The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl

by Diane Leach

15 March 2009

cover art

The Florist's Daughter

Patricia Hampl

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

“A son is a son until he takes a wife.  A daughter is a daughter for life.” —The Florist’s Daughter

Patricia Hampl began her gorgeous memoir at her dying mother’s bedside, her left hand composing Mary Catherine Teresa Eleanor Marum Hampl’s obituary, her right clasping her mother’s. Mary was close to death: a matter of hours, and Patricia would no longer be anybody’s daughter. A nurse stopped in. Realizing what Patricia was doing, she frowned her disapproval. No matter. Mary Catherine Teresa Eleanor would not have minded. So what began as an ending is instead an investigation of two lives: Mary Marum Hampl’s and her husband’s, Stanislaus Hampl.

The Irish Catholic Mary was “seriously pretty” when she met and married Stan Hampl, the son of Czech immigrants, a man so handsome that the ladies who bought flowers from his shop sometimes made inappropriate advances. He laughed these off. Stan Hampl loved his wife, his children, and his flowers. 

The Hampl family lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, a place where “lives are little, the weather big.” The St. Paul of Patricia’s youth was a provincial place, where Catholicism so dominated that even the Jews explained where they lived by Parish boundary markers. Mary Hampl, a woman of fierce opinions, loathed the Jesuits and English in equal proportion, as furious with them for the Irish famine as if she’d fled it herself. A devotee of thick, serious biographies, she found work in a college library. An acid-tongued child of the Depression, she took ferocious pride in handling the family’s finances, balancing the checkbook perfectly each month, ensuring the Hampls were in debt to nobody.

Yet this same woman was a marvelous storyteller. She often attended the parties of St. Paul’s glittering social elite, where her husband created magnificent floral decorations. Tell me, begged the child Patricia at breakfast the next day. Tell me.  And Mary did. Cigarette in hand, black coffee at the ready, Mary evoked the carpeting in the grand entryway, the women’s ridiculous clear plastic heels, intended to resemble glass slippers, the tables, the food. She described the way visiting feet tamped fresh snow into the Persian rugs, adding that tracking snow into a house was a good idea, bringing necessary humidity to homes crackling with central heating. As she spoke, her gaze fixed upward, her attention far from her rapt child. Patricia watched, frightened. Was Mary about to have a spell?

Mary Hampl spent her life ashamed of her Epilepsy. She allowed no discussion of it, refusing the mention of the word “seizure”. She preferred the archaic “spell”, or just “what happens”. Everyone feared “setting her off.” Prescribed huge doses of Phenobarbital and Dilantin, she was able to control her seizures to some degree. But as every Epileptic (and their loved ones) knows, Epilepsy is insidious, a faulty neurological trickster. Much later, Patricia’s brother Peter, an oral surgeon, realizes their petite mother has spent a lifetime massively overdrugged by foolish doctors.

If Mary Hampl’s allegiance was to words—she often invoked Shakespeare’s “airy nothings” as the sustenance she breathed from books, Stan Hampl was a lover of a less verbal beauty. Educated by European immigrants in the florist’s difficult trade, he learned flower arranging from two Nisei women who fled California’s interment camps for Minnesota. Ever generous, a firm believer in goodness and beauty, Stan hired them. They, in turn, took his gift for flower arrangement to a higher plane. He would stand before a table strewn with cut flowers, his face blank, florist’s knife at the ready, then, suddenly, with great speed, arrange the flowers unerringly, with great originality, as if each blossom had its rightful place in the vase, requiring only the right person to see it and act accordingly. 

While her brother Peter studied science and worked in the florist shop’s business office, Patricia spent time in the glasshouses, learning the proclivities of each frail flower. She also learned about the employees: Rose and Fern, stout women whose husbands beat them; floral designers whose homosexuality was tolerated because they were so good at what they did, though “Occasionally my father would ask someone to cut back on the eye shadow.”

Stan was dedicated to St. Paul, to the carriage trade (as the Hampls called them, long after automobiles displaced equines)  he needed to survive, to the weather, which never fazed him. He adored the cold, wearing only a London Fog raincoat in freezing temperatures. He was a willing slave to the greenhouses producing his delicate, out-of-season flowers, at times rising in the middle of the night to tend failing boilers that would fatally chill his plants. Come summer he was fond of fishing, that most silent and solitary of sports. 

Forever a sort of beautiful fool, Stan overlooked the bouquets gentlemen ordered for women who weren’t their wives, bundling up the decorous bouquets simultaneously mailed home. He ignored the erotic implications of orders for loose flowers instead of firmly anchored, bound stems. He chose to see the beauty of things, even when his business partners cheated him, even as his pretty wife aged into “a handful.” Forced to retire by heart disease, Stan took up painting and violin, slipping the occasional check to his former employers, who were destitute. 

Caught between such parents, it is no surprise that Patricia became a writer. Mary heartily approved, devoting an entire bedroom—“the archive”—to her daughter’s work. Stan was also pleased, if less vociferously.Their daughter’s success was reason for happiness, even after their eldest, Peter, escaped to California. 

Patricia stayed. Minnesota’s provincialism loomed, even mocked, but she stayed, caring for her parents as they aged and began what Mary dubbed “doctoring”.

Hampl’s evocation of the upper Midwest, flyover country, is of a place so firmly fixed that even the proliferation of box stores and sprawl cannot erase it:

Of all the American regions, the Midwest remains the most imaginary, ahistorical but fiercely emblematic. It’s Nowhereseville. But it’s also the Heartland…the innocent middle. Though it isn’t innocent. It’s where the American imagination has decided to archive innocence.”  This innocence is something her father lived by, even as her mother pushed violently against it. “I’m Czech,” Stan said at one point, by way of explanation.  “She wants me to be Irish.”

Mary Hampl did get a taste of her precious Ireland, late in life, traveling with the nervous Patricia, who was stunned to find her elderly mother not only expert on her ancestral home but an excellent travel companion. But their delightful trip ended disastrously when Mary tripped on the airport tarmac, shattering her knee.

From here the doctoring for both parents mushroomed, until finally it was no longer necessary.Hampl achieves the amazing here, making two modest souls who, by American success standards, accomplished the bare minimum: middle class, bungalow, religious faith—come to life as the complex individuals they truly were. Hampl’s poetic gifts and eye for detail are much in evidence; after defending Native Americans to her father, he angrily informs her that his family had to relinquish their culture, too, to the greater white society:

“... The white ethnic bitterness smoldering just below the surface of his modest upward mobility. You don’t protest…But there it is under the amber waves of grain.”

When Mary had a stroke, followed by a crippling seizure, Stan ordered new mailing labels bearing only his name. But Mary survived, half-blind, brain-damaged, yet cognizant of her losses. As for Stan, he thought his “handful” of 58 years was going to die, leaving him a little hard-earned peace, along with the pathetic solo mailing labels. 

This was not the case: his heart failed first. Mary slipped into a beatific dementia, a place of happiness, without rancor. She smoked Merit 100s and drank Chardonnay until the very end. She devoured the brownies Patricia brought her with unbridled pleasure. Her daughter the poet wrote it all down. There are worse ways to go.

The Florist's Daughter


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