Danielle Geller’s new memoir Dog Flowers works on many levels. It is a poignant attempt to understand the author’s mother, who left her and her sister when they were young children and only intermittently showed up in their lives. It is also a portrait of modern reservation life as Geller returns to her mother’s childhood home in the Navajo Nation to meet her estranged family. It is also a story of addiction and the toll it exacts on generations of a family. Geller deftly weaves these narratives and more into a work of art that is at once painful and triumphant.
The cyclical nature of all life permeates the work and creates a rhythm that infuses the story with energy. This is not to imply that it always creates a positive energy — much of the book is grim, documenting whole lifetimes of extraordinary hardship. The drumbeat of life destroying and then recreating itself opens up a strange vein of hope that imbues the work with a sense of resurrection. There is perhaps no more powerful cycle that fuels Dog Flowers than the brutal constancy of addiction and, at times, momentary recovery. As Geller writes, “The love of an addict is a trap.” It is this trap that informs nearly every relationship in the book.
The main nucleus here is the family. It is a shattered one that somehow keeps together in amazing ways. Geller and her sister Eileen are very young girls when their mother leaves and their paternal grandmother gains custody of them. The cycle is well underway by this point, and indeed was in motion long before the girls were born: “Our mother was an alcoholic. Our father was an alcoholic. Our grandmother was an alcoholic, seventeen years sober.” The drumbeat continues, and one could perhaps predict on a macro-level what almost every chapter contains. Geller manages in spite of this to keep things fresh and vital. One way she does this is by using the device of the journey to piece together her mother’s life.
When the book opens, Geller’s mother, Lee or “Tweety” as she is known, has died. At the time of her death, she was homeless and destitute. Her belongings, which are retrieved, organized, and culled through by Geller and a generous friend, are whittled down to one suitcase of diaries, calendars, and photos. These are delightfully interspersed throughout the book. Despite these archival efforts, the picture of Tweety remains incomplete, an absence felt deeply by Geller. She writes of being “frustrated by the difficulty of translating negative space into life and color.” What begins as a mission to find Tweety quickly and deftly becomes an excavation of family trauma and a tribute of sorts to its living members.
Geller’s closest family members — her sister Eileen and her father Michael — cycle in and out of her life as their addictions and needs and mental illnesses dictate. There are moments of great closeness balanced with seemingly bottomless pits of horror. Tragedy plays out over and over to the relentless rhythm awaiting a break, a rest.
The disruptions that reset the cycles are often cyclical themselves and could be perhaps best described as coping mechanisms. Nearly every character both major and minor in Dog Flowers has a garden. Even in some of the most difficult of living situations, Tweety and one of the many lovers that rotate in and out of her life take time out from the fog of addiction to create gardens for sustenance and beauty. Geller also enjoys nature and loves to watch birds wherever she travels and through all the seasons. Despite the walls she has constructed to buffer herself from the love of addicts (and incidentally, at times, from all love), she makes room to love and rescue stray cats and small birds. Nature is both destructive and healing in Dog Flowers.
The most important disruptions though are the multitude acts of kindness that are discernible beneath all the poverty and pain. Grandma, in all her severity, saves the girls from an abusive situation and insists on their education. Her longtime boyfriend, Don, perhaps more than any person in Geller’s life, has a positive impact. When he dies, he leaves everything to the Geller sisters, including some money to help pay for college. This brings us to the biggest disrupter of the cycle — the liberation that knowledge and learning bring.
Geller’s parents had very little formal education. Her father Michael is a severe addict, mentally ill and, at times, violent. So it is a pleasant surprise to learn that he carries around a laptop on which he codes apps — the latest one a game for his autistic grandson. Geller manages to paint a picture of her father as a deeply flawed person that has glimmers of goodness. He is complex, as most people are. Tweety’s picture is similar, but much foggier due to her absence. It is not hard to imagine both of them having done so much more given a better, more supportive environment. When Geller receives a full-tuition scholarship to Shippensburg University, her mother and father seem incredibly proud.
One of the most difficult cycles to watch play out in Dog Flowers is that of the younger sister Eileen. Like her father and mother, she leads a peripatetic life throughout much of the book, pinging from city to city and home to home and even living on the streets. Her addictions are intense and frightening. She is also the person that seems to sum up the complexities of their lives best with her pithy, terse statements. It is as if a chorus of angels is singing when Eileen declares toward the end of the book: “I want to live. I want to know what my tomatoes taste like.”
One of the most satisfying things about Dog Flowers is the existence of the book itself. Geller is self-aware and never tries to hold herself up as the Happy Geller. When she finds love and marries, she writes, “I had never felt that kind of love, but I have never learned how to write about happiness.” Throughout the book, Geller experiences the love and support of friends and some family. She clearly brings together the better aspects of her parents — their intelligence and dreams — and she receives the life-changing gift of a college scholarship. How many lives could be changed with this kind of chance to get some distance from a difficult family life and the resources to learn things outside the realm of one’s own narrow experiences? It is perhaps the thing that breaks the cycle in a much more permanent way than anything else. Again, Eileen says to her sister what is evident: “I’m just happy you made it out.” After reading this masterful memoir, one cannot help but hope that others will follow.
By Danielle Geller
Published January 12, 2021