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Archive for February, 2015

I was adopted. As an adult. As of this Saturday, Valentine’s Day to be exact, it will have been three years since I was adopted. Now, I have a mother, whom I love very much. She will always be my mother, no matter what. What I’ve gained, however, is so much more than I ever thought I would. I can’t banish all of the demons from my past, but this was a huge step in my healing. Here is my story,as I posted on Facebook, on February 14, 2012:

“I am now legally a Ballantyne. I’ve always officially been a Ballantyne, there was never a question about that, but legalities being what they were in the 1970’s, my father’s name was not put on my birth certficate because my parents weren’t married and he passed away before they could. There was another last name put on my birth certificate when I was seven: my mother’s husband’s name. I never asked for that name, it was never wanted, and the man that was listed made my childhood a hellish nightmare.

Over the past several years, I have looked for a way to remove the offending person from my birth certificate as part of my healing, but in Michigan, a step-parent adoption can only be dissolved if the biological father and his child petition to get it done. This was not possible in my case, so I went to my Uncle Jim (my father’s brother) and Aunt Penny Coombe Ballantyne and asked them if they would adopt me. I was very nervous about the whole thing, but they agreed without any hesitation at all and never shied away from all of the tons of paperwork that had to be dug up, ordered, and completed. I’m almost surprised that the court didn’t want to do a house inspection!

Finally, today, the three of us had our court date with the judge at the Lincoln Hall of Juvenile Justice in Detroit. I think we were the only people there with a happy reason and the fact that is is Valentine’s Day, a day to love others, wasn’t lost on us as we waited for the judge to come into the chamber. The judge heard the case history, made sure that I was consenting to everything, and then she signed the papers that gave me a new dad, a second mom, and my family name on my birth certificate for the first time. I never have to shudder inside when I have to write or type my maiden name because of the memories that are attached to it. I will write it proudly from now on because it’s what it always should have been.

It’s been a wonderful, intensive, journey. Telling the family was interesting, but they had a good reaction to it all and were happy for us. My poor Aunt Kay, the family geneaologist, is going to have quite the time with this one, but I think that everyone else is fine with it. Even though they’re biologically my cousins, Ryan Ballantyne, Elizabeth Blair, and Megan Ballantyne, are now legally my brother and sisters! It’s all a little bit crazy, but our family can handle it.

My mother, who’s still my mother, understands my reasons for it all, but it’s not her favorite topic of conversation, so we tend to let it be. She knows that I love her and that I needed to do this, but it does make her uncomfortable to discuss it, so if you know her, please respect her privacy on this subject.

I think my father and grandfather, both named Philip, are happy about this, too. When I think of what they would say or do, I get an immense feeling of peace. I have my same family, but we’re just a little rearranged. I can say “Dad” (or Uncle-Dad, lol) now with a smile instead of cringing and I have two wonderful women who are mothers to me. How many people can say that?

I wanted to share my happiness with you all today, on this Valentine’s Day. I feel free, for the first time in a very, very, long time. I’m a Ballantyne, and I’m very blessed to be one. It’s a wonderful family, full of love.”

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Last week was the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. In 1945, Soviet troops rushed into the camp not knowing what to expect, only to find hordes of traumatized, ill, skeleton-like people who had been left behind when the Nazis evacuated a few days earlier, taking the healthier prisoners with them, essentially on a death march.

Seeing the coverage in the news reminded me of a professor that I had, Dr. Jack Wayne. Dr. Wayne is now retired after having taught in the education department at the University of Michigan-Dearborn for many years. My husband had first met him back in the 1990s when Dr. Wayne would take classes to Greenfield Village for experience. I recall Marty talking about him, but wasn’t aware of the impact that he would have on my life.

I took Dr. Wayne’s class on teaching social studies in the elementary classroom back in 2006. I had heard about Dr. Wayne from other students who absolutely loved him, but I had never seen him. The first thing that came to mind when I walked into the classroom that day was that he looked exactly like an elf. A full head of pure white hair, a small stature, and twinkling blue eyes all contributed to the illusion. It was a three-hour evening summer class, but it went by very quickly.

After the first class, I went up and introduced myself as Marty’s wife, since he would have remembered my husband. As soon as I said Marty’s name, he got a big smile on his face. “Maaaaaarrrrttyyy!” he said. “Oh, I just love your husband! He’s such a wonderful guy.” I agreed with him, of course, and from that day on, he would always ask about Marty, what he was up to and so forth. I’m don’t think he was quite as enamored of me as he was of Marty, but since I was Marty’s wife, I passed muster. It didn’t matter that he liked my husband more than me, I was just happy to know him. One night before class, Marty brought the boys to come and visit. Dr. Wayne was elated to see him and they spent a happy twenty minutes or so catching up, Youngest Child quite happily spinning in a chair the entire time.

Dr. Wayne’s class was interesting. We did cover material in the book occasionally, but for the most part, our time was spent talking about other things: life, teaching in general, kids, and his time spent as a prisoner in the Nazi camps.

Dr. Wayne was born in Lodz, Poland into a large Jewish family. His parents owned a bakery there and all of the children worked. When Germany invaded Poland, the family was sent to the Lodz ghetto. Terrible things happened there, things that no child should see. Sick people rounded up and shot, starvation, his own father dying in the ghetto for lack of medicine. Living in those conditions should have been more than enough hardship for anyone to endure, but the Nazi regime didn’t stop there. When he was twelve years old, Dr. Wayne’s family was one of the last groups shipped out in cattle cars to the work camps reserved for Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, or anyone else who opposed Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.

Dr. Wayne didn’t tell us about what it was like when they first arrived in the Birkenau camp, but his older brother, Larry, recounted in an oral history interview for the University of Michigan that after they were taken out of the train cars, their mother and one of their sisters were herded directly into one of the crematoriums, never to be seen again. The brothers were taken to other camps and separated. Dr. Wayne ended up digging mass graves out in the woods for the piles of bodies that were killed every day, in Dachau, I believe. He saw people commit suicide by deliberately trying to cross the fences surrounding the camp, unwilling to take any more of the torture inflicted upon them. Finally, he decided to escape, not caring if he made it or if he was shot. He ran, and was spotted. He was shot in the leg and went down, initially playing dead and then losing consciousness. Fortunately, none of the guards thought to check him thoroughly and the next thing he knew, he woke up in a military hospital. It was 1945 and the end of the war. Allied troops had found him and saved his life.

The brothers and one of their sisters were reunited in Germany after the war in one of the many programs set up to help the survivors. Although they had cousins who had also survived, they were the only members of their immediate family to make it through. They emigrated to Detroit and put down roots, getting an education, marrying and having families. The siblings changed their last name to Wayne, eager to make new lives for themselves in their new country. That was something that Dr. Wayne always talked about. The United States is a country of opportunity and he and his siblings never lost that sense of thankfulness, even all of those years later.

This was just a very brief summary of Dr. Wayne’s story, but the courage and the endurance of his family and others like them amaze me. The story of the Holocaust has always fascinated me in a horrified sort of way and I am not alone. Countless books and movies have been made about that time, including The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler’s List, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and The Devil’s Arithmetic. The idea that an entire race should be obliterated simply for being who they are is a sick and twisted way of thinking that doesn’t seem like it could be real. The horrifying part is that is was real, and it was real in a part of the world that Americans thought of as “civilized”, not some remote jungle or desert country where the average American would find it hard to relate. Paris was occupied, for heaven’s sake, London was being bombed regularly, and you would be hard pressed to find a European whose daily life wasn’t affected by the war. Americans can’t fathom that type of existence, but unfortunately, many people in other parts of the world today can.

Our Holocaust survivors are elderly now and as we lose more of them every day, we lose that connection to a time when an evilness threatened to take over the world, and it came a lot closer than it should have. What is the point to all of this? I didn’t set out with any sort of agenda, only to remember a man who touched my soul. He was the first survivor who I had ever gotten to know as a person, who was so willing to share his experiences with us. As far as I know, he still gives occasional talks to Jewish centers and schools, but the last time I talked to him, more three years ago, he said that the memories just make it too hard sometimes, that it was difficult for him to sleep after speaking about his experiences. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to tell that story, to look at that number on your arm every day and realize over and again that this wasn’t a story out of a book, but this happened to you.

I look at my boys and thank God that they don’t have to go through what millions of Jewish children did. I’m thankful that they don’t have to go through what many children in the Middle East or parts of Africa are going through now. War steals childhood away, imprints violence on memories, helps shape children into something they would not otherwise become. Some, like Dr. Wayne, turn it into a teaching moment so that it hopefully never happens again. Some have their hearts so twisted by hate that they grow up to inflict that evil on others. Many don’t grow up at all, but become a number, a casualty of war in an unmarked grave to be mourned on the 6 o’clock news as I sit in my peaceful neighborhood where I’m not worried about my family being rounded up and taken away. It doesn’t seem fair, or right.

It amazes me that in our world today, there are still those who hate because of race or religion and justify their rationales with the same lies that the Nazis used to turn people against the Jews. In our word of advanced technology and education, shouldn’t it be more obvious that violence and war do nothing to solve any of our problems? Maybe that’s one lesson we should take from the Holocaust. On this seventieth anniversary of liberation and freedom, let us never forget how it got to that point and let’s raise our children with tolerance and compassion, to see others as fellow human beings. That is all.

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