By Harriet P. Gross
Do you know any people who have adopted children?
I’ve mentioned adoptees here a few times in the past. Once was when I wrote about Lew Manilow, adopted son of Nate Manilow, a guiding spirit behind Park Forest, Ill., the town profiled by William H. Whyte in his 1956 book, “The Organization Man” — recognized by many as one of the most influential publications of 20th-century America. Lew went on to be a town founder himself; University Park, where Illinois’ Governors State University stands just south of Park Forest, was his baby. And of course I’ve told you about my Zayde, who “adopted” a nameless, unclaimed infant who died alone during the great influenza epidemic early in the 20th century, and buried her with his own dead daughter.
But I also have a living adopted cousin, not nearly so prominent as Mr. Manilow. His parents, my Uncle Jack and Aunt Luba, were never prominent, either. But they wanted children and couldn’t have any, so they adopted newborn Gene early in 1951. I had just started college, and started smoking (another story!), at the time of his brit, which was held in the now-defunct little shul that was then my whole family’s “spiritual home,” as some of my non-Jewish friends call their churches. (I know about the smoking because I remember sneaking out during the reception, so my dad — a smoker himself, but one of those “Do as I say, not as I do” people — wouldn’t see me.)
As an only child, Gene was somewhat wild. He was also more than somewhat accident-prone. His face is still misshapen as a result of his running across a street one icy winter evening, slipping, falling and being hit by a car. This happened when he was about 9 years old. A girl would probably have been crushed, years later if not then, by the lasting results of that ineffective plastic surgery, but on a man, it’s different. Gene looks sort of … intriguing, I’d say. Also handsome!
Talk about “accident-prone”: Gene became a bar mitzvah at that little old shul, but was coached by a man at a far larger and more impressive synagogue not too far away. He’d walk to his Hebrew lessons after school, up the building’s massive stairs and through its stately front doors. On the Thursday preceding his big Shabbat, Gene had a final review with his tutor, whose last words to him were: “In the spirit of theater, break a leg! But don’t break an arm before the bar mitzvah!” Gene said goodbye and thank you, walked out those stately doors and promptly fell down the massive stairs, breaking an arm.
My Aunt Luba said much of her sewing during Gene’s growing-up years consisted of taking out the seams of one arm or another in his shirts and sweaters and jackets so they’d fit over casts, and sewing them up again afterward. She did the same to his new white shirt and the jacket of his blue bar mitzvah suit.
I’m telling you all this because in just three days it will be National Adoption Day, an annual tribute to adoptive families since 2000. The day is dedicated to finalizing the adoptions of children in foster care, to honoring their official new parents and to celebrating with all of them. Most importantly, it’s a day for spreading the word about the huge need for more of these loving, not-by-birth mothers and fathers. A half-million kids are in foster care in this country every year; at any one time, about 150,000 are eligible for adoption.
So on Nov. 15 each year, there are now mass adoption ceremonies at U.S. courthouses, followed by “new family” parties where many, many children rejoice with parents and siblings that they can finally, officially call their own.
My Uncle Jack and Aunt Luba are long gone now, but their adoption has so far given us two additional family generations. Cousin Gene and his wife have three children; both their daughters’ weddings are scheduled for next year, and their married son already has two children of his own. Cousin-by-marriage Jeannie and I regularly exchange letters, e-mails and occasional gifts. The latest: I sent her a colorful enamel pin from Jerusalem; she sent me a necklace charm fashioned from a seashell found on an Israeli beach.
The late Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s restaurants and himself an adoptee, began this special adoption effort. I thank him, and support his efforts. Maybe you’ll join in? Find out more at nationaladoptionday.org.
By Harriet P. Gross