Donna Clair

Southwest Contemporary Artist

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


WORD PAINTINGS #137 (How I Came to New Mexico and Learned About Art and Life) – SEPTEMBER SONG

(Vadito, New Mexico) –

1 September 1939 – The infamous day in history when Hitler invaded Gdansk, Poland.  Joined Ancestry last year and found that many of my relatives were born and lived in that port city. Discovered that the first Nazi concentration camp was constructed in the surrounding forests – it was also the last to be demolished.. Childhood memories of my grandmother’s screened porch in Chicago. A group of aunts and cousins packing large cartons of warm clothing to be sent to family in Poland.  My simple task was to stitch paper money into the hem of a large satin-lined black coat.  A few weeks later letters of thanks would arrive in Polish and then translated by my grandmother from her kitchen table.  After a time no more letters arrived. There was much conversation around the kitchen table in hushed Polish and then total silence. We didn’t send anymore boxes.  I really don’t know what happened, I was a young child. A larger contingent of my Polish family centered near the Ukranian border.

3 September 1939 – Being born into an incredibly dysfunctional family on this crucial and very important day in our country’s history formed me in very profound ways.  More than six years of my life were all about The War – from beginning to end.  Every member of my family was affected by sad and intense life experiences. This was an extraordinary time! Some older members were still trying to recover from the Depression. Once War was declared they had to turn around and go into high gear to support our efforts to fight the Nazis. On the nights my brother and I stayed with my grandparents, Grampa Jim would tuck us in whispering “Remember – a slip of the lip could sink a ship”. We didn’t understand and the three of us laughed as if it was a joke.

Grampa Jim was our hero!   Working as a butcher at the Fulton Street Meat Market, he often provided a little extra in the way of meat that one couldn’t buy with ration coupons.  There seemed never to be enough food. The women would often gather and trade coupons depending on their needs.  Jim rounded up my Dad, Uncle Roy and his brother.  They would fill a cooler with beer and head out to Lake Michigan to fish for perch and bluegills.  They cleaned the fish right at the lake, Grandma would spread newspapers on her kitchen table and start the Friday night Fish Fry!!!  Absolute joy in spite of the looming darkness. (Note: Word paintings #117 – A Candle for Grampa Jim –

Uncle Roy and Aunt Jeanette married just days before he was sent to fight. Their wedding photo shows the two of them so bright and young. He is in his uniform. He fought in Burma and Calcutta alongside a large company of British soldiers.  My Dad’s tall and handsome brother Alvin was sent overseas and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Sometime after September 2, 1945 they returned, no longer fresh faced but sadly broken and worn.  Roy suffered night terrors and would think that his wife sleeping next to him was the enemy and would react violently.  We were not close to Uncle Al, but am certain it took the rest of his life to deal with what he experienced during combat.

My Dad suffered, too. He failed his medical examination because of a bad ear and could not serve.  I’m certain he felt a certain shame and loneliness when most conversation centered on the family and neighbors who were fighting overseas.  An envelope came for him one day and enclosed was a white feather – the sign for cowardice.  He became broken in his own way.

On VJ Day there was a great celebration on the porch of our house on Whipple Street.  The Nazis were vanquished, Japan signed the treaty, the Great War was over – everyone rejoiced and got really drunk!  Our men came home to lives they no longer recognized.  Nothing could replace the time they lost.  They had done their jobs so bravely but being conquering heroes only lasted a short time before they had to begin to rebuild their lives. And there were those who never came home. One family on our street displayed small white satin flag with gold fringe in their front window. Centered on the flag were four gold stars….their boys were lost in combat.  When passing their house, we purposely averted our eyes and walked a little faster. Their grief was palpable.

On September 3rd 1939 my mother took an elevator to the Maternity Ward in Cook County Hospital thinking that my father would soon be sent to fight.  Those feelings lasted all through my early childhood.  Their fears became mine and the shadows have lasted a lifetime. 

It makes me cry when I think of all those we lost “winning” WWII.  It makes me angry and very sad to see bright young men wearing khakis marching with swaztikas and tiki torches yelling “Jews will not replace us!” What is wrong with these people??? What is wrong is that they didn’t live through any war, they just want to create one! They are too young to know the reality of a real War! Their grandparents died never telling their stories!

We walk and talk and live our long lives unaware of how our early life experiences shaped us.  Out there somewhere are still many people who lived during that time.  We need to remember! We need to tell or stories….