It disappeared, effectively vanishing the moment I turned my head back to the screen. There had been an electronic message on my phone, sent to me from some unknowable location, filled with personal information. At first I thought this was a scam. Everybody receives endless junk emails and voicemails and voice phone calls and texts, and I assumed this was another intrusion. Apparently it wasn’t. It had caught my attention with a couple of keywords. It identified me and my sister, my father, and extended family members in a distant state who were now deceased. I opened the note with only the barest glint of interest, thinking it was junk. Then, from the first line, I read the note with a growing sense of surprise, even shock. Here was a tether to unknown parts of my own past, sent by an author who had just—did I see this correctly?—completed a book about two distant relatives, and had discovered information that she thought my current family might like to have.
The sun had not yet risen. I was still foggy from sleep, trying quietly to organize my morning while others in the house had not yet awoken. I set my phone down, dropped a pair of socks that had been in my other hand, and bent to pick them up. Then I turned back to the screen with the intention of leaving myself a reminder to write back to this person later in the day. The screen glowed silently; the message was gone.
A minor panic ensued. I had just found this person, or, more precisely, she had just found me. Because I was unfamiliar with the messaging tool that she had used, I didn’t know what I had done to exile her note into the digital void. I had hardly digested her initial message and it was now gone. I even wondered for a moment if I had misinterpreted some sort of old message from someone else, rationalizing an explanation to myself. But no. Couldn’t be. I’d deleted it. A growing unease provoked an increasingly agitated expenditure of time that I really didn’t have as I clumsily searched the web for solutions to recover deleted messages. Unfortunately that effort yielded bad news: wasn’t going to happen, at least not easily.
The morning extended out in front of me. When I had climbed out of bed a few minutes before, I didn’t know this information about distant relatives even existed, to say nothing of a sleuthy author who had amassed it. Now this thing that I hadn’t known about no longer existed. I lost something that was nonexistent moments before; I lost the weightless mass of non-existence. There hadn’t been an absence at the start of the day but as I sat in my kitchen about to re-enter the world a new absence opened. I couldn’t write back to this person asking her to reconnect, because I hadn’t yet captured her name.
Unexpected circumstances, ipso facto, always provoke surprise. For a moment I even contemplated pretending that there hadn’t been a message all. My day had not been dependent on this new information before I received it. My day-to-day life had not been in pursuit of any new family connections. If I never re-connected with this mysterious messenger, nothing would change.
My contemplation didn’t last long. There was no way to ignore the inevitable.
I had been particularly compelled by what I thought she had said about some sort of document cache in the basement of my distant relatives’ home. The pair to whom she referred were legendary academics, vital in their fields, and philanthropically generous. Their archives might contain extraordinary finds.
I sat back in my chair, aware of time disappearing around me, and then resolved to head out to my car.
Throughout the entire experience there was one familiar aspect, however. When I get a creative idea – – for a film, and article, a photograph, whatever -– I am aware that there are always influences just beyond my reach ready to brush it aside. I am aware that my ideas are only lasting if they can be captured and preserved. I am aware that everything is ephemeral, and there’s no way to get it back once it disappears. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
Pale orange sunlight was just beginning to sneak in through my kitchen window. I swept my car keys from the table and headed to my car. Some unknown someone had influenced my morning, my day, my life. I didn’t know her; I hadn’t expected her. Then, like the end of nighttime darkness, her direct influence disappeared, without a single trace of evidence that it had even existed.
I didn’t have her contact information, and I didn’t have the information she offered to share. But I did have the roots of a good story, and for that, I also have a wry sense of gratitude to the mysterious person who reached out unexpectedly one morning to tell me about a distant part of my life.
POST SCRIPT — In the weeks since this blog was written I did some investigative digging based on limited clues, and to my great surprise I found the author of the original. I was never able to dig up here original message to me, but by searching for recent publications about my two relatives, followed up with a series of phone calls and emails, I ultimately connected! Now new adventures await.