David Lauderdale

Lauderdale: Lowcountry's Ellen Malphrus learns novel approach to life

Ellen Malphrus and Pat Conroy sign books at the launch party for her first novel, "Untying the Moon" at the Heyward House in Bluffton on Oct. 16, 2015. Conroy wrote the foreword, and the book is part of the USC Press' Story River Books imprint edited by Conroy.
Ellen Malphrus and Pat Conroy sign books at the launch party for her first novel, "Untying the Moon" at the Heyward House in Bluffton on Oct. 16, 2015. Conroy wrote the foreword, and the book is part of the USC Press' Story River Books imprint edited by Conroy. Staff photo

It was the schooner Hesperus,

That sailed the wintry sea;

And the skipper had taken his little daughter,

To bear him company.

Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,

Her cheeks like the dawn of day,

And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,

That ope in the month of May.

Ellen Malphrus breathes life into these old words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when she thinks of her mother.

Malphrus is the same age now as she launches her new life as a published novelist as her mother was when cancer snuffed out her remarkable life in the small Lowcountry town of Ridgeland.

Surely it would please Patricia Ann Lowther Malphrus, who everyone called Patsy, to see Ellen today, touring with Pat Conroy to introduce her book "Untying the Moon."

The flattering reviews by the best Southern writers aren't the kind of thing you'd predict coming from a poor corner of a poor state, where people call it the "Corridor of Shame" and there are more eight-point bucks than Ph.D.'s like the one Malphrus earned at the feet of James Dickey.

Ellen Malphrus was gazing over the May River from her Bluffton home when I asked about her mother last week. When I lived in Ridgeland 40 years ago, I knew Ellen as a high school newspaper editor and her mother as a smiling, pretty woman who was different.

After reciting the full narrative of Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus," Ellen Malphrus said that, yes, her mother lured her down her unusual Lowcountry trail.

Ellen was memorizing poetry when she was 3 years old. She was read to until all the books were memorized and her mother had to create her own stories, which was the best part.


Patsy married a larger-than-life figure in town, attorney Joseph N. "Jody" Malphrus, and they reared three children across the street from the Jasper County Courthouse. They roller-skated on its wide walkways and snuck up back stairs to sit in a grand jury box and watch their father the raconteur acting on the stage of life.

Ellen Malphrus grew up to be a poet, now novelist, and teacher of English at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

Deborah Malphrus grew up to be a Family Court judge and was the youngest person and first female to chair the Palmetto Electric Cooperative board.

Joseph N. "Joey" Malphrus Jr. grew up to be the Jasper County probate judge and mayor of Ridgeland.

Their daddy was the first in his immediate family to graduate from college, working his way through Carolina with five jobs, including pool shark.

Higher education in their family wasn't a question of if, but where, what -- and when.


For Patsy Malphrus, college came later in life. And she aced it.

"It's a very interesting scenario to be a college student at the same time as your mom," Ellen Malphrus said.

For a while, they were both students at USCB, commuting with others from Ridgeland to Beaufort.

Patsy Malphrus may not have had the degree when the kids were growing up, but she had the intellect. She was well-read. She subscribed to Time and Newsweek, windows on the world that were not available on a local newsstand.

During the Vietnam War, Patsy Malphrus sometimes wore Army fatigues she had embroidered with a peace sign. She had a hippy poster with the Bible verse about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

"Mom schooled us in a lot of things, including politics and current events," Ellen Malphrus said. "She made us aware of the Vietnam War and the reasons we had no business being there and the reasons lives were being needlessly lost."

Patsy Malphrus was accepted into the Medical University of South Carolina even before getting her degree from the College of Charleston.

She started med school but switched to Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, where she earned two master's degrees. She became a social worker who wrote the AIDS policy for Delaware County, Pa., Ellen Malphrus said.


Patsy and Jody Malphrus were divorced as their lives drifted apart, but Ellen Malphrus calls it a technicality. Neither ever remarried, and her mother came home for Christmas.

For most of Patsy's life, chronic asthma threatened to snuff out her ebullient, whimsical, hugging personality.

But in the end, it was a slow attack by cancer that led to her death at only 56.

Ellen Malphrus reaches across her desk to touch a treasured copy of "A Child's Garden of Verses" that her mother got her in an antique store.

And then off she goes reciting the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, placed in her heart by a most unusual mother.

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.

He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;

And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

Follow columnist and senior editor David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale and facebook.com/david.lauderdale.16.