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Who is She?

Posted by admin on July 7, 2013

The facts are evident.

The little girl stands alone, the calm waters of the Choptank River behind her. She stares unsmiling, perhaps at the one wielding the camera, appearing to take no joy in the sunny day. Her clothes befit her state. Black cloth coat covers her simple dress, black hat her lank hair. Sturdy shoes keep the dampness from her feet.

I know this about that little girl. Her mother died when she was only four. If she is six now, that means two years have passed. For two years, then, she has lived with her widowed aunt and her older cousins, whose lives are filled with finishing school and college and dating. She has not lived with her father, for the father was too busy to care for a young child. And last year, he remarried a woman who already had a child. So here she is, standing alone on the shores of the Choptank.

Who is she?

Her birth certificate says she is Phebe Goldsborough Morse. But there is no one else named Morse in this town, this house. Her aunt and cousins bear the name Lanier. Other cousins are Henrys and Fletchers, even Lloyd. Miss James, the Negro maid, takes care of her.

So, who is she?

If you asked the little girl her name, she would tell you.

“I am Phebe Goldsborough Lanier Miss James Morse,” she says.

Her answer, more than any fact we know about her, reveals the poignancy of her situation. She doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t belong. But, oh, she wants to belong so badly. And so she gives herself the names that belong to others, the names that signal that they have a place to stand.

Phebe grew up and carved out for herself a place in the world. She became a woman of strength, of passion, of verve. Best of all, she became a woman who knew how to reach out to the lonely and give them a place to belong. I know. She was my mother.

What does this mean for the writer?

It means this. There is always something--an object, a phrase, a response, a way of dressing, a method of retreat, something--that will reveal the very heart of a person. Our job as writers is to find that one thing for our characters and shine a light on it. For that is when our character will live.

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