Donna Clair

Southwest Contemporary Artist

How I Came to New Mexico and learned about Art and Life



GOOD FRIDAY – 15 April 2022.  Just lit a candle for my Grampa Jim.  The story goes that Valentin Danielewski came over on the boat from either Prussia or Poland when he was eight years old.  As a young adult he Americanized his name to Jim Daniels.  In time he married my grandmother Ella, adopted my mother and they had one child, my Aunt Jeanette.  He was 17 years younger than Ella but from all appearances they had a solid and happy marriage.  My brother and I lived with them more than we did our parents.  

Jim was a butcher by trade….and a good provider for his family.  Some Saturdays he would take me to the market stalls on Maxwell Street – fill me up with a farmer’s homegrown tomatoes then we would go to his favorite tavern to see all his pals from work.  He would give me the signal to do my Shirley Temple dance and the pockets on my pinafore would soon be filled with silver dollars!  Grandma would be waiting with dinner Later we would sit by the radio and listen to Gospel Music from his favorite churches on the South Side of Chicago.  Jim was and still is my HERO!

My Dad was transferred to Milwaukee when I was eight and my brother was five.  We had to move and leave the safety and protection of my grandparents. Our moving boxes weren’t yet unpacked when my mother met me at school to say that Grampa had a heart attack and died.  He was 48.  I really didn’t know what it meant to die – I just knew I would never see the most important person in my life ever again. 

My parents enrolled me in Catechism class at St. Anthony’s Catholic School and I quickly learned that there were only 3 places people went when they died – Heaven, Purgatory or HELL!   Our house was only 2 blocks away from St. Josaphat’s Basilica – massive structure modeled after the Vatican. The main aisle with crucified Christ at the altar seemed to stretch  for miles.  Many of our Polish neighbors crawled up the aisle on their knees to do penance.  I decided to do the same – all the while praying for Grampa Jim to be released from Purgatory. I remember wanting to quit half way through – I was a little kid and my knees hurt really bad!  Somehow I made it and knew Grampa was one step closer to Heaven!

Jim didn’t go to Mass, cussed and drank lots of beer!  However he made sure we always had food and a sense of security. He made us laugh. He  took great joy in taking us to Brookfield Zoo and the big amusement park with the “largest ferris wheel in the world”.  We fished off the pier at Lake Michigan and caught our first blue gills and perch.  He was always present.  During the war he helped other families with food from Grandma’s ration coupons.  Every night he would give my brother and I a big hug and put his forefinger to his mouth and say “Remember – a slip of the lip will sink a ship!”  Jim was a good and gentle man.

Later I told this to the priest at St. Anthony’s.  Asked him how long it would take for me to pray my Grampa into Heaven.  He never smiled, just looked the long way down at me and sternly said “My dear, you will never pray him out of HELL!”  It took me 16 blocks to walk home that evening – and I cried all the way. 

Grampa Jim is in Heaven with all the other angels. In my 8 year old heart I knew that priest was wrong.   It has taken me years and years to find my own way – my own belief system.  I am at peace believing that there is no such place as Purgatory!!