I can't say for certain what the first message revealed, or even whom she had written. Because it was not only messages from Richard Polloco and messages meant for Richard Polloco that I read during that time, but others too, e-mails that my mother wrote to her friend Jane, hundreds, thousands of words, to explain, to justify, to excuse herself. What I do remember is the letter, a real United States Postal Service letter that I found in the box in the hall, the place we put outgoing mail. I noticed it because it was addressed to him, to Richard Polloco, in Tribbey, Wisconsin. My mother was in the kitchen making up a shopping list, and she must have set it there for just a minute. Richard Polloco. I already knew enough to think, I shouldn't pick this up, and I don't want to pick this up, and How can I keep from picking this up? I held it to the light, and I could see the scrap of paper inside. I could see the scrap, the size of a stamp, so small you couldn't write more than a single word on it. That's what I thought: What did she write that could be more than a single word? I held the envelope up in part because it was seemingly empty. At the angle, with the aid of the lamp, it was impossible not to see that single word on the slip of paper. You. That's all she had written. But that single word had weight. I knew enough by then to understand, to feel, if I'd wanted to, the ache in that short word.
It is true that the subject of love, generally, is exhausted, but a person can still go on for a good long time about the specifics of a love scene, including the setting and then who said what and why, and how it made the listener feel. One of the first e-mails I read, and perhaps the very first one, was my mother's message to her friend Jane, back in Vermont. "This is an old story," she began. "There is nothing new in it." What she was doing, she said, was hardly noteworthy because it had been acted and reenacted countless times before. For me, during that year, the story had no elements that felt in any way worn.
I don't believe that everything a person has seen and done is stored in the brain, there to retrieve if only you can pick the right lock. In fact, I blame the brain for making us as selective as we are, for editing out what we don't want to hear, for refusing to take hold of what could be the important detail. Still, if I have forgotten the first message, I have the sense of what it could have been. "This is an old story," my mother began. "There is nothing new in it." The seemingly shopworn tale my mother inhabited did not stop her from recounting, through the year, at great length, her feelings, her guilt, her despair, as well as the particulars--terrible in their vividness--of her journeys to see Richard Polloco in Wisconsin. Rpoll, he was, at luge.com.
This is how our family was back then, not so long ago, less than a decade ago: Elvira Shaw, thirteen; myself, Henry Shaw, seventeen; Beth Gardener Shaw, thirty-eight; Kevin Shaw, forty-three. We had moved from a small town in Vermont to Chicago when I was fourteen. My parents seemed to feel that the upheaval, the trauma, of moving from one culture to another, from Mercury to Pluto, in effect, was worth it for all of our educations. I still ask myself regularly what it was, actually, that they were thinking. My father is a high school history teacher, a job that combines the skills of preaching, mudslinging, acting, and arm-twisting. You take his American history survey course and you can never again celebrate a holiday such as Columbus Day or Memorial Day or Presidents' Day with any sense of national pride. After my father has done his song and dance, you know more than you wanted to about the roughly 9 million Native Americans who died between 1642 and 1800. You are filled with disgust, dismay, and self-loathing because a complex civilization, a creative and by and large generous civilization, was wiped out. My father was offered a position at the Jesse Layton School in the tony Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago. At the time I didn't catch the detail that he'd been fired from his job in Vermont, probably because too many of his students felt disgust, dismay, and self-loathing after learning about their heritage.
Excerpted from Disobedience by Jane Hamilton. Copyright© 2000 by Jane Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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