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Poet plucks at petals of her life

The Baltimore Sun

In the opening pages of her memoir, The Florist's Daughter, Patricia Hampl sits determinedly by a hospital bed, holding her mother's unconscious hand while writing the obituary of this difficult woman with her other hand.

Refusing to sleep and to acknowledge that one day has passed into another -- "we won't reach today until this is over, the time warp we entered three days ago" -- she waits for her "daughterdom" to end.

The death of the mother will be the death of the daughter, too. When this is over, she will be something completely different. And she isn't sure what that will be.

It is a moment, a turning point, in life that so many women will recognize. It is very often we, the daughters, who become the caregivers to our declining parents, and we are determined not to leave anything undone. After all, our parents only die once. It will be we, the survivors, who have to live with, and relive, their exits. It is not a time for mistakes or selfishness.

In this stopped time, as her mother's death approaches, Hampl remembers her life with her parents and wonders, "Who are these people?" And she wonders about her own life. "How is it that I never got away?"

This is an utterly beautiful book. Hampl is a poet, and her prose is rich and dense with image and meaning, the way poetry can be.

It is dedicated to her brother, Peter, who escaped to the West Coast while she remained behind, caring for her increasingly frail parents. Her father, with his heart attacks, and her mother, with her seizures and her strokes.

The title evokes her father, a St. Paul, Minn., florist who catered to the "carriage trade," in a time before stamped-out arrangements by FTD, when she could watch him from her stool in the shop magically create beauty out of a pile of flowers.

She favors him, she thinks. "I was on my father's side -- the side of trusting people and pleasing them, the side of flowers and winking party lights."

But it is her Irish mother who is the central character in Hampl's examination of her own life, her unassuming middle-class, Midwestern life.

A beautiful woman, who smoked continually and read thick tomes of Irish history and named her furniture and archived everything her daughter wrote, even Post-it notes left on the fridge. Mary Catherine Ann Teresa Eleanor Marum Hampl, as imposing as her name.

And so unlike Hampl's mannerly, modest Czech father. Hampl's mother was skeptical to the point of suspiciousness, ever on guard against "an oppressor on the doorstep, a casual cheat in the accounting department, a hypocrite lurking in the creamy smile."

Though Hampl was the "family hippie, one-time pot smoker and strident feminist who refused for years to marry," she is mystified by the fact that she never managed to escape St. Paul, though she was convinced in her "deep Midwestern faith: that life is elsewhere."

"Nothing is harder to grasp than a relentlessly modest life," she writes.

Hampl, winner of the Mac- Arthur "genius" grant, confirming her mother's ambitions for her, has written four previous memoirs, and she is still trying to figure out how her life happened to her, all the accommodations, all the compromises.

In an earlier volume, Blue Arabesque, Hampl crafted a meditation on Henri Matisse's painting, "Woman Before an Aquarium."

The woman in the painting is seated at a table, head on her arms, staring deeply into a fish bowl crowded with three oversized goldfish. The painting struck her in a powerful way, she wrote, presenting her with "the clairvoyant image of a future I wanted."

In The Florist's Daughter, Hampl achieves that future. With meticulous observation and focused description, she examines her parents' marriage and their influence in her life as that life changes forever, leaving her alone in the fishbowl.


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