meant.

The insane ‘coincidence’ of me being in Central California on the day that gargoyle was being sold, deciding on the last minute to take it from my mother’s house and then bringing it–not in a box–but in the front seat of my car next to me on my trip across country (breaking his foot along the way)…and then…whoever lived in this apartment before me not only buying the exact same gargoyle at some point in their lives but then breaking its foot and deciding to leave it—and only it—behind when they moved out that day…

Well, it staggers the mind.

So that’s what I think about when I feel like my life has strayed totally off course or I wonder how something could ever possibly work out. I think about those gargoyles and how these two unique, slightly wounded whimsical creatures somehow found each other from opposite sides of the country at the exact right moment in time.

And that is why I believe there is something greater than me moving things along and that I just have to do my part and let go and get in the flow.

I know that’s a very long story to get to what sounds like a cliché.

But that is the absolutely true story of the gargoyle that became the gargoyles.




by Keith Hoffman

December 24th, 2013


I should have felt guilty as I stood in that damp November night air in the parking lot of a seedy motel on the Ohio/Indiana border hunched over an 80-year-old nativity scene in an old cardboard box.

But I didn’t.

Instead I felt victorious as I savored the memory my big sister’s untimely death.

And to think the journey that lead up to this moment began so innocently.


“Your father had nothing to do with the building that nativity scene,” my mother would repeat once again in an exhausted, exasperated tone.

But I still didn’t believe her.

This was the routine we had every single December of my childhood when I asked if I could haul the nativity scene out of the attic and place it inside our faux plaster fireplace.

“Your father couldn’t put together your plastic Hot Wheels track. Why do you think he could ever build something like this?”

She had a point. But ever since my father’s death when I was seven, the legend of him building this crèche had only grown in my mind.

“He said he helped Grandpa,” I would remind her stubbornly.

“If he helped your grandpa, he helped him by not helping him which, by the way, he was an expert at.”

My mom had a passionate and volatile relationship with my father that continued long after his death.

But none of that mattered as I pulled the nativity scene out of the old beat-up cardboard box and placed it on a piece of worn green felt before unwrapping each figurine from yellowed pieces of newspaper filled with old-fashioned ads and long-forgotten news stories from before I was born.

The wooden manger was about the size of a portable TV and shaped like a log cabin with a pointed roof. The weathered plywood was covered in twigs that were nailed to it and that I was sure my father gathered tirelessly in the woods.

The inside walls were decorated with shiny gold foil and the top back wall contained a spare light bulb in a socket that sent a warm glow over the entire scene.

The cast of characters consisted of the usual suspects: Mary, Joseph, a mule, a cow (the apparent owner of the manger), a shepherd, two sheep, three wise men and a camel (no matter that the wise men didn’t arrive until a year later—who minds a little artistic license now and then?). Finally there was an angel that I attached to a little hook at the top of the pointed roof. The figures were painted in bright colors of blue, purple orange, green and gold. I loved examining the details of each fold of their robes, and the blue of their expressive eyes and red of their tiny lips. Many, like the shepherd, had exotic locations like Italy where they were made stenciled surreptitiously on their base. Others had less glamorous secrets on their undersides such as poor hapless Joseph with a sticker that read 89 cents.

Some of the ceramic statues were extremely old– most likely from the day the crèche was built. But over the years of small energetic children and big clumsy pets, many had been broken and replaced. The result was that new Joseph was a giant next to old Mary (a fact in which he politely made less obvious by continually kneeling). The wise men were also not proportionate to each other and brought two Frankincenses and one Gold apparently getting their wires crossed about who was supposed to bring the Myrrh.

A Disproportionate Couple


The Short Guy Was Supposed to Bring the Myrhh

Gloria was my favorite. She was the angel on top. For many Christmases she flew under a big tin foil gold star until an atheist cat ate it during my teenage years. I didn’t realize until much later that the angel’s name wasn’t really Gloria. That was simply a banner she held. I assumed throughout my childhood that the banner was like a nametag angels carried around so that God in heaven could remember who they were at celestial gatherings without some saint behind him whispering, “This is Gabriel, he told Mary she was pregnant and smote those Egyptians when he was younger.”

At some point Baby Jesus went from a tiny cracked ceramic babe wrapped in swaddling clothes to a large plastic seeming one-year-old with a full head of hair and weirdly…six-pack abs.

jesus in a drawer

Mary was doing amazingly well after giving birth to that one.

Baby Jesus was the whole point of the scene of course and he didn’t make his arrival until midnight on Christmas Eve (no dramatic license allowed when it comes to Jesus). For as long as I can remember my job was to put Baby Jesus in the crib at exactly midnight. During the early years it was quite a feat staying awake to perform this ceremony, but I knew it was important and eyed the second hand of the clock like a hawk so I could perform this sacred task at the exact right moment.

It wasn’t like the rest of the family stood around and observed me with reverence—that was not my family’s style. We were more of a “eat too much White Castles and cookies and get really drunk and play games and fight” type family. So while everyone else got in “loud discussions” in the other rooms—I lay on the floor in my green and white striped footie pajamas and stared rapturously at the freakishly large plastic newborn.

No matter what was going on in my life each year, inside this crèche was peace and familial love and magic.


The nativity scene got left home during college. My freshman dorm roommates were already wary of my extensive Barbra Streisand vinyl collection without me bringing Gloria and company into the mix. Still, I made it home for Christmas and performed my duties even if I was often drunk and high while doing it.

When I moved to New York City in my twenties, I couldn’t afford to fly home and I fiercely missed the Nativity scene that my father allegedly didn’t help build. I begged my mother for it each year but my big sister Julie put her foot down every time. Julie was the only sister of five children and she was right smack in the middle age-wise. I loved Julie and she loved me but on this topic we vehemently disagreed.

Julie was the self-assigned keeper of the Hoffman heirlooms. We were not a wealthy family so this mainly consisted of items such as chipped ashtrays, cracked coffee tables and a cast iron skillet. With a list like that you can see why this nativity scene was coveted. It wasn’t even like she wanted it for herself. She was just certain her scattered-brained little brother would lose it somewhere in the big city and it would be gone from the family forever.

I was the youngest though and I could still wrap my mother around my little finger.

One day in November in the early 80’s she secretly mailed the crèche to me. When I received it, I quickly hid it in the back of my closet as if the nativity figures where the Frank family and my sister was a blood thirsty Nazi.

And when Julie did discover them missing that Christmas you would have thought the Von Trapps had escaped from the Austrian Music Festival right under her nose.

“You are not keeping that,” she said with menace into the phone.

“Mother said I could!” I retorted using an old standby that had worked for the last twentysomething years.

“We’ll see,” concluded Julie in a tone that made me fear for our mom’s life.


But I did manage to keep it, and over the years never once missed putting Baby Jesus in the crib. Even if I wasn’t home I would bring it with me wherever I was visiting and make everyone be quiet while I played Stevie Nick’s version of Silent Night featuring Robbie Neville and placed Baby Jesus in the crib. (Stevie was a tradition started in the late 80’s and is not a Bible-approved addition to the ceremony).

Putting Baby Jesus in the crib was still every bit as magic.

Putting Baby Jesus in the crib even started a seven-and-a-half year relationship…but that’s a whole other story for another time.

The crèche went through some rough years when my cat Binky was alive. He would repeatedly crawl inside for the warmth of the light bulb causing massive destruction in his wake. My boyfriend gave me a card one Christmas with a beautiful sentiment:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people…and then a giant black and white cat laid down on top of them and crushed them all.

But Julie was not amused. It was the one topic she found no humor in.

“My nativity scene looks great in its new LA home!” I would say teasingly on the phone.

“Not funny,” my sister who found everything funny would reply tersely. She was determined to get that nativity scene back in Cincinnati where it belonged and me moving it further away from that destination only strengthened her resolve.

When she came to visit, I was always a polite host but made damn sure I never let her out of my sight in my home even in the middle of summer when the object of our seemingly endless custody battle was securely packed away.


But finally our endless custody battle did end.

My sister pulled a fast one on our family and died suddenly on a horrendous and long September day.

Losing her turned my world upside down. Even with this crèche thing sticking in our collective craw, she and I could not have adored each other more.

The loss was only made more raw by my mother dying four months later so I was more than happy at the end of that terrible year when I had a chance to move back to New York from Los Angeles and start life fresh with a new job.

Movers took most of my stuff ahead, but the crèche was coming with me and my dog in the Mini Cooper. I trusted no one with it—especially since I wasn’t convinced my sister’s spirit wouldn’t somehow destroy it out of spite.

Every night of my trip across country I unpacked the crèche in the same box my mom mailed it in with my address written in her handwriting on the top, and brought it inside safe and sound from thieves and vengeful ghosts.

I loved that crèche and felt comfort and joy every time I pulled it out of the car. I would think about those objects inside—even though they were lifeless they had life for me—joyful, vibrant and nostalgic energy of Christmas’ past. They had brought a consistency to what was too often my tumultuous life. They were silent witnesses of where I was–for better or worse–every Christmas season when I let them out of the box. Sometimes during my particularly bad times I was embarrassed for them to see me. “Haven’t you improved at all this year??” Mary’s self-righteous face would seem to say. It was particularly hard living up to her standards. I always felt the swarthy, sultry shepherd understood me and my foibles much better.

A Swarthy Shepherd in the Field

And that was what I was doing in that motel in Indiana when that feeling struck me.

I was pulling the Nativity scene that I loved for over fifty years—that was old already when I started loving it—out of the back of my car. My trip had been nostalgic and melancholy especially as I approached Cincinnati—the place where I grew up with it and the place where lost my sister. But that night as I lugged out the box out I suddenly smiled.

“I won,” I thought to myself with a slight chuckle. “Now you can never make me return this to Mother,” I whispered tauntingly to the heavens.

It was a small victory—and possibly looked at as insensitive by others—but to me, finding a silver lining after that mess of a year was a true Christmas Miracle.


So tonight when place baby Jesus in the manger at exactly midnight once again I will wonder if my stubborn sister has forgiven my mother and me.

And I will think to myself, “Has she finally stopped being angry that I have it?”

But I’m already pretty sure I know the answer.


The Nativity Scene My Father Didn't Build