Judy, Judith, Judea
The night I found my biological mother, I was shopping for platform boots online. It was the summer of 2001. My best friend, Ellen, and I were wasting time in her second-floor apartment, just above her parents. The entire house was nestled on a tree-laden street in Richmond, Indiana – a small town famous for two things: educating the likes of Jim Jones in the 1940s and, two decades later, exploding when a gun store caught fire.
Through the floor grates, Ellen and I could hear her mother downstairs, yelling over a sizzling wok in her animated Korean/broken-English-flavored cadence: “Hands off! You no touch! You ruin my cooking!” I imagined Ellen’s big, ginger-headed poking at the food on the stove. His hand getting slapped.
I sat at Ellen’s computer, scouring the internet for a pair of stacked Doc Marten’s capable of fulfilling two immediate needs in my life: 1.) compliment the new image I was going for – one a little less Sarah McLachlan, a little more Ani Difranco – while 2.) performing the exact same job as inserted lifts. At twenty years old, I was proportionate in both height and size to a malnourished fifth grader.
“I give up. All these shoes are for feet bigger than mine,” I said. “Why do I have such weird little baby feet?”
Ellen smiled at me. “Go ask your mom where you got ‘em,” she said. Then she giggled.
Like all of my close friends, Ellen knew that I was adopted, which meant that she knew I could not, in fact, go ask my mom about the origin of my creepy baby feet.
“Har har,” I said. “I think I’d rather ask your mom. She’d at least yell her hypothesis at me.”
“You poor motherless child,” Ellen said.
Contrary to the popular belief of some of my friends, as an adopted child, I didn’t devote large parts of my daily routine feeling sorry for myself, wondering why my biological mother had given me up. I had a mother. My adoptive mother. And we got along like trees and robots.
The knowledge that I was adopted had always just been there, like an extra finger or a third nipple. Occasionally I whipped it out when the need to establish my own individuality arose, but if people wanted to make it the focus of a conversation, I checked out. To me, the novelty of being adopted had lost its charm years ago. Third nipples and extra fingers aren’t that interesting to those who have them.
Ellen continued to ransack the heap of laundry on her bed. “I cannot believe I lost the phone again,” she said. “You’ll find a new pair of boots before I find the fucking phone.”
But I’d stopped looking for platform boots. Instead, I stared at Yahoo!’s homepage. Then I typed “adoption reunions” into a search bar.
Every now and then, I looked into finding my biological family. But I wasn’t one of those adopted kids who pined tirelessly over my lost biological ties. My adoption had been a Welfare case. Closed. I knew how slim the chances were that I’d actually find my mother.
Once, for a high school math project, I’d made a pie graph showing the percentage of adult adoptees actively searching for their bio-families. All I’d wanted was credit for a statistics assignment, not for my presentation to turn into some impromptu Socratic debate about adoption confidentiality versus the rights of the relinquished.
But the entire class asked: Didn’t I want to know?
I’d shrugged and said, “I don’t think about it that much. Though sometimes I wonder who’s responsible for my lack of height. Thanks to them, I can’t ride certain rollercoasters.” Giggles all around.
Then my presentation took a turn for the worse. Classmates began talking amongst themselves about adoption politics. One girl said, “Well, it’s, like, the mother’s right to remain anonymous!” Her statement was quickly challenged by a boy who said, “No. It’s the kid’s right to know where he or she came from. Abby has a right to know why she looks like that!”
I began to panic. Jabbing my finger at a thin orange slice from a pie graph, I shouted over the hubbub: “Just look at the stats, folks!” I shouted. The classroom fell silent. “This tiny slice here represents the 2-4% of adult adoptees actively looking for their biological parents. This means that 96-98% of them aren’t looking. It’s a waste of energy.”
Still stunned by my professorial call to attention, the room remained hushed.
“Here’s the thing,” I continued, “20,000 adopted people are actively searching for their parents each year. When you really think about it, 20,000 is not that many people. Not when there are, like, billions of people in the U.S. All the adopted adults not looking have better things to do. Like eat pie.”
Then I drew a little pie slice oozing cherries on the blackboard and strutted back to my seat, smiling. That was at least worth a C+.
The search engine results on Ellen’s computer were predictably myriad. A thousand sites. Ten thousand, maybe. I scanned the first page. One site offered to do the internet rummaging for me. All they needed was some basic information.
My parents had been generous with what little knowledge they had about my biological folks. They told me that I was given up by someone who loved me and wanted me to have a better life. As a little kid in my shiny, nice clothes, shoving Cheerios and crayons down my trap, I didn’t disagree. Growing up, my favorite book was Why Was I Adopted? Within this beloved little tome of mine was an illustration of a grinning toddler’s head squeezing from the mouth of a gumball machine. The cartoon was innocuous and fun – a little kiddie conversation-starter. I’d giggle at the picture, shaking my head. Then I’d say, “Babies don’t come from gumball machines!” After which Mom or Dad would jump in, on cue: “That’s right! Babies come from mommies. And sometimes these mommies have a hard time so they don’t keep their babies.”
Then I’d frown, expressing sorrow for those poor children, wherever they might be.
I typed in my name – Abigail Elizabeth Higgs – and grimaced. So Puritanical. The members of my immediate adoptive family were tall and tan with thick brown hair. I was their exact opposite. Sometimes I entertained the idea that folks who didn’t know my backstory wondered how I came to be, this little genetic anomaly with golden blonde hair and blue eyes. Had my mother secretly mated with an albino? In the second grade, I told my friends that I was a pilgrim being raised by Indians. “In real life,” I’d said. “There are tomahawks all over my house.”
I looked around guiltily to make certain Ellen wasn’t on to what I was doing. She was across the room, smoking a cigarette, staring bewildered at the heap of laundry on her bed. I didn’t want to explain why I’d suddenly switched from looking for shoes to looking for my family. I really had no proper excuse anyway. Maybe impulsive behavior is genetic.
I typed in the name of the town in which I’d been born: Rushville, Indiana. Though my birth certificate claimed my adoptive parents as my legal guardians, it claimed Rushville as my official birthplace, the town in which I’d been relinquished. Rushville was an agricultural dirt town about an hour’s drive southwest of Richmond. I’d ditched school once in the twelfth grade and drove to Rushville to nose around and peek at its citizens -- check out their noses and eyes and stature. Anyone who was five feet tall or under and toe-headedly blonde was an instant familial candidate. At the Rushville Burger King, for nearly a half-hour, I ogled a blonde worker while she swept the dining room floor. I was several feet away at my table, hunched over a box of nuggets and fries. At first, all I could make out were tufts of flaxen hair spouting from beneath her black baseball cap. I noticed that, when she bent over, her thick glasses slid down the bridge of her nose. Just like mine. She was slightly overweight, had a paunch that folded in a gingham wave just above her waistline. But I thought I could see a slight semblance in her profile, some similar facial features to mine. She worked her mouth around the way I sometimes do when frustrated. Her nose, from where I sat, seemed bulbous at its tip, like mine. Certainly, we had a similar taste in work productivity. She was whistling, seemingly happy at the pace in which she worked. Not too quick but with a distinct beat: Swish, swish, step. Swish, swish, step. As she inched closer to me, I pulled my bangs in front of my face and kept my eyes down. Maybe a sister, I thought, chewing on a fry. When a deep voice asked, “You done with that nugget box?” I looked up and blinked.
It wasn’t a woman at all, but a middle-aged man with a tragic Dutch boy haircut.
I took off.
Ellen had abandoned her search for the phone in her bedroom; opting, instead, to try looking in the kitchen. I could hear her crashing around, picking up and slamming down pots and pans.
The website needed my birth date.
I’d figured once that, with its population of roughly 5,000 in the early eighties, I was probably the only birth in Rushville on Sept. 3rd, 1980. During the same day as my Burger King visit, I’d stopped in the local hospital, looking for the birth records department. Closed. Even worse, there wasn’t a Neonatal/Delivery ward anymore. It had been shut down due to its high infant-mortality rate.
The last bit of information required was the answer to one simple question: Who’s looking? A list of options appeared in a drop menu: “biological daughter, biological son, birth mother, birth father, or ‘other’”? I clicked on “biological daughter,” wondering what constituted an “other.”
Then I hit “submit.” A little hour glass appeared on the screen with tiny pixelated grains of sand falling from its top chamber to its bottom, over and over and over again.
Ellen came stomping back into the room. “I found it!” she shouted triumphantly, holding the cordless phone above her head in much the same way baby Simba had been held in The Lion King. “It was in the dog bowl the whole time.”
Then, a bleep. The computer screen was yellow. On it, two red words were blinking: MATCH FOUND. MATCH FOUND. MATCH FOUND. I strained closer to the monitor. My glasses slid down my nose. A joke, I thought. I’ll click on those words and get an offer for twenty free screensavers.
I clicked the words. Another hour glass. Ads, I thought. A lousy, cruel marketing scheme. Can’t find your mom? Well, choose from over thirty sad puppies to paste as your wallpaper!
“What have you been doing?” Ellen asked.
I pointed at the screen. “Couldn’t find those boots I liked. But I think I just found my biological mother.”
The computer winked. A new yellow page with red words:
Judy searching for Biological Daughter, born September, 3rd, 1980, Rush Memorial Hospital, Rushville, IN.
“Holy shit, Abby.”
For a moment, neither of us spoke. It wasn’t an ad. At least, it didn’t look like one. There weren’t dancing stars or blinking smileys on the edge of the computer screen. I was skeptical. Too easy, I thought. Remember, 20,000 people a year actively searching for their biological parents equal a bunch of aging adopted folks with nothing better to do. Now I was one of them.
I shook my head in defiance.
This had to be a scam. I wasn’t stupid.
“This is a scam,” I said, crossing my arms. “I’m not stupid.”
“I don’t think so.” Ellen pointed at the screen. “Look, they want your phone number.”
I typed in my phone number.
But why had the site posted the name Judy?
I grabbed my notebook from my bag and wrote the name down: Judy. Then, I wrote it down again, in block letters: Juday. Then again, in my most fanciful cursive: Judea. And again, in my regular handwriting: Judith?
“Stop,” Ellen said, “Weirdo. Turn it off.”
The screen bleeped once more.
My confirmation number was 2429.
Abby Higgs received her MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from The University of Baltimore. Her works have appeared in various print and online journals. Currently, she lives in Baltimore with her buddy, Evan.