All I Want For Christmas

Posted: December 23, 2013

WHEN SHE WAS admitted to Immaculate Mary Home two weeks ago, Betty Tyre cried in despair to Deacon Steve Guckin, a member of the pastoral care team.

Tyre had been hospitalized so often in 2013, she'd barely slept in her own bed. Rheumatoid arthritis had crippled her so badly, she was in a wheelchair and needed rehab at Immaculate Mary, a Catholic nursing home in Mayfair, before she could return home to Port Richmond.

"I feel like I'll never get better," Tyre, 69, told Guckin.

"Keep trusting God," Guckin advised Tyre, a devout Catholic who'd attended Mass daily before her disability sidelined her. "He'll come through for you."

Last week, did he ever.

Tyre was attending a group activity at Immaculate Mary when the leader asked them, "What parish are you from?"

A woman behind Tyre announced, "I'm from St. Anne's!"

"So am I," thought Tyre.

The woman loudly repeated, "I'm from St. Anne's!"

"Who is that boisterous person?" said Tyre, turning around.

It was her cousin, Cass Hojnacki, 82, whom Tyre hadn't seen in eight years. In fact, each had feared the other was dead.

"I said, 'That's my Cassie!' " says Tyre. "I said, 'Cassie! It's me!' "

"Betty?" shouted Hojnacki. "I used to change your diapers!"

The women burst into tears, as did pretty much everyone else who witnessed the reunion. Aides rolled Tyre to Hojnacki so the cousins could hug.

Tyre couldn't stop shaking.

"I always prayed, 'Please let me see Cassie one more time before I die, so I can touch her and thank her and tell her how much I love her,' " says Tyre, crying for the hundredth time in a week.

"She's very sentimental," says Hojnacki, who has cognitive problems yet is aware of her surroundings and had spoken often about Tyre to Immaculate Mary staff.

The women are parked in their wheelchairs in a lounge at Immaculate Mary, clutching hands. A faux fireplace "roars" behind them and a Christmas tree twinkles as they tell their story.

Tyre was an infant in a family of eight children when cousin Hojnacki, then 12, moved in after her mother died. Hojnacki loved and helped raise her new "siblings" but had a soft spot for Tyre.

"I beat on the boys because I didn't like how they talked to their mother," says Hojnacki, whose gruff humor cracks up staffers. "But Betty was sweet."

Hojnacki was like a groovy young aunt. She took Tyre to Strathmere, N.J., where Hojnacki waitressed in summer and lived in a trailer that shook wildly during Nor'easters. Each pretended to be brave for the other.

When Tyre was dressing for a date, Hojnacki would maternally eye her outfit and say, "Betty? That's a little tight."

"You made good coleslaw," says Hojnacki.

"She made the best meatballs," answers Tyre.

Hojnacki, who married several times but had no kids of her own, waitressed for 40 years throughout Philly. Tyre, who has a daughter and grandchild, was a cafeteria worker at Hallahan High School and then head cook at Roman Catholic High School.

As their ages advanced, fortunes waned and infirmities intruded, the women saw each other only a few times a year. Still, Tyre panicked when she learned Hojnacki had moved and her house was sold.

The women are fuzzy on the details of how they so thoroughly lost track of each other, but Tyre cried often for "my Cassie."

Her niece and nephew hired a private detective to look for Hojnacki, to no avail. And Hojnacki, placed at Immaculate Mary when she could no longer live on her own, didn't know how to find Tyre.

Still, Tyre prayed for one last chance to thank Hojnacki for being the big sister who grew her up, intervened when the brothers got rowdy, made her feel special in a way that can elude kids vying for attention in gigantic families.

And now, here they sit, recalling Christmas memories: the train set Tyre's dad erected each year; the nativity scene he meticulously set on a bed of sand - only to have the family cat use it as a litter box; the meals, the carols, the love.

"This has been heartwarming for all of us," says Immaculate Mary administrator Kimberly Griffies-Edwards, who says word of the cousins' reunion has spread "like wildfire" among the home's 400 employees and 280 residents. The reunion isn't the first of its kind at the home - old loves and former neighbors have found each other, too - but it's been about the most emotional.

"Betty told us she'd prayed there was an opening for her here, and look what happened," says Griffies-Edwards.

Now that she's found Hojnacki, says Tyre, "I'll never lose her again. This is the best end to the worst year I've ever had."

Hojnacki gently rubs Tyre's hand, which is gnarled by arthritis, then kisses it.

"Isn't it wonderful?" she says.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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