The Greatest Gift
It is a breathtaking, once in a life time moment. An Oprah moment. A tearful middle-aged woman releases her husband's reassuring hand and walks into the open arms of the father she has never known, but has longed for all her life. "God, I've missed you," the old man says to his daughter, whom he hasn't seen for over fifty years, not since she was a tiny child. His voice is as soft and kind as his face. The woman sobs and more tears pour from her eyes, tears of joy. Her three grown sons, who have accompanied her to the airport, are not idle during this exchange. They are busy greeting a woman who has followed the old man, a woman they will forever after know as their aunt. As with their mother and her father, the introductions are surprisingly comfortable. The boys embrace their new-found aunt without a hint of awkwardness. They all feel as though they know her, because in a way, they do. They've been exchanging emails with her for months. The same technology which made this merging of families possible, the World Wide Web, also helped to make the transition easy.
Everything began with a name. That tearful woman, my mother, had never known the name she had been born with. A new birth certificate had been created when she was adopted by her stepfather at the age of five, and the name of her real father had been erased from all records that she had access to. So, while that vital piece of paper was happy to proclaim the year 1950 as her birth date and Bainbridge, New York as her place of birth, it could not reveal her true surname. The few people who could have revealed that information chose not to.
In this age of openness in which we live, it is difficult to fathom not knowing your real last name or who your real father was, but when my mother was young it was not so uncommon. Divorce, or worse yet, unwed motherhood, were considered shameful and were kept hidden as fiercely guarded secrets. Such was the attitude of my mother's mother, anyway. She pretended as though her previous husband, whom my mother had vague, uncomfortable memories of from early childhood, had never existed. Whenever my mother questioned her about her real father, my grandmother grew tense and angry. My mother didn't broach the subject often. She had come to the conclusion at an early age that the man she remembered, that previous husband, did not want or love her. He never made any effort to contact her, and my mother wasn't sure that she wanted him to anyway. Although there was always a void in her life that should have been occupied by her father, she found fulfillment in her loving husband and the children that she raised so differently from her own mother.
About a year and a half ago, my mother began compiling a family tree with the names and origins of her children's ancestors. It was a project that several of her friends had embarked upon, and my mother was determined to follow suit. She used a web site called Ancestry.com to find information. Ancestry.com is an amazing database which gives access to census reports, court documents, obituaries, birth announcements, and even the names etched into the gravestones at a particular cemetery. My mother was able to trace my father's family on both sides, and her own family on her mother's side, back about a hundred and fifty years. But when my mother finally got around to dealing with her father's part in the family tree, she was stuck. Even Ancestry.com needs a name as a starting place to be of any help.
The process of creating the family tree had stirred up long dormant emotions within my mother, not to mention curiosity. At the age of 52, she still knew next to nothing about her biological father. The one person who was living that could have told her, my grandmother, refused to even discuss the matter. Still, my mother began to get her hopes up. Maybe she could use Ancestry.com to find her father's name herself. Maybe if she collected all of the available records under my grandmother's name she might come across a marriage license with his name on it, or maybe an engagement announcement in some old newspaper. Or perhaps she could do a search using her own name to see if somewhere, anywhere, there was a record of her father that wasn't sealed by the state of New York. Her original birth certificate, as with the birth certificates of all adopted children in that state (even if they are adopted by a step parent), was unavailable without the written consent from one of her parents. Consent that she had a snowball's chance in hell of getting from my grandmother. My mother searched online for days, pouring over old, obscure records until she was nearly blind with fatigue. She found nothing but anger and resentment, both long overdue.
Sometimes it takes anger to make things happen. I know it is true in this particular case. My mother finally issued an ultimatum to my grandmother: either tell her the name of her real father or be cut out of her life for good. It didn't work immediately, my grandmother hedged and hawed for a couple of weeks, but she finally gave in. She revealed a first and last name that were both fairly common, and no middle name (she claimed not to remember it). She also mentioned that the man had been a native of Bainbridge, New York, my mother's birthplace.
Armed with this new information, my mother began searching again. As Bainbridge was and is a small town, it was not difficult to zero in on her father, since he was the only person with that name who lived there in the time frame she was looking at. She found several records of him in old census reports, which back then were written by hand and included all members of a particular household. His middle initial was included on these documents, and that discovery made all subsequent searches much easier. From there, my mother did a search of state death certificates. She found no names that matched up, and realized that her father was probably still alive. What had once been a quest to find mere information became a search for a live, flesh and blood person. That search didn't last long. She simply entered the name into an online people search and had four telephone numbers onscreen within seconds.
My mother suffered from no illusions. She knew that there was a strong possibility that if and when she contacted her real father that he wouldn't acknowledge her. She also knew that she had to try anyway, not for some silly family tree, but because she wanted to know his story. What he did for a living, whether he had any other children, and most of all, what had happened between him and her mother. Why had he abandoned her? She had a great anger inside of herself towards him which needed to be exorcised, one way or the other.
It was my father who dialed the first number, to an address in Texas that my mother had an intuitive hunch about. She couldn't make the call herself as she was naturally frightened, and my father wanted to protect her to the best of his abilities. I wasn't there for that first conversation, but my father described it to me. He said a woman answered the phone, then replied in the affirmative when asked if a man bearing the name of my mother's father lived there. The man, my grandfather, then came on and answered all of my father's questions before he put my mom on the line. They had a long conversation, full of both pain and happiness. My mother learned that my grandfather had always loved her, and how hard he had tried to make their family work. She learned the circumstances of her adoption, which my grandfather had been essentially forced into. Fathers had very few rights back in those days, especially poor, unemployed ones fresh out of the military. She learned how my grandfather had been allowed to see her only once after my grandmother had left him, and that only because he had agreed to sign adoption papers if he found that she was happy and healthy. She learned that it had been a heavy decision for him, one that he made because he thought it was what was best for her and not because he didn't want her. She learned that the man that she remembered vaguely from her early childhood had not been her father but her first step father. She learned that her father had kept track of her until she was five years old, when my grandmother had left her second husband for another man, and disappeared with him and her children without a trace. She learned that my grandfather had felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and sadness since that day, a burden which he thought he was going to have to take with him to the grave.
She also learned that she had three brothers, one sister, six nieces and nephews, and three great nieces and nephews. An entire new family, and a big one at that. Although she was first contacted by the brothers and sisters over the phone, the relationships were maintained and developed mostly through email. My own introduction to these new members of the family was conducted through email as well, a very non-threatening way to initiate contact under difficult circumstances, and a good way to get to know people on a casual level.
Sven Birkerts, in his essay "Into the Electronic Millenium," laments what he calls "language erosion" (567) in electronic communication, including email. According to Birkerts, "language will grow increasingly impoverished" (567) because of the fast pace and ease of online writing and correspondence. "The complexity and distinctiveness of spoken and written expression," he writes, "...[are] gradually [being] replaced by a more telegraphic sort of 'plainspeak'" (567). Birkerts believes that "[s]imple linguistic prefab is now the norm, while ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety, and wit are fast disappearing" (567).
In the broad sense, I agree with Birkerts. I don't think I am alone when I say that I tend to take less care when writing emails than I do when writing letters. Part of that has to do with time constraints. On the rare occasion when I do write a letter with pen and paper, I set aside plenty of time so that I can express my ideas clearly and neatly. Emails, on the other hand, are usually dashed off willy-nilly, whenever I am in the mood and have a moment to convey what is on my mind at that moment. My spelling and punctuation are usually pretty good on emails, but what I write is less carefully organized. I tend to limit myself to simple statements or questions which express what I'm thinking in a simple manner, without much detail.
Still, there is nothing to beat emails for convenience. Busy people with busy lives aren't always available to talk over the telephone, especially those like myself that do no have cell phones. Communicating with the new members of my family online worked well for me, especially in regard to my aunt. The first few tentative emails that we sent back and forth blossomed into an engaging correspondence. I learned that my aunt had been married for thirty years, had two children and three grandchildren, and that she was a high school drama teacher. Actually, I sort of guessed she was a teacher before she told me. Despite the erosion of language described by Birkerts, a surprising amount of information can be gleaned from a person's emails. The very nature of emails, hurried and informal, can illuminate the writer's personality in a way that formal letters can't because there is less artifice involved. I knew before I met my aunt that she was intelligent, opinionated, sentimental, and very liberal. But no email could ever communicate the sweetness in her soft, Texas accented voice, and no telephone could ever communicate the liveliness of her expressive face.
I don't believe that a real relationship should or even can be based entirely on emails, because people are often quite different in person than online. There is simply no substitute for the richness of face to face communication and expression. But it is a good way to get acquainted and learn about people through their own words, to help pave the way for a more intimate connection. The familiarity I established with my aunt online in just a few weeks would have taken months if we had corresponded with written letters or through the telephone. By the time I met my aunt, a few months after first emailing her, we had already laid the groundwork for a relationship, and so it was with the rest of the two families. We continue to keep in contact through email and over the phone, and our relationships continue to grow. Not all of us have met, but all of us know each other, if only just a little. All of us consider each other family.
My mother's experience is not unique. Time and distance no longer hold the power that they once did. Secrets are no longer so easy to keep. People who have been lost to each other, people across the country and across the world, are being reunited in record numbers. People who should know each other are being connected. The World Wide Web, a vast electronic network, holds the keys which can open innumerable doors and brighten innumerable futures. This technological web which links the world is much more than a series of cables, computer chips, and metal terminals. It embodies and fulfills the fundamental human need to communicate and enables us to share knowledge, information, and even love. That is the greatest gift of them all.