I’d always had an instinctive realisation that my family was much different to that of friends. As cultural Protestants, we were among the minority on our 1960’s Dublin suburban street. Different also, my English-born parents: textile entrepreneurs and enthusiasts for all things craft. My mother was a colour and clothes designer. My father was unorthodox business director, working class made good. Back in the Forties, as a teenager, he had recorded his own privately pressed jazz 78 record, a wax disc test recording mounted on a bronze platter.
After Sunday church services, father would play jazz on the upright Bechstein piano, in our sitting room. His rhythm-shook, overweight frame would seriously threaten the joint-squeaking stool at the piano. Haunched over the ivory and ebony keyboard, self-composed blues tunes were played: fan tributes to revered American jazz and blues musicians: Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Ornette Coleman, et al. No doubt, he modestly wished to faithfully imitate their tunes. He hardly ever played with others, and never in public (except briefly at my wedding dance).
Around mid-day each Sunday, my mother would ring a large brass ship bell in the kitchen, to signal “dinner ready”. The radio, tuned into BBC Long Wave would be the audio back drop to our meals. Slap-stick Clithero Kid, or The Navy Lark, followed by the lonesome sound of seagull-cry, crashing waves and orchestra of Desert Island Discs. These were Sunday wireless staples during family dinners.
Family Tragedy Recalled
During one particular Sunday dinner, one Desert Island Discs interviewee’s choice of music greatly upset my father. Was it Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Childhood’ – which we had a copy of? Whoever the composer playing was, something very poignant exploded in him. The music was possibly connected with his pre-maturely dead parents and young, ill brother. That heartbreaking Hemmings’ history took place on Easter Monday, in 1942.
After I insistently asked what was the matter, my father tearfully told my siblings and I about his family murder / suicide. I was eight at the time, my middle brother ten, and my elder brother twelve. My father was sobbing so deeply that he started hyperventilating. I had never seen such a dramatic outburst from him previously. All family males have the propensity to cry, we probably made up a sobbing Greek chorus, all of us.
Did someone switch off the radio? A shocked silence reigned. Our Sunday dinner went cold and uneaten, after the abstract telling of that dramatic tale. My mother had long known about it, and her parents were not happy with her marrying into my father’s family. The Hemmings hit the Derby Telegraph headlines, for all the wrong reasons.
My young uncle-to-have-been, Ronald, had Bright’s Disease and was aged 8 when he died. That medical condition, being a serious kidney condition, was an apparently-incurable back then. My grandfather killed him, and later that same day, drowned himself in a local canal. Death and dread dominated that sunny Easter Monday, in 1942. For the choral father who sang both Bach’s, and Handel’s, biblically hopeful oratorios, his depth of despair had major ramifications for my father and his mother.
There is a (possibly apocryphal) parallel story that adds some extra drama to this shocking scenario. My grandfather had worked as forge hand, in The Midland Railway Locomotive Works. According to my father, his father refused to spy on the powerful railway union, or so he conspiratorially maintains. Frank, my grandfather, was a slightly built man.
My father claims that he was forced to change, from working in a draughtsman’s office, to lifting heavy metals in the foundry section, because of his refusal to spy. If this is an accurate rendering, it effectively shafted my grandfather’s career prospects in his gifting, which apparently was technical design. One last piece of this jumbled jigsaw was that my grandfather had also been ill, apparently with epilepsy, and ulcers.
Family myth and reality got quite mixed up in my father’s mind. His teenage sense of shock, and also having a vivid imagination, unwittingly distorted family facts. Some key facts, printed in the newspaper, as reported by the police and Coroner, were trumped by my father’s personal version of events…
Family Roots Reconnected
To compound the shame and psychological violence of that murder / suicide, my paternal grandmother also took her own life, in 1957. Naturally, there was little contact with any of his remaining relatives. He had become an adult orphan. In my childhood, my family visited Derby very occasionally, to visit a few relatives of both my parents.
Fast-forward from the 1960’s to the year 2000, I bought and read a history of Pear Tree Baptist Church, Derby. That was my father’s family church. This church history had been written by the current minister and had just been published. I wrote to that author, thanking him for his history, and stated that some of my family were mentioned in his text. He kindly replied and informed me that some of those family members were still involved in his church.
He also forwarded my letter to a second cousin of my father’s, who was also a Pear Tree Baptist church member. In turn, that cousin sent me a letter back, which I read it with interest, and then filed away. I wasn’t curious enough about my genealogy to chase up this contact further. Anyway, how did I know that any of my relatives wanted to hear from this such a distant cousin? My minimal contact then led to a long silence.
Ten years later, in 2010, my wife came across that correspondence again, sorting through papers. She re-initiated contact, this time through my cousin’s wife. Both wives got very excited about us all meeting up. Both blood cousins were far more circumspect…
In February 2010, my wife & I made a day-visit to Derby. That second-cousin showed us the family grave, an apologetically-small, square stone marker inscribed: Frank Hemmings on one side and Ronald Hemming on the other. The singularly significant date was slightly disingenuously stated. No tears welled in my eyes, nor were any prayers uttered. I was told that my grandmother was also buried there, though not named on either of the two blank sides of that modest stone.
It was only when I got home that I realised the existence of the sentimental (unbiblical) phrase under my grandfather, that stated: “Jesus has him in a better place”. Yeah, right! No, actually. I don’t have that certainty. Who decided that such a theological presumption should be placed under the name of a murderer…I was outraged.
During our day visit, we were told of four other paternal cousins, two of whom were “whereabouts unknown”; one of those missing cousins was my father’s favoured first cousin, Gordon. He was a scholarship boy, a scholarship collegian, and a graduate English teacher. My father was very close in aspirational-academic spirit and very close in age to him. Gordon’s family had some slight bias against my father’s family, even before the dreadful deed. Who knows what compounding exchanges took place in Gordon’s family after that fateful Easter Monday in 1942. Neither had exchanged either letter or phone call over sixty eight years. Neither knew where the other lived. Neither seemed exercised to resolve this familial disconnect, either.
Serendipity or something more…?
Liz, my wife, had worked hard on my family tree, the first time ever compiled. I decided to see could I find Gordon, a missing link. If nothing else, it would possibly fill in a few gaps, were he still alive. After a few days of endless and vain Google search results, I almost gave up my quest. My Google searching hadn’t been helped by my father’s exaggerated and inaccurate job designation. He mistakenly thought that Gordon was a headmaster. Gordon was merely an excellent English teacher in Grammar schools, with a penchant for Shakespeare and ran the school drama society…
Then bingo! After three days, I stumbled on one vital lead. One “Gordon Hemmings” had addressed The Grammarians, an Old Scholars association in the school he once taught in. I emailed the old scholars’ webmaster, asking about that Gordon. I also gave some of poignant, pertinent detail, as to why we might be related. This retired teacher was indeed my long-lost relative. I was emailed his phone number and address by the webmaster, a favoured pupil of Gordon’s many decades before.
The positive identification was affirmed. The address given, where he lived, was highly significant: Winchester. Our eldest son had recently started his Animal Management degree at Sparsholt College….located in the Winchester city area. In fact, we had made plans to visit him, prior to finding that Gordon also lived there. To say that my jaw dropped would be an understatement. But then, believing the biblical narrative, of unexpected miracle, and awkward family histories, this dramatic co-incidence was hardly surprising. To those whose hope is heaven, it represents the redeemer’s smile…
It was with much encouragement from my wife, and no little trepidation on my part, that I dialled Gordon’s phone number. I waited nervously for an answer. Would he want to speak to me? What would I say? What might he say? The phone kicked into a request to record a message. I mumbled some garbled explanation and quickly put down the phone. I had tried, and possibly failed. At least I had tried.
Doubts quickly took root about this family tree endeavour that my wife was pursuing like a relentless terrier chasing some quarry. Was our attempt to reconnect with Gordon a big mistake? Who’s to say that my call would even be welcomed? My wife was writing & charting the first ever attempt at my paternal family tree. Such cousin family detail was pertinent to her goal. She was as excited as I was subdued.
I let a day or two pass, before putting myself through the emotional grinder a second time. Liz suggested that if the conversation stalled, I consider asking offspring names and dates, explaining her work on the Hemmings family tree.
This time I got through. Gordon’s kindly voice answered. Was I the person who recently phoned from Ireland? Bona-fides were quickly established. We then conversed about our respective children’s names & ages etc. He was so so grateful to connect. Such deep mercy sprang from a very unpromising family murder / suicide saga.
The “Missing” Cousin Met
Gordon lived in a centuries old alms-house, called ‘St. Cross Hospital’, in Winchester city. He was in the company of a couple of dozen other “Christian men of noble poverty”. A few weeks later we walked through the arched, castellated gateway of that one-time medieval monastery.
We walked the quadrangle that led to Gordon’s modest dwelling. He greeted us warmly, and was truly grateful for our effort tracking him down, and for visiting. We stayed two days in that locality, eating and drinking in his favourite pub, exchanging much genealogical information, photos and chat. We introduced him to Lawrence, so as they could acquaint themselves with each other. So few relatives communicate with each other in my family. We needed to change that neglectful narrative
On our way home, via Wales, we briefly visited my father and his third wife. We gave him lots of photos and family material. Few documents survived from the 1942 and 1957 family sagas, apart from the lurid 1942 newspaper reports. I had been trying to get any official documents, coroner’s or police and failed. One Derby council officer told me that all coroner’s reports from this period had been long since disposed of….
Further Family Clues
It was going to be difficult filling in the gaps. Most of my relatives from that war-time period were dead, or had dementia. As a last shot, to try and discover pertinent missing detail, I emailed DERBY BYGONES, an online local history forum, connected to The Derby Telegraph. The editor kindly agreed to host my appeal for any details about my family’s dramatic history.
By the following weekend an email arrived from Derby. My email correspondent’s mother was next-door neighbour and close contemporary of my father. He obtained from his family and relatives crucial detail that helped a lot. A timely Good Samaritan, if ever there was one. More evidence of God’s care and mercy to me and mine.
Two Cousins Reunite after Sixty Eight years Silence
In June 2010 I accompanied my 84 year old father on the six hour train journey, to visit his first cousin. Would my father behave, and keep any minor disagreements to himself? I had wrapped this ambivalent pilgrimage with much prayer, and a small dose of pessimism.
After three changes of train, we eventually arrived at Winchester. When we got to Gordon, it was raining. He was sheltering just inside his ecclesiastical-looking porch, at his antique wooden front door. From the distance across the quadrangle he waved. Finally, after sixty eight years of silence, these cousins firmly and emotionally shook hands. They both nervously laughed, probably lost for appropriate words….What do you say after sixty eight years. After we settled in, I exited stage left.
The following day I left the two of them alone once more. They talked and walked, both with wooden walking sticks, slowly ambling along the water meadows of the Itchen River, leading towards Winchester Cathedral. My father wanted to see that ancient place where his eighty five year old relative sang in the choir stalls each Sunday. There was much catching-up to be accomplished in under two days. Both probably realised that such a meeting may not be repeated, at their ripe age.
The two “greybeard cousins” came closer to each other over those two days. On the morning of our departure, we three Hemmings’ stood, hands held in an unbroken circle, and prayed in our different ways, formal and informal. When it comes to slipping the mortal coil, my father might just now go a little happier into that “gentle night” than previously…
My father still lives… but Gordon died nine months after their meeting, and just before an all-family reunion. At his funeral things were quite awkward. There were deep cultural misunderstandings. In Ireland, funerals are almost a social occasion. It seems that in England, not so. We were not permitted to have a brief meeting with Gordon’s family, prior to the funeral. As it turned out, both families had lunch in the same local pub, just in different rooms. I bumped into un-named, unknown male relatives in the toilet…To say that that was embarrassing would be an understatement…
At the funeral, flowers that I had brought remained on the church floor, under the pulpit. Our greeting was muted and slow. We had travelled in hope of further connections, this time with Gordons two daughters and their children. After the funeral, the coolness continued. I was puzzled and quite angry to be treated so. Was the family not grateful for me re-uniting the “missing” cousins?
Some of Gordon’s grandchildren blunted their family’s faux pas by approaching and engaging with us. The two sisters stood afar off and aloof. Towards our departure time, we briefly approached, proffering the family tree, that Liz had kindly drawn up for them. One other person spontaneously connected with us strangers. He was the old scholars web-site contact, who had supplied Gordon’s phone number to me, nine months before.
An Unusual Coda
That man was the key speaker at Gordon’s funeral, quoting and elucidating on one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. And what’s more, he introduced my wife to some pertinent contacts a few weeks later. Those significant contacts would, to her amazement, connect her with five of her own previously-unknown “missing” cousins! Liz has met up with them all. one dying just a few years later. But that’s her story to tell, one day.
You couldn’t make up such an unusual turn of events…How strange that these two family genealogical sagas intertwined. Both are almost biblical-like family dramas with such generously redemptive backstories…Simple accidental serendipity, or something designed by a creator? You be the judge. I believe that God looked down kindly on my emotionally battered family. He topped-up such blessing, by letting Liz find Irish relatives that she never knew she had, through my cousin’s English funeral. Perhaps that hugely significant event for Liz wouldn’t have occurred, if my relatives hadn’t been so frosty….?