My grandfather’s grandfather, Jake Hempstead, circa 1920
I’m back from Hamburg which was sublime. An ideal city. At least for me. I’m looking forward to writing there. I’m also looking forward to improving my German which is admittedly woeful. It’s been ridiculously easy to speak English in Berlin. I admit it, I’ve been surrounded by Anglo-Saxons. Linguistically, this has not served me.
On Sunday I was on Hamburg’s scenic pier near the Fischmarkt, watching the ships come and go. The day was blustery with rain, gray but still beautiful. As I watched these gargantuan water vessels move across the River Elbe, I had a memory. Not a memory of an actual experience had by me but one brought through a family story.
My mother’s side of the family, the side of the family I know best, was a family of ‘Johns’ and ‘Charles’. There were so many ‘Johns’, so many ‘Charles’. ‘John Nathan’, ‘John Roy’, ‘John Henry’, ‘John Wesley’ and then there were the endless ‘Charles’ variations. Who knows why they were so fond of these rather inconsequential male names. The names were typically English. Flat, plain, simple, and names characteristic of the times before the 1960s segment of the American Civil Rights movement, before black Americans developed a sense of pride in heritages African and began giving their children complicated Swahili, Yoruba and Arabic names. In the times of my grandparents and prior generations, English names like ‘Charles’ and ‘John’, ‘Norman’, and then classic Greek names, like my grandfather’s, ‘Homer’, reigned. ‘John’, ‘Charles’, or even ‘Jake’, the name of my great-great grandfather, Jake Hempstead, who was born in 1850, these were the common names.
Jake: stern, proud and reportedly ill-tempered, grew up the adopted son of Captain Hempstead in Hempstead County, Arkansas. Captain Hempstead was an American of pure English extraction, a military man during the Civil War of 1861-1864, Captain Hempstead was a Confederate soldier. The captain and his wife adopted Jake, whose parents had each died by the time he reached the age of ten. Jake was the biological son of a man who was half-Welsh, half-Cherokee Indian, and a Cherokee woman, each of whom migrated from North Carolina. The Cherokee-Welsh boy, born ‘Jake Evens’, grew-up under the watchful eye of the Hempstead family nanny, a striking part-German teenager. Fair-haired and freckle-faced, with wavy blonde-tinted hair, ‘Carrie Fritz’ was a mixed-race slave girl. The age difference between the two wasn’t significant. Jake fell in love. He married her. Together Jake and Carrie had twelve children. One of whom was my grandfather’s father Barney Hempstead.
Back to Hamburg, back to the River Elbe, I’m remembering a story from close to 100 years later. We’re now on a ship in the middle of the South Seas. The period is the second World War. My uncle John Wesley, my grandmother’s older brother is on a ship. A Navy man, he’s at sea. He’s stationed in the Philippines. It’s night, and my great uncle John is sick.
A small town in Illinois. It’s 3 am. My grandmother’s sister, Beatrice awakens. She sits up and turns on the light, uneasy. She does not know why she is up so suddenly from a sound sleep, and in an agitated state but she is. She turns and looks across the room to see an oil painting, given to her mother by a woman who’d employed her as a laundress. The painting is pretty. There are rushes of cornflower blue waves and midnight-colored waters. Amidst the sea, pictured is a small boat, crashing on merciless waves. My aunt, staring hypnotically at the picture, is stunned when the painting begins to come alive. It’s midnight and cornflower waters framed by a gold-gilded frame begin to move. Sea water begins to spill over the edges of the gold frame and my aunt begins to feel violently queasy as if she herself were at sea. An intense dread overwhelms her. John, she thinks. It must be John. Moments later, she receives the call. Her brother, John Wesley is not dead. But he is close to death. The Navy authorities are calling to warn her. He’s atop an operating table in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean being tended to by a surgeon. A toxic burst appendix is in the midst of killing him.
In the end, John Wesley does not die. Neither does the story. Instead it survives as yet another family tale. John Wesley’s story and the story of Jake and Carrie. The same stories told over and over again. Isn’t this how myths are made?
Hamburg. I’m due in the flat on 6 February. It’s located in a neighborhood with a myriad of shops and cafes. The first boxes of my belongings will be delivered to my new address on the 28th. In the meantime, I’m drifting toward this pretty port city. My own Hamburg myths to be made.
The above piece is dedicated to my grandfather, Homer Hempstead, 1925-2015.
Special thanks to my mother, the most exceptional family historian, as well as a very good editor. Historical corrections: Jake and Carrie Hempstead had twelve children, not ten as originally penned – and yes, ‘atop’ should be written as one word, not two.