I am very proud, emotional, and honored to feature my dad and photographer, John Polis, as the very first artist to represent Happiness Through Grace. Sadly, in 1999, at the young age of 66, he passed away following a 6-week battle with brain cancer. Although he isn't here on earth to see this tribute, I know he is looking down from heaven shining a bright light on this movement, proud of his "Little Jenni," and honored to be sharing his work more than 20 years after his passing.
My dad was born in 1933, in Valka, Latvia (one of three Baltic Countries connected to the Soviet Union). He lived in Latvia with his parents, 2 brothers and a sister until 1939 when WWII broke out. During the war, he and his family watched as fighter planes flew overhead dropping bombs while rounds of gun fire continued just blocks from where they lived. Eventually they were forced to leave their home, just barely catching the last bus out of town, and fleeing to Germany to live in a Displaced Persons (DP) Camp with several other families. My uncle, the oldest brother and my grandfather were left behind to fight in the war. My grandfather was captured as a P.O.W. but thankfully released and reunited with the family a couple years later. At the age of 16, my dad and his family came to the United States to begin a life living in the Land of the Free and the home of amazing opportunities
My dad had a quirkiness to his personality that many people enjoyed and loved to be around. He often took senior and family portraits, weddings, and various miscellaneous photos that caught his eye in random locations. My dad was known as the photographer who would shake his hips, tell you to lick your lips so they were shiny and smile when he said "OKAYYY!" His photography has been featured in several major publications including Life Magazine September 13, 1968 edition, Who's Who in American Photography and displayed in numerous European countries.
As a child growing up, I remember feeling embarrassed, as many teenagers do, by the things my dad would say and do. As an adult, and living on a rollercoaster of my own mental health struggles, I know now he experienced regular panic attacks. I vividly remember my dad going to the doctor every year to get tested for heart issues. The doctors repeatedly told him he was fine. That was almost 40 years ago when general practitioners didn't freely diagnose mental health issues without a referral to the mental hospital. My dad definitely showed signs of anxiety and OCD and I know he tried to self-medicate to cover his emotions by consuming more than his fair share of Hamm's and Schlitz beer
It's important to share my dad's story because his mental health signs and symptoms weren't something people talked about. From my perspective, he was "weird, crazy, or over the top" because I didn't know any better. Today signs and symptoms are overlooked or viewed as something else. Medical professionals have determined, people struggle mentally due to past and present experiences, childhood trauma, family history or from a chemical imbalance in the gut and brain.
My dad was living with something that no one acknowledged or knew very little about. He found ways to cope without the help of others. Thankfully, mental health is beginning to be a topic of discussion, but many still feel the stigma, the isolation, and judgement surrounding the topic.
It is my hope we continue to educate ourselves, talk more openly about mental health, abuse, addiction, suicide, and other uncomfortable topics so people can stop living in shame, and isolation. Mental health is important and should be given the attention it deserves so people don't progress down an unhealthy or deadly path.
For my information about mental health refer to the Resources page.