"Can you look up Charlie on your magic box?" my mother asks. "Magic box" is her name for computers and Charlie is the name of the only man she ever loved.
I'm visiting her in the tiny Sacramento delta town she lives in. I've come prepared with my laptop and the Wi-Fi code, so I go ahead and log in.
"I wonder if he's still alive and if he's remarried. At the very least, he's retired by now," she says, not as much to me, but as a prompt to her deteriorating memory. Charlie, she can remember, but where she left her cane, that's another matter. It's funny what information her brain considers important enough to save or trivial enough to delete.
Like a lot of women her age, my mother hates technology of any kind and has never owned a computer. Every time I visit her from LA, I have to search beforehand for whatever dial-up number there is for that area or beg the dentist's office next door for use of their password. If neither of those two options are available, I'm forced to sit in front of the library (behind my mother's house) on a grated steel bench and use their Wi-Fi.
Most of the time, my mother's more or less fine without high-speed internet, but occasionally, she'll call and ask me to look up addresses online of fabric shops in order for her to write them a letter and find out if they carry sea-green or cerulean linen. Sometimes, she'll ask me to look up the titles of Kay Francis's films on IMDb. I'm used to doing these kinds of inconsequential tasks for her but searching the internet to find out information about the man she cheated on my father with? This is an entirely new level of discomfort.
I shouldn't be surprised, as my mother isn't someone who considers the comfort level of others—she proudly admits to a lack of empathy for other people. As my mother has aged, she's also gotten much more conservative, so much so, that most discussions I have with her end in a heated argument.
My mother and I aren't particularly close; we're more like strangers connected by blood. Therefore, it was very out of character that day 20 years ago, when she called me without warning, sobbing about her love affair that had ended … again. I had been in college when I had first heard about their breakup and had been unaware that they had ever started up again.
At some point, my mother gave up trying to rekindle their relationship and moved back to the small town that she grew up in, but from time to time, she'll get curious about Charlie and want to find out whatever information she can, proving that even an old technophobe can see how handy computers are when it comes to researching a lost love.
I go to Google and type in his name. Since it's a pretty common Irish name, there are about a million (if not more) results, so at her prompting, I go ahead and randomly click on an image—and voilà, there he is, smiling at the camera.
"See, he always had that thin face. That's why he's such an attractive older man," she says in a girlish way. And the whole thing is incredibly awkward, but I don't want to ruin her short burst of happiness, so I keep quiet and cringe on the inside.
We click the photo and go to the site of a law firm—his law firm—but we can't tell how old the photo is or, more importantly, if he's still working there or is just some type of a figurehead. But we haven't reached a dead end yet, so we continue to look for whatever we can find about Charlie. Unfortunately, he's like many seniors who have a small internet presence, and there's not a lot to go on.
Just for fun, we search Facebook (nothing) and then Twitter. After checking out a few tweets, I decide that the number of Twitter users with Charlie's name are not the one we're looking for. I'm guessing he didn't have a second career as a rapper. I don't even bother with Instagram or Snapchat.
We're now in full cyberstalker mode when things take a serious turn—I decide to look for an obituary. And there it is, his funeral notice, indicating that he's been deceased for more than five years. My mother reads the guest book on his page, gets tears in her eyes and shakes her head in agreement when she reads the comments about his terrific sense of humor and how he was a cherished member of his community.
"Yes, that makes sense," she mutters.
She must've known there was a strong possibility that he'd be deceased, but that's the thing about love–no matter how old you are, it remains hopeful. Later, I print out his photo, which she puts on her refrigerator as if it's a coupon for a free jar of peanut butter.
"He's still handsome," my mother says. Eventually, the photo will come down when it's curling up at its edges, but she won't say what she did with it. I like to think that she looks at it from time to time, remembering what it was like to be young and in love.