This I Believe

Maria - Brooklyn, New York
Entered on October 3, 2006

My father, Daniel, was an artist and a teacher. He died in 1999. He taught me that humor and suffering are deeply connected. This I believe.

He fought in World War II and suffered severe Post Traumatic Stress. For 10 years after the war he struggled to keep his panic at bay—hugging the walls of the corridors of his art school, avoiding open fields, taking night jobs to avoid travel in daylight.

His paintings—whether figures or landscapes—are so often austere and lonely images. In one titled “Veterans’ Day” a lumpy middle-aged man holding a rolled up flag, looks off to the side –waiting, perhaps, for the parade to pass?

But he also answered fear with an outrageous sense of humor, deep compassion, and a radiant ability to love. The first time he saw my mother he shouted “Wow!” The living room of our home was a way station for former students who were “finding themselves.” When he retired to an island in Maine, his winter studio in the village was more of a social club than a contemplative artist’s space.

My father taught art in public schools an colleges but spent the last 20 years of his career at a private school in Massachusetts. The son of Slovak immigrants who fled the poverty of their birthplace for the coal mines of Pennsylvania, and later the steel mills of Cleveland, my father knew he didn’t fit the New England prep school mold but that never stifled him.

He arrived at his first faculty cookout wearing a necklace of kielbasa. For him, that old country sausage celebrated his differentness. For me, that meat was also about humble beginnings, about being in war, and even, perhaps, the bodies of dead soldiers he carried around with him eternally.

The summer before he died I asked him if he was afraid. He said he was not afraid to die but was afraid of encountering his “demons” again. After all those years he put into getting them onto canvases, he dreaded a return to the horror that was so hard to talk about—the sight of his dead buddies, especially the sight of the dead German soldier at Utah Beach with the belt buckle that read “Gott mit uns” (God With Us). That was the moment my father understood that for the soldier war was basically about survival. His words were, ”You kill to live.”

Daniel Hodermarsky never marched in a Veteran’s Day parade. He stood off to the side and watched like the man in his painting. For him the thing we call courage often came not from nobility but from having your humanity stripped away.

I’d like to believe that the moment of his death was not the brutal reckoning that he feared, but one that carried him to a place of laughter and dance — maybe with a glimpse of the dancing blue eyes of the Belgian girl he took to the movies on a night during the war that was briefly, blessedly free from fear.