Secret Americas | The Lenores | Rita Mae Reese

The Lenores
The man stands behind his camera in Mama’s bedroom. Gene said the President sent him here to take pictures of the ugliest things he can find, but I know Gene just heard Samson saying that. Samson is the ugliest man you ever saw and wouldn’t let anyone take his picture.

I know the man’s not taking pictures of ugly ’cause he took pictures of us on the porch with all of my mama’s flowers and her ivy and even Gene wouldn’t dare say Mama’s plants are ugly.

The man asks me what happened to my dolls. The question makes Mama’s body stiffen so instead of waiting for my answer he asks me what their names are. I tell him their name is Lenore, which is from a poem that Daddy likes and will tell us some nights when he ain’t too tired to remember it and we ain’t hollering and acting foolish too much, which doesn’t happen much mostly because of Gene and Evelyn. Lenore is the prettiest name I ever heard and I asked Mama why they didn’t give me that name but she just laughs and tells me to go on.

I don’t tell him that the chewed feet and hands and the busted head are what made them become real. They don’t need feet anyway because I carry them everywhere. I am sorry about Lenore’s busted head though. I could tell him that she came that way, was like that when Mama found her and knew she needed a special little mother to take care of her. But her head was pretty then and her body all chewed up, left behind in this house by whoever lived here before us. Mama took the head off and sewed up a new body for her even with all the work she had to do cleaning up and getting us all settled here. Even though we’re not going to stay ain’t no call to live like dogs till we do leave, Mama said.

Lenore, the picture man repeats, and I can tell he likes the name too, and I straighten my neck, like a queen.

I could tell him that Gene did it, which is what Mama thinks though I never said he did and he swore to her that he didn’t. What happened is me and Lenore’s secret and it makes her love me even more.

What’s the other two’s names, he says, while he fiddles with his camera some more, asks me to stand over by Mama’s vanity. Lenore, I tell him, and he laughs, looks around the camera at me and then puts his face back behind it. All three of ’em are Lenore?

Well, I did want to give them different names but I felt too sad for the not-Lenores. It isn’t fair to give one the prettiest name and the other two something else.

When I grow up I’m going to name my baby Lenore, I say and watch the burst of light escape into Mama’s eyes.


Secret Americas features writing about images from the U.S. National Archives.

Image via Wikimedia Commons – Daughter of T. J. Martin, miner. Koppers Coal Division, Kopperston Mines, Kopperston, Wyoming County, West Virginia. National Archives and Records Administration College Park

Rita Mae Reese has received a Paumanok Poetry Prize, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Stegner Fellowship, and a “Discovery”/The Nation award. Her first book, The Alphabet Conspiracy, was published by Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press.