We used typewriters decades ago, and carbon paper and different colors of white-out. If we made a mistake we could correct not just the original letter but each carbon copy as well, in the correct color. Blue white-out. Purple white-out. “White-out” was even a verb back then, as in, “I’ve got to white-out this whole line.” I live in Minnesota now where “white-out” is a meteorological condition, most often associated with North Dakota but sometimes occurring here. No one likes it very much. But when I was a teen-age secretary I loved white-out, especially the purple kind.
My daughter is a teenager now and has initiated a search for her Korean birth mother. Now that we’ve started the process she talks about it every day, anxious for news, impatient for results. We have some information in our adoption files, including the birth mother’s age, and the clock is ticking. “We’ve got to move on this, Mom,” Lydia insists. “We may not have that much time.” Lydia’s birth mother is about six months older than I am.
Lydia’s impatience notwithstanding, I don’t really feel like I’m standing with one foot in the grave, at least not most days. But I get what Lydia means: the truth is, like everyone else on the planet, I’m getting old. Not ancient. I’m old enough to have brought a manual typewriter to college, but I still stay up late and my hair is still brown, with only the occasional strand of grey. Lydia’s hair is bright and shiny, not black, really, but dark, dark brown; in the sun a bit of red sparkles in it, surprisingly like my hair, especially when I was younger.
On the other hand I’m no ingénue. That cold truth became evident a few years ago when I turned 50. I was celebrating by going to Paris with a group of friends and I told everyone, partly because I was excited about going to Paris, partly because I wanted people, casual acquaintances, anyway, to say, “50, you can’t be turning 50!” So I told dozens of people to whom my age should have been a surprise all about my upcoming birthday trip. Not one of them even blinked at the number. Finally I had to give it up—the pathos of my quest for astonished denial was beginning to make people uncomfortable.
I am not uncomfortable with Lydia’s search. I seem to be looking back a lot these days, and I can imagine what it’s like for Lydia when she looks back, past high school, past her childhood, past toddlerhood, back to the day at the Minneapolis airport when she was six months old and a jet-lagged Marine named Mike handed her to the social worker who then put Lydia in my arms. No one remembers being six months old, of course, but usually there are people you can ask, “what was it like when I was born?” or “who were the first people who saw me?” There are deeper questions, too, for an adopted child to ask her birth mother, questions that I can’t answer. Lydia’s history doesn’t exist before her arrival day. Some days I feel like I am nothing but history.
Truth is, things die as you age, and I’m not just talking about brain cells and ovaries. Dreams die, doors close. I mourn the death of my youthful fantasies, and I mourn just a bit for the fantasies that have come true. When I was in my 20s, I dreamed about being one of those women walking around with a baby in a portable car-seat, which I’d carry casually by my side. “What’s in my basket? Just a life I created,” I’d say, casually tossing back my shiny auburn hair. Then it all happened: my hair did not quite achieve the shiny auburn of my dreams but in every other respect, I lived the fantasy. And now it is gone.
Lydia has fantasies about meeting her birth mother. When we initiated the search the agency made her write a letter. “Did you get to see me?” she wrote. “Did you ever hold me?” In her fantasy Lydia will learn enough Korean to be able to speak to her birth mother without a translator. She will travel to Korea and her birth mother will be a little worn, but beautiful. She will be living a reasonably happy life, but she will never have forgotten Lydia. In the fantasy’s extended version there is an adorable little girl, eager to meet her older, American half-sister.
Lydia has time and there is a small chance her fantasy will come true. Meanwhile she waits, a tree without roots doing her best to grow. It’s always been hard to grow up; it’s not just about being adopted. Lydia is missing the first six months of her history, but honestly her whole generation seems rootless—wired, online, plugged in, chatting with tiny keyboards instead of their voices, showing emotions with digital icons instead of real tears, smiles or laughter. Their friends are in cyberspace, their memories stored in a cloud.
We didn’t float when I was young. We were tethered, held back by a world that allowed far fewer possibilities: even the longest telephone cord uncoiled only about eight feet. If a pot began to boil over while you were talking on the phone it was a hard stretch to reach the stove. We were anchored, to the phone, to the wall, to the person on the other end of the line, to the task or conversation at hand. The world is bigger now that we no longer need cords to stay connected to people. Of course we used to be able to cradle our phones, ear to chin, pressed against our cheeks; if you managed to rescue that pot of macaroni from the stove you could have both hands free to stir in the cheese while you talked. If you’ve ever tried to use your shoulder to hold an iPhone to your ear you know that there is a lot less cradling going on these days.
Not that I would trade my laptop for carbon paper and white-out. But as Lydia searches for her anchor, her connection to her past, I am thinking more and more about how people relate and stay connected. It’s not just office supplies and telephones. It’s like those old exhibits at the science museum I remember from decades ago. Ping pong balls must have been cheap in the 1960s because the museum used them everywhere. In one room models of different molecules dangled from the ceiling. Even then, they were not very high tech, just different colored ping pong balls attached to each other by wooden dowels. Each colored ball represented an atom of a different element and those atoms bonded together, stick by stick, to form something new, something greater.
There were hundreds more ping pong balls upstairs, inside a large, clear canister. Those balls just sat there until someone pushed the button, and suddenly in a frenzy of darting, leaping and ricocheting, the balls bounced off the walls and bumped into each other, until eventually the currents subsided and the balls returned to rest. In the course of all that random action the ping pong balls did “keep in touch,” so to speak. But the connections were fleeting; no bonding occurred, nothing new was being formed.
At my old museum those exhibits were only a staircase apart, but today I see that they represent the time span of a generation. A person in my age group has to accept this, despite the awkwardness of the transition. If you grew up with the straight-stick-and-glue method of connecting one ping pong ball to another, it is disorienting to be thrown all at once into the air pressure canister and forced to negotiate all that casual bumping around.
Consider Facebook. I was engaged in a Facebook orgy last winter on the occasion of my 35th high school reunion, which I stalked but did not attend, like some kind of middle-aged techno-deviant.
So imagine my horror when one of my new “friends” popped up in the live chat box while I was online one evening. I’d barely known him even in high school and we’d had no contact since. Now there he was, “there” in this case being somewhere in Oregon. “Hi, Tracy,” he’d typed. “Thanks for finding me on Facebook.” I panicked and disconnected immediately. I was embarrassed, and it didn’t help that I’d been streaming Star Trek reruns while I cyber-stalked. I felt as though I’d been caught driving by his house, or calling him on the phone and hanging up when I heard his voice. “Finding” him on Facebook implied a humiliating and desperate search, a task I never would have undertaken in the analog world. On line all I’d had to do was type his name and click, an encounter as quick and easy as the ping pong balls bouncing off each other in the air pressure canister. If I chatted with him on Facebook, that would mean he and I were glued to opposite ends of a wooden stick and I wasn’t ready for that level of commitment.
It remains to be seen what type of commitment Lydia is seeking and will be able to achieve with her birth mother. Finding her is no Facebook search. Lydia’s file has been pulled from “the vault,” physically brought forth from an actual, mid-20th century storage facility, not a digital place like the little computer screen trash can where we click-and-drag our unwanted e-mails. I imagine a brick-lined room with a metal door, deep beneath a busy street in Seoul. If the social workers there are able to locate a current address, they go knock on the door. The Korean social workers are discreet, wary of revealing too much or causing trouble for the woman who may not want to open the door on the life—my daughter—she left behind.
“Thank you for finding me.” I want Lydia’s birth mother to say those words, assuming the search succeeds. I am afraid she will disconnect, panicking as I did the night my high school classmate appeared on my digital doorstep. And I want Lydia to find her birth mother soon, because she needs her anchor now, and because time keeps moving and doors keep closing and no one is getting any younger.
So we e-mail the social workers, and fax documents to Korea, and Lydia has joined a group of Korean adoptees on Facebook. She is looking for connections and for now the bouncing ping pong type will have to do. If we find her birth mother, technology will make it easy to communicate, just like it will make it easy for me to stay in touch with Lydia when she leaves for college in the fall. The untethered world, after all, has its advantages. But even if I buy a new iPhone and learn to Skype, time has a direction and that direction is forward. I look my age and my life is more history than possibility. Would I change my history if I could? Sure, there are a few episodes I wish I could white out and type over. Who wouldn’t take the opportunity to make some corrections?
As much as I loved white-out, it was, of course, only partially effective. Documents that you prepare electronically can be perfect, bearing no evidence of the many rounds of spell-check and auto-correct and even actual proof-reading it took to get them into their final form. White-out did not allow complete erasure of past mistakes: no matter how meticulously you applied the white-out, no matter how carefully you typed over the mistyped letters, the white cover-up was always visible on the page, tangible evidence of mistake and correction.
Lydia has never used white-out, but she is an artist, a talented painter, meticulous with her brush. Painting is about creating, not correcting, for Lydia; at her age she has made few mistakes that need covering up. Still she is looking back right now, searching for details in an effort to white-out the sense of loss she feels. Unfortunately, white-out is an imperfect tool. Lydia will move forward, with or without the cord that connects her to her past. But the evidence of her early loss will likely remain visible, like the impressions of type that would show from beneath, even when the white-out was thin and smooth and applied with a steady hand.
Tracy Harris is a lawyer and art museum tour guide. “Backspace” is her first publication in a literary journal.