How does it happen that a self-proclaimed hippie who lived in communes, who aspired to leave the Midwest and middle class of her childhood in order to become a poet, unfettered by family obligations (no children, and for a long time, no spouse), and to become an expatriate (or at least a New Yorker) ends up as the dutiful daughter who never lives farther than a good walk from her parents’ home in St. Paul, Minnesota? Patricia Hampl explores the complicated answer to that paradox in her fourth memoir, The Florist’s Daughter.
Clearly, Hampl has met at least part of her goal. The author of two books of poetry, four memoirs, and two additional nonfiction books, she is a poet. And yet, as her parents grow old, sicken, and make the slow turn toward death, she realizes that in some essential way she has been defined by their expectations of her as a neo-Victorian daughter. Hampl writes, “I was laid low . . . by the nineteenth-century duties of middle-aged post-modern daughterhood invoked these days by the oily social-work term primary caregiver.” If that line makes Hampl sound bitter, it’s only a momentary mood, a discovery offered near the end of the book, as The Florist’s Daughter is not a complaint, lament, or even confession. Rather, it is a deeply contemplative exploration, a meditation upon how she has become both an artist and dutiful old-style daughter.
The book opens—and closes—with Hampl’s vigil beside her mother’s deathbed, where she confronts what she sees as her failure: “Becoming a [End Page 165] person is the point,” she writes. “Being a child—a daughter—that’s an interim position, a stunted condition.” And if she has, in being what even her mother calls a “Goody Two-shoes” daughter, in some way failed to become a person, she also realizes that “in hours, apparently, I’ll be nobody’s daughter.”
So whose daughter is she before she becomes nobody’s? The book is framed by her mother’s death. Her mother is the last parent to die; thus, that is the death that will end Hampl’s role as daughter. And yet, the florist of the title is Hampl’s father, son of Czech immigrants, and the handsomest guy, according to just about everyone—not least the Irish relatives of her mother, who nevertheless view the union as a “mixed marriage.” The implication is that her mother married beneath her station because she prized beauty over substance. Throughout the book, Hampl ponders whether she is chiefly the daughter of the quiet Czech florist, or the daughter of the more talkative, bookish Irish librarian who prides herself on her Zodiac sign, Leo, and whom Hampl refers to throughout the memoir as “Leo the Lion.”
In her father, Stanislaus Rudolf Hampl, she saw an artist surrounded by the lush, fragrant flowers he cultivated. He was also a man of contradictions. Upwardly mobile, he worked hard to move his family out of the flat-lands where he was raised by parents who immigrated from Bohemia. And yet the greenhouse was a private entry back to that neighborhood, “the old world.” He loved the Minnesota winters, and yet in “the urban farm of the greenhouse . . . he seduced and betrayed the calendar and the clock and of course the climate.” A businessman who saw “the market economy as a sacramental rite,” he was also an inspired designer, student of Japanese flower arrangers, practitioner of organic form. To Hampl, it wasn’t that her father arranged flowers. Instead, “it was himself he arranged, standing at the ready, sharp knife moving over his materials lightly, surely, like a Japanese ink brush.”
His clients were the socialites of St. Paul, women who ordered flowers for their rooms, whether throwing a party or not. He grew flowers for charity balls, church services, weddings, funerals: “Love and flowers, death and flowers. But flowers, flowers, always flowers, the insignia of death, the hope of resurrection.”
In her father’s silence, she saw a kind of...