This is not a photo of my grandmother McGhee, obviously, but it IS a photo of her dog Jody butting heads with me, and I loved Jody, and so did my grandmother, so there you have it.
I would write this one down in the words of my grandmother McGhee as exactly as I can remember her telling it to me, but to be honest, I could hardly bear the stilted feeling of the last little immigration story, rigidly adhering to my grandmother Kirsch’s words instead of flying free with my own. Either I’m a control freak or a free spirit, take your pick. (Could it be that they are one and the same? Something to ponder.) In either case, I only heard this particular story a few times, as opposed to perhaps a hundred of the Boy Who Dove Overboard, so it’s not at all ingrained, word for word, in my (faulty) memory to begin with.
What sticks with me about this tiny story, more than anything, is the fact that my grandmother used the term “slavery” with regard to her grandfather (or maybe it was her great-grandfather, I do not know for sure). As a child, I thought slavery was confined to the U.S., the great and irredeemable shame of white people owning black people. But according to my grandmother, there were slaves in Denmark, white slaves, and my great-grandfather (great-great-grandfather?) was one of them.
As a child, that word “slave” haunted me. Now I know that he must have been not a slave, exactly, but a serf, a villein, who was legally bound to the land and the landowner.
My ancestor supposedly did not have a last name, as he was a serf. But when he was a young man, his landowner’s son fell into a river and nearly drowned. My ancestor (note how I’m avoiding having to decide whether he was my great- or great-great-grandfather by calling him my “ancestor”) saved the child’s life. As a reward, his Danish owner freed him from his indentured servitude and also gave him his own surname, “Hoff,” followed by “beck,” which means river in Danish. (Or so I was told; I don’t speak Danish.)
And my ancestor, now a freeman, and bearing the last name of Hoffbeck, made his way to America to seek a new life. Which tends to be the story, with the single and huge exception of those who lived here before the white conquerors came and claimed it for their own, of pretty much every other American family.