I made the sculpture War Money to honor my father and all the men and women like him who entered military service to protect American freedom and in doing so came home emotional prisoners of the experience.
My father's life began and ended during the Korean War. Like his father, his uncles, his cousins and his schoolmates he enlisted in the armed services to serve his country, travel the world, and go to college under the G.I. Bill. That's how first generation Polish American men of that era advanced intellectually and economically in the United States. He came home from the war forever changed inside and out.
My father's life was held captive by his time spent in the Navy. Every story he told related to his service, the setting either Hawaii, Guam or on a destroyer in the Pacific. We watched "McHale's Navy", "Hogan's Heros," "M*A*S*H" and "Gilligan's Island" on tv. My father smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish. He often cried out in his sleep and we learned right away never to touch him then as he'd strike out at us.
He couldn't hold a job for very long but was very very smart, could play all the woodwind instruments (his father played first clarinet in the Navy Band, a major point of family pride) and could fix absolutely anything. Thanks to the G.I. Bill my father got an excellent education with undergraduate and graduate degrees, but what he experienced in the Navy haunted him his entire life and left him a broken man.
Christmas was always hard for him as he felt it pointed out what a failure he was as a provider. A couple years before he died, during the usual emotionally fraught gift exchange he ran into his closet, came out with a box and shoved it in my hands. He choked up and left the room. In it was his "war money." Paper and coin currency from all over the world, very old, very worn but very treasured. Someone, I don't know who, took the trouble to preserve the paper money in cellophane, sewn together on a sewing machine. This, and his tools, were my father's most prized possessions. Even though he died years ago, I needed to make this sculpture for him.
Botany Mills Sixth Grade is a reflection of my grandmother's experience as a first generation Polish American. She was born in 1907 in the coal mine region of Pennsylvania to very young Polish parents. My grandmother was 2nd oldest of 11 and when she and her older sister started showing signs of puberty, her parents, afraid of what might happen to them in the lawlessness of the coal mining camp, packed up the entire family, got on a train bound for NJ as they heard there might be jobs in the woolen mills. Not speaking any English with about 6 children (by then) in tow they got off the train in Garfield, walked to the police station and asked where they could get rooms and jobs. The police walked them to a rooming house and the next day her father got a job in the mills making thread. This was how it worked for them as immigrants. My grandmother had to quit school in 6th grade to work there along with her father. This was considered a good life for them. It made a huge impression on her and she was always after me about my report card and penmanship. I got a quarter for every A and she took back 10 cents for anything lower than a B. They were devoutly religious which is where I think they got their courage, strength and tenacity, and took with them from Poland the craft of lace making which served them well as they were able to use the leftover thread from the sweatshops to make beautiful creations for themselves.
When I was 4 years old my grandmother sat me down and taught me to knit, crochet and embroider, telling me as I squirmed that her father taught her when she was 4 and that she hated it too, but that by the time I was ready to do it she might not be alive. She said she really got into crocheting in her 60's. (She died when she was 105.) I have all her books and needles and even some of her thread, and now that I've reached 60, I'm revisiting embroidery.