Canoes at Phalen Lake, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1905.

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By Mandy Webster

The Florist’s Daughter. Patricia Hampl. Harcourt, Inc. 2007.

Patricia Hampl’s memoir, The Florist’s Daughter, is a wordy trip down the historic path of both Hampl’s life and her home town of St. Paul, Minnesota. Hampl practices her lifetime habit of taking notes at the bedside of her dying mother while wending her way through memories of her middle class life in the middle of America.

While holding her mother’s hand, the author shares a plethora of memories of her ‘ordinary’ parents who seem extraordinary to her simply because they are hers. And, while the title of the book may be The Florist’s Daughter, this memoir seems to me to be more about the complex relationship the author has with her librarian mother than with her florist father.

Although I found the first half of the memoir, with its beautifully written, often poetic prose dry (‘writerly’ writing bores me to tears,) I am glad that I pressed on and finished the book. More than once, I almost set it down and moved on to something else, at one time even noting, “Just as no one wants to read about a writer’s every dream, no one wants to read about every writer’s parents. We all have our own ordinary parents to remember.” Yes, I am a consummate note taker myself.

Early in this piece, Hampl employs the use of so many pretty words, or “airy nothings,” as her mother would have called them, it’s no surprise to the reader to learn Hampl describes herself first and foremost as a poet. She repeats herself quite a bit, often saying the same thing over and over, each time in a different manner.

Where the memoir really begins to take off is near the end, around the time of Hampl’s father’s death. Stan Hampl, ever the protector of his daughter’s innocence, is no longer there to buffer his little girl from the world.

As the elder Hampls’ generation begins to die out, all of the little truths of an overprotected lifetime are revealed. The lies we’re told as children to keep us innocent are revealed, human nature as it truly is, becomes apparent, and we feel cheated. This begs the question, “why?” Why do we lie to our children knowing full well that the truth has an uncanny way of finding the light?

Excerpt: (Spoiler Alert)

Wasn’t it amazing, I remarked to my brother, how lucky that was — Nana saving Aunt Lillian from the rapist. Of course, being almost raped had to be scary too.

“What are you talking about?” he said.

“How Aunt Lill was almost raped. Didn’t you know?”

“Who told you that? She wasn’t almost raped. She was raped. Some guy in the neighborhood.”

The fantasias of the kithcen table, rococo descriptions festooning a life. The duplicitous double accounting, keeping two books — one story for the boy (he can take the truth), one for the girl (she must be protected).

The tumbler jiggled in the lock, the heavy safe clicked open, my brother’s truthful blue eyes that don’t lie looking at me.

Our fearful aunt, checking the gas stove, her manicured finger touching each of the knobs to be sure the fire was off, off, off, counting her shoe boxes. We decided we don’t like it. We just hug.

I asked my brother who it was. The rapist.

Some guy in the neighborhood. They knew him, knew his family. That’s why they didn’t do anything about it. The were funny that way — they were all in it together. Peter shook his head. He’s a forensic dentist, identifies the bad guys who do terrible things, the ones who leave bite marks. Another Justice man. They covered it up. They were all together down there.

But wasn’t that when everything was right, when everyone was together? Nobody had anything. That meant everyone was equal, everyone was happy. The Supreme Court Justice came home from Washington and wanted what we had. Our Nothing Soup.

Another fiction unspooling at the kitchen table from the tight coil of the well-told tale.

Amanda L. Webster

The Medicine Cabinet: Words of Wisdom & Wellbeing for Women

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