On February 21, 2002, I met my father. He had been briefly married to my mother, disappeared when I was an infant, and while we had spoken briefly when he appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, at my mother’s funeral on that day, we do not know each other.
Twenty years later, at age 56, I wanted to change that.
I tracked down my father’s phone number and, lacking the courage to call, sent him a carefully constructed text message that read as follows: Hi ______. This is Teri Lynn, the daughter you had with Judy. I hope this message finds you happy and healthy! I will be in [our small, southeast Missouri town, pop. 15,500] for a few days and was wondering if you would be interested in meeting for a short time?
He wrote back: Monday Wednesday or Thursday between 9 and 1. Please let me know.
When I sent a screenshot of our texts to my adult kids, one of them replied: You sound like a cheerleader and he sounds like he’s making a dental appointment!
Two days later, I was in my father’s house. As I sat with him at his kitchen table, excited, nervous, a little scared, studying his face, his hands, his mannerisms, looking for clues, I noted he kept his laptop open in front of him, and that he kept glancing at it throughout our hour and a half together.
I had so many questions! I wanted to know how he met my mother, if he loved her, why he left, if he ever thought about me, and what he’d done with his life. My mind had conjured up such a list!
What did my 77-year-old father want to talk about? Facebook.
He first told me he could not get over how much I looked like my mother and that he often runs into my stepdad around town (they live about three miles apart). But then, waving a finger at the laptop, launched into detail about how his sister had long ago “blackballed” him on Facebook, even though the daughter he abandoned before me (another wife and baby) had not yet “blackballed me on here.”
He went on to describe how he and his Facebook friends were always warning each other not to accept friend requests because they might be fake, which led him to believe my text message, though not Facebook-related, might be fake. How had I gotten his phone number? Why, after all these years, he wondered aloud, would I want to talk to him?
I took contemporaneous notes. These were the first five minutes of my first conversation with my father.
We often hear high-level, broad-spectrum arguments about how Facebook is dangerous for kids and sows division. Whistleblower Frances Haugen, who came forward last fall, said in a June 3 interview with Bloomberg, “the algorithm changes they made in 2018, to go from just trying to keep you on the site as long as possible, to trying to optimize for eliciting a reaction from you, changed what content got amplified.”
Thinking back on my conversation with my father, I wonder how many of us feel we have lost our parents or our grandparents to Facebook? And how significant is the role Facebook plays in our normal, everyday, small-town lives?
I live in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, population 12,000, a town close to the size of my Missouri hometown. Facebook is king here. We have a weekly newspaper and no local TV, so Facebook is how we learn about, well, everything: breaking news, candidates for elections, sports, and school updates, events, funerals, fundraisers, etc… And then there is the unregulated comments section of our newspaper’s Facebook page, which often devolves into conspiratorial or just downright mean-spirited exchanges, often amongst older adults.
At my birth father’s kitchen table, we talked briefly about my mother. His cousin was dating her best friend, and he was 19 and already divorced when he met her at the Pizza King on Broadway. She got pregnant with me. It was 1965. They had to get married.
When summer came, he said, he left for two weeks of National Guard camp and my mother went to a party after he’d told her not to. “I told your mom ‘if you go to that stinkin’ party, there ain’t gonna be no more me, and I meant it.’”
I asked if my mother, who was at least seven months pregnant at the time, had done something bad at this party. Was she with another man? Did she lie about something? “I don’t know,” he said defensively, sitting back, arms folded. “I didn’t ask.” He left my mother not long after I was born.
I had never heard any of this from my mother and was shocked by his bluntness. His story made no sense to me. There had to be another reason, a bigger reason. But he was finished talking about my mother and went back to Facebook.
He tapped his laptop with his fingers and explained that he preferred “talking to people on here” instead of the phone because he doesn’t like to wear his hearing aids, which he indicated were laying on the kitchen counter. He then explained how he’d tried to find me on Facebook a few times but there were too many women on there with the same name and returned to his suspicions about how I had gotten his phone number.
He was clearly agitated. In the same, accusatory way he’d told the story of my mother going to the party, he said he’d heard that I’d unfriended or blocked his adopted foster son on Facebook, a man who now lived in Tennessee. What did I have to say about that?
It took me a few seconds, but yes, I remembered blocking the man he described, a stranger, more than a decade ago. My father stared at me over his laptop, arms crossed as if waiting for me to explain this perceived slight. This took me aback.
Thankfully, my interviewing experience as a writer kicked in and I changed the subject, asking if he spent a lot of time online and if he had favorite websites or news outlets. He followed along. “Nah,” he said. “I like Facebook because I can get on there and say what I need to say and get off,” and I went on to ask the basic, getting-to-know-you questions: What subjects did he like in school? (math) Did he play sports? (no, that was for rich kids) What did he do before he retired? (shipping and receiving clerk for a department store) Did he have any health concerns? (type 2 diabetic) Drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol? (no, ma’am) Does he like to travel? (heck no) Read books or watch movies? (neither) He spends his time on Facebook.
A 2021 Pew Research study showed that “Americans ages 65 and older are the least likely age group to use Facebook, with half saying they do so. But that still represents a 30 percentage point increase since August 2012, when just 20% reported using it.”
In rural America, I would argue this number is much higher. Recall the Facebook whistleblower’s revelations about how their 2018 algorithm changes not only kept users on the site as long as possible but actively worked to elicit a reaction? Based on what I experience personally and hear from friends and family in small-town Kentucky and Missouri, Facebook is often discussed — and not in a positive manner — as the primary means for communicating with our parents and grandparents.
Case in point: In 2019, I wrote a story for The Washington Post about how my stepfather and I had not spoken for almost three years, an argument that began with something he’d posted about the KKK on Facebook. I told him he should take the post down. He refused. I insisted. He unfriended me. Then he stopped calling. And that was that.
Thankfully, my stepdad and I were able to salvage our relationship. We still disagree on politics, but this has always been the case and does not matter any more today than it did in 2015 or 2005. We talk at least once a week. We love seeing each other. Our saving grace, I believe, is that we are not Facebook friends.
Back in February, as our first visit wound down, I could hear the theme music for “The Young and the Restless” coming from the living room, where his wife had gone so we could talk alone. The song reminded me of childhood summers spent at my grandmother’s house while my mother worked. While my father was missing.
Now it is June — the month we celebrate Father’s Day — and I feel a bit like my birth father is still missing. We have not talked since we met, though I know the one place I am sure to find him. All I have to do is hit the “add friend” button.
Teri Carter writes about rural Kentucky politics. You can find her work at the Lexington Herald-Leader, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. She has a BA in English from the University of Minnesota and an MFA in nonfiction writing from San Jose State University. She teaches at The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington and is working on a book about stepfamilies.