Our Stories: Donna Brynteson
by Paul Brynteson
Who is Donna Abramovitch Paulson Rolstad Brynteson?
On the first day of school my junior year in high school, I looked across my Chemistry classroom and saw a girl I had not seen before. A couple years prior I had moved to rural Montevideo, Minnesota and thought I knew everyone in our class…apparently not. Unknown to me, Donna noticed me and wondered, who is this new student? She thought she knew everyone since she had been in Montevideo since she was 5 days old. Over the next several months we would “accidentally” bump into each other between classes and visit, cautiously considering, “who is this person? Do I like this person? What is this person like?” I was thinking about asking her out, perhaps to the Senior Class play that was scheduled for November 20. But before I could ask her, with Sadie Hawkins day approaching, the one day of the year that girls could ask boys for a date, can you believe it, the ONLY DAY OF THE YEAR, Donna was the brave one and asked me out for that exact day to the exact event I had been thinking about…the Senior Class Play. On the big day, I picked up Donna, met her parents, we attended the play, and followed it up with a snack at the bowling alley. As both of our curfews was 11 PM, we were obediently home by 11. For the rest of our junior year, we continued our high school friendship enjoying our conversations and occasional “dates.” As our close friendship continued to blossom, one day in our senior year, I opened my school locker and found a note from Donna. She shared how much she enjoyed our friendship but felt she must tell me something. “I’m adopted. I hope that is ok with you and doesn’t make a difference in what you think of me.” Are you kidding me! I could not believe she thought that might make a difference. I quickly found her and made sure she knew, “OF COURSE NOT! It makes no difference to me, rather, it actually further endears you to me.” But just think, her being adopted was a concern to her! Donna was born in 1943 in Minneapolis and immediately adopted by Alfred and Haidee Rolstad, a childless couple in their mid-40’s. Her dad was 100% Norwegian and mom 100% Swedish, both 1st generation Americans. Both had an 8th grade education and Alfred had served in WWI. Donna always knew she was adopted; it was never discussed, she was happy with her adopted parents, and was not interested in trying to find out about her birth parents. So, as Donna shared this story with me and never expressed an interest in her adoption history, that was the end of that for us. We had found our lifelong partner; we both knew it. We clicked! We became good friends before we were “seriously” dating. Upon HS graduation, Donna went to a community college and earned her LPN degree, and I went to Concordia College. Since both of our families provided little financial support for us, when she finished her 1-year degree, we got married August 1962 before my sophomore year in college and she went to work at a Catholic hospital as a nurse in Moorhead, MN. Fast forward 57 years to 2019…two married children, 6 grandchildren, 3 great grandchildren and we are happily retired living in Broomfield, CO. Life has been good. In our first overseas trip in 2010, we spent a month meeting for the first time both of our cousins in Norway and Sweden. We spent several days on Donna’s adopted father’s family farm in Norway that can be traced back to 14th century. But in January of 2019, we talked about doing a DNA test to see if it confirms for us that both our ancestry is Scandinavian. Mine comes back exactly as expected…50% Norwegian and 50% Swedish. I recognize several names as close relatives including a cousin, brother, and sister. But Donna was surprised by the results: she’s not primarily Swedish and Norwegian. Rather, 49% European Jewish; 16% Germanic European; 25% Swedish; 8% Norwegian, and 2% Russia …not as expected. For the first time in her life, she wondered, “who were my birth parents?” It did not take long to find out. A couple months later, April 2019 a wonderful surprise email arrived from a person who said her DNA indicated she was a close relative to Donna with a high probability they were ½ sisters. Her first thought was “no way!” However, after several emails with probing questions, they both agreed, yes, ½ sisters! She soon learned she had three sisters all about 5 feet tall, like Donna, and a ½ brother! This ½ sister wanted to meet Donna. Before we went down that path, having her name, we did a google search on her and made some phone calls. Indeed, she was as she said, faculty at a university, author of books, so Donna and I felt comfortable to meet in person. They lived in Illinois and took the time to drive out of their way through Denver on their way to Scottsdale, AZ and stopped at our home for lunch. It was so incredibly special. Donna immediately found much common ground; felt she could have visited all afternoon. While at our home, she Face Timed and introduced Donna to her daughter in Scottsdale, Donna’s new niece. It was a wonderful, awakening experience for Donna. She discovered her birth father’s father and mother (her birth grandparents), left western Russia in 1917 to escape the persecution of the Jews. They first settled in North Dakota where her father, was born. Soon after, they moved to Minneapolis where he was raised. He was living there in 1943 when Donna was born and did not move to Illinois until 1949. Her birth father died in 2009. While discovering the above was amazing, it was Donna’s lifelong passion for Jewish literature and reading many books about the holocaust that was astonishing. When we went to Europe, while others in our groups wanted to see art museums, she wanted to go to all the Jewish historical sites. We’ve been in Synagogues in Amsterdam, Prague, Berlin, Vienna, Cordoba, Seville, Warsaw, and Krakow. We did walking tours of Jewish sections of most of these towns, and have been to concentration camps from WWII in Germany and Poland. We have shed so many tears of sorrow we have wondered if we can go to these sites anymore. Has Donna’s heritage/genetics been speaking to her? Just think, she would not be here had her grandfather not escaped persecution!! But the year of 2019 was not over since in December she also discovered her birth mother owing to DNA results. After discovering her birth father, when she saw matches from DNA, her ½ sister could tell her her birth mother’s side. Although few matches on her birth mothers’ side were found, only one indicated perhaps a first cousin. She emailed this person in September and explained she was adopted, did not know her birth mother, and asked about her family tree. In November she heard back that provided the identity of her birth mother, who was also deceased. She worked at the same bank in 1943 when she was single as Donna’s birth father. However, unlike her birth father’s family, her birth mother’s family preferred not to engage. Donna totally understood, what a shock it must have been for them, and she stopped any further attempts to contact them. So, with all that gain in knowledge and awareness in 2019, Donna began 2020, thankful and proud of who she is: Donna Abramovitch Paulson Rolstad Brynteson. That is a mouthful! And I am thankful to have her as my best friend for 58 years of marriage.