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A Past Without Pictures

When you adopt a child at an older age, putting together a history can be Katherine Sanders

It was an innocent idea. A group of 12-year-old girls were brainstorming about how to add some fun to their soccer team's holiday party. One of the girls suggested that they all bring in baby photos, and then have everyone try to match each photo with the correct girl. While most of the girls liked the idea, my normally vivacious daughter became very quiet.

Adopted at the age of nine, Lea does not have any baby photos. The oldest photo she will ever have of herself is the one that was given to my husband and me when we were in the process of adopting her.

Lea is about eight years old in the photograph. She is posed stiffly in front of a small wooden hut. She is barefoot and dressed in dirty clothes that are several sizes too small for her. Her dark eyes glare at the camera with curiosity and—possibly—fear of the unusual piece of equipment they were pointing at her.

Lea tells me that everyone who knew her when she was a baby said she was very cute. I have no doubt that she was, but she has no photos or physical records of the first seven years of her life. No snapshots of her as a newborn sporting a tiny pink hat. No formal first-birthday portrait or preschool class picture. And, though she was assigned a birth date for legal purposes, she's well aware that no one knows the exact day of her birth—a common fact of life in a poor, rural town.

There is a striking contrast between the serious, eight-year-old girl in the photo and the preteen who looks at it now. Lea is smart, confident, athletic, and popular. She has become very comfortable with cameras, both as a photographer and as a subject. Yet underneath this happy veneer is the undeniable fact that her short life has been permeated by irreplaceable loss. She lost her birth family, was taken away from her birth culture, and, without any baby or toddler photos, she has no tangible record of her youngest years.

One evening, Lea was watching over my shoulder as I browsed the Internet on my computer. She saw a photo of a sweet-looking toddler on the homepage of a Cambodian Web site. "Who's that girl?" Lea asked. "She's so cute. Can I print that picture out and tell people that was me?" The request took me aback, but her point was clear.

Sometimes, it seems as though Lea is treading water—moving fast-forward through her new life and, at the same time, trying to grab onto some undeniable proof of her past, hoping for some sort of verification of her fading memories. It's as if she's looking for confirmation that, yes, she did have a life before she was adopted.

As parents, we want to be able to do everything for our children. But as parents of a child who was adopted at an older age, there are some things we just can't do. There are gaps that we will never be able to fill, questions that we will never be able to answer. And, alas, there are those precious photo albums we'll never be able to complete.

Katherine Sanders is a copywriter and freelance writer who lives in Merrick, New York. She and her husband adopted their daughter in 2003 and their son in 2000.

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