From boxes of memorabilia, sifting out a life

In her debut memoir, Danielle Geller researches her elusive mother — and the meaning of family.

 

After her mother died, Danielle Geller defaulted to what she knew. Tucked away in her Boston apartment, she spent entire days writing about her life — her earliest memories of her mother, sister and father; her childhood and the grandmother who raised her — everything leading up to her mother’s final days in a Florida hospital.

Geller wrote 80,000 words, but remained unsatisfied. She still had unresolved questions about her mother. “My mother lived entire lives apart from mine,” Geller noted.

Lauren Crow / High Country News

So Geller, a trained archivist, assembled her mother’s belongings, labeling, dating and describing every photograph, diary and letter.

With this as a starting point, Geller sought to understand her mother’s many lives. It wasn’t easy. Both of Geller’s parents struggled with substance abuse; her white father was emotionally abusive, and she witnessed him physically abusing her mother and sister. Geller was tempted, she writes, “to erase the questions and unknowns from my mother’s life — to simplify the arrangement — but what kind of archivist would I be?” She persisted in seeking answers; the result is an honest and powerful meditation on negotiating loss, identity and family.

High Country News recently spoke with Geller about the blessings and burdens of family, reconnecting with relatives on the Navajo Nation and resolving messy stories. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: How would you describe Dog Flowers?

Danielle Geller: When I first started writing, I would say, “I’m writing a book about my mom.” But it’s less of a book about my mom, and more about confronting family history — the history that is spoken, and the history that you find under a rock somewhere.

It’s for people who are really in it with their families, who are struggling with familial expectations, and are in close relationships with people who have substance abuse issues and are constantly pushing boundaries.

HCN: Your mother’s boyfriend told you that she used to call muddy paw prints “dog flowers.” Why did you use this as the title for your book? 

DG: The image of “dog flowers” came from the trip I took to see my mother when she was in the hospital. At the time, all she owned was at her boyfriend’s, and he told me I could go through everything. He was showing me around their place, and he took me to the backyard to see their garden. She had told me about it on the phone, so I was excited to see it. His roommate’s dog was out there digging around in the dirt, and as we walked back inside, he pointed to the muddy paw prints leading indoors and said, “She used to call those ‘dog flowers.’ ” Those words kept echoing in my head as I went back to the hospital, back to Boston, and then sat down to write. My mother always looked for the beauty in the world around her, and I try to carry that with me.

HCN: Because your mother’s visits were sparse during your childhood, you didn’t have a lot of information about her life and her feelings about you or your sister. How did you use your expertise as an archivist to fill in the gaps?

DG: When I first received all my mother's things, I didn’t really know how to handle the situation. I defaulted to, “I’m just going to arrange all of this stuff into these boxes, I’m going to label the folders, and I’m going to try to make sense of these objects.” I knew some of the facts, but there's a lot of interpretive work that goes into filling in the blanks.

“Can I find that memory or that event in my mother’s diary entries, in her little appointment books or the letters that she sent to and received from her family? How can I fill in the gaps?”

What I went back to do was, “Here’s what I remember. Can I find that memory or that event in my mother’s diary entries, in her little appointment books or the letters that she sent to and received from her family? How can I fill in the gaps?”

When I was 5, my grandma adopted me. After my step-grandpa, Don, passed away, my grandma decided to move us to Pennsylvania. But I didn’t remember what happened with my mom. I didn’t really remember a goodbye. So I went to her diaries to try and figure out, “What did she say about it?”

All I found was two entries. The first was a week before we left: “Grandma and girls stopped by to say they're leaving to Pennsylvania.” The second entry was a week later: “They’re gone.” I was trying to fill in how she felt about it. Did she not want us to go? What was she feeling? And then I’m reading into the lack of information and what I feel like that could mean.

HCN: Dog Flowers includes photographs, letters and diary entries memorabilia from your mother. How did you go about embodying these in the book?

DG: When I incorporate my mother’s archive, it’s not just placing a photograph on the page. It’s not having scans of letters or diary entries stripped of any context, because I don’t think a reader is fully able to engage with what I am looking at when I am seeing those documents.

My description of the objects differs from the archival description because it’s much more personal. I have my own memories, and what I was trying to do was record everything that I could about it, pointing to the places where I was surprised, or where my experience and my mother's experiences resonated.

HCN: Are there any particular passages in Dog Flowers that you are most proud of? 

DG: There is a passage on this idea of “ghost sickness” that when I first wrote it, I was like, this is it — this is key to how I am thinking about my relationship with my mother's belongings, with this history and her death. What I say in that section is that I'm not writing about grief, I’m not writing about losing my mother or those feelings of grief, because I don't think this book really offers you a path through that.

Instead, I’m writing about (how) I feel possessed. I feel haunted by her life as much as her death, and the things that I wanted from that relationship that I didn't get. I felt most proud when I emerged from the writing of that passage, because I was articulating early on what I was setting out to do.

I’m writing about (how) I feel possessed. I feel haunted by her life as much as her death, and the things that I wanted from that relationship that I didn't get.

HCN: When you returned to the Navajo Nation and your mother’s family, what surprised you?

DG: I tried not to have many expectations of flying back to the reservation and meeting my mother's family for the first time. I was surprised by how strong the feelings I had for my cousins and aunties were — that I felt such a familial connection, and how that connection has lasted, even though I don’t live close to them anymore.

HCN: How do you define family?

DG: I grew up with a definition of the American family that was more like the definition of a cult. I grew up with the idea that your family will always be there for you, and you always need to be there for them, (and) those bonds aren’t severable.

Those were all harmful ideas for me growing up, because I really believed them. I carried these ideas with me for a long time, and they put me in a situation that felt inescapable. I gave more than I was given. The abuse I experienced wasn’t justification to sever those relationships. I was expected to forgive, forget and move on. So it’s difficult for me now to redefine family.

Two winters ago, I attended a weaving class with Barbara Teller Ornelas and Lynda Teller Pete at the Heard Museum (in Phoenix, Arizona). It was a master class for Indigenous weavers, though I was much closer to a beginner than a master! (Hearing) the laughter in that room, I had this intense feeling of people knew where I came from. They knew what my experiences were, and it felt so comfortable. I think that experience is the closest that I conceive of what family should feel like.

HCN: Do you feel Dog Flowers reaches a resolution?

DG: I really struggled to find the ending. When Heid Erdrich blurbed my book, she said it “refuses to deal in the tropes of redemption and reconciliation,” and I think that captures a truth about the way I have found to write about my family.

Reconciliation requires mutual understanding. It requires two people making their views compatible with one another’s. But I will never have that opportunity for reconciliation with my mother. I will never have the validation I am looking for from her.

(But) my relationship with my sister is ongoing, and it's still developing, and that really became one of the most important threads to me in the book.

Growing up, the way my sister and I understood the world and our experiences were so  different. And it’s not as easy as sitting down and having one conversation where we try to hash out the “facts” of our memories, because those “facts” don’t exist.

Resolution requires some kind of firm action or decision of some kind. I alone can’t resolve to have a better relationship with my sister and expect that to happen. She could decide tomorrow that her life is better without me in it, and I would have to find a way to accept that reality. So a book, which is a very solitary thing, can only reflect my openness to that possibility. I think my book reaches not for an ending, but for a new beginning.

Jessica Douglas is an intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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