Going Home Again

The Florist’s Daughterby Patricia Hampl

Harcourt. 240p $24

As its title suggests, The Florist’s Daughter, the fifth memoir by Patricia Hampl, centers on her own life. In her earlier books, personal revelations were filtered through experiences of Prague, Assisi and the paintings of Matisse. But this is hardly a tell-all autobiography. Hampl is seeking to understand the forces behind her own life’s trajectory, in particular her decision to stay a dutiful daughter in her native St. Paul, Minn., despite her early impulse to head out for the excitements of New York or Paris. She chooses to seek the answer by revisiting significant scenes from her family life, influenced by two remarkable and very different parents.

Holding her dying mother’s hand, a yellow pad on her lap for the obituary she is composing, she recalls how desperately she used to want to get away from her native city of hardworking immigrants. Her mind keeps returning not to her own feelings but to memories of her parents’ lives. Even in dying, this mother is unusual; she wants Patricia to be writing her obituary. She is such a fan of her daughter’s writing that she saves even her refrigerator Post-its.

The daughter’s mind travels in circles of memory that start with remembrances of her mother’s own way with words.  There were often sharp ones to doctors and those of whom she disapproved. Patricia took pride in her mother’s “essential unfairness, throwing guilt like a girl, underhand.”

But Mrs. Hampl was also a spellbinding storyteller who gave her daughter a peephole into the homes of the wealthy neighbors whose parties on Summit Avenue her husband decorated lavishly, providing flowers from the greenhouse he managed and later owned.

Her mother was always confident as she explained their secure middle-class status, and equally so when she implored St. Anthony to find anything, or counseled  her son and daughter to “offer it up,” whatever it was, because everything had a purpose. She was a woman of the world, both in her knowledge of it and in her smoking and drinking, the source of problems in later years.

Her silent father, a worker, not a talker, posed a striking contrast. Hampl admired his skill and high standards as a florist, one who wanted people to see the difference between hand-carved and mass-produced crèches. An instinctive flower arranger, he was a true artist. Tall and handsome, he was greatly admired by the women whose celebrations he beautified with floral settings, and he in turn approved of their grandeur and taste for decoration. Her mother had her own opinions and thought him naïve.

Her father’s greenhouse in the flatland near the river where the Italians and Czechs lived was clearly an important place in Patricia’s young life. Later she worked in his florist shop in the upscale shopping district. Her Czech aunts would swap recipes while her Irish-American mother was reading, creating a certain mutual mistrust, especially when the family moved higher up the hill, nearer Summit Avenue.

The city itself was as much an influence on Hampl’s life as the two sides of her family, and they merge. We learn how different Catholic-immigrant St. Paul was from Lutheran-Scandinavian Minneapo-lis. When a flood destroys the Italian section of the flatlands, father and daughter take a dangerous car ride through the muddy area, one of many such trips the two take to small decaying villages north of the city. Studying her father, she realizes that he is taking mental photographs of his world even as it is disappearing. He is a silent artist, his own audience.

One of his few inner revelations is made much later as she drives him, a sick man, to his regular sessions at the heart doctor. Almost accidentally he confesses that he had looked forward to the peace of being alone. Her mother had become too much to handle after numerous diseases, accidents and operations, which finally affected her mind and left her blind. When on this visit the doctor says he can get him into a hospice, Stan Hampl replies that he would rather buy a Buick. He and Patricia buy a gold one that day. Six months later he dies.

Hampl is never sentimental; she spares neither negatives nor painful self-revelations, speaking to us as if in intimate conversation. It is amazing how absorbing and amusing she makes this memoir, when so much of it deals with her care for her declining parents. Only at the end of her mother’s life does her daughter discover that her mother had always wanted to be a writer herself. And she is now aware that the urge to go to where things are happening, to New York and Paris, was a youthful illusion. Everything one seeks will find you out—“danger, beauty, trouble enough, will come of its own accord…. Elsewhere, it turns out, is right here.”

It takes a wise woman to see her own shaping in the closely observed details of her “ordinary” parents’ lives. It takes a writer who can produce vivid metaphors, lively dialogue and sharp visual descriptions to make such material not only absorbing but entertaining.


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