‘Dog Flowers’ traces a mother’s struggle and a daughter’s hope

In a memoir about family and identity, Danielle Geller uses her archival skills to create a portrait of her absent mother.

Penguin Random House
“Dog Flowers” by Danielle Geller, One World, 272 pp.

When Danielle Geller’s mother passes away, she leaves behind eight suitcases filled with worldly possessions. Seven contain worn clothing and other mundane items. The eighth, however, is packed with photographs, letters, and a lifetime’s worth of journals. In her debut memoir “Dog Flowers,” Geller explores these treasures and discovers the outline of a woman Geller never really knew.

Considering that Geller’s mother had lived for years on the street and struggled with alcoholism, the existence of the trove is all the more remarkable. Geller uses her training as an archivist to mine the mementos in search of a better understanding of her mother and her conflicted life. Along the way, Geller also gains insight into her own life and identity. With a deft touch, she weaves together the plotlines of her mother’s life and of her own.

Geller and her sister were mostly raised by her paternal grandmother, occasionally spending time with their father when he had a handle on his own addiction. Her mother’s unrelenting alcohol abuse – and the poverty and neglect that accompanied it – rendered any home life with her untenable. “I learned very young that my mother was someone not to be trusted,” she writes.

Unsurprisingly, as Geller grew up, she distanced herself from her past – including her Navajo identity, which was passed down from her mother. She knew that Tweety, as her mother was called, had left her home reservation when she was 19. Tweety’s passing, and the memorial service that follows, provide Geller a reentry point to that heritage. She travels to the reservation and gets to know her extended family, an essential part of resolving her past.

In less capable hands, Geller’s story might be too grim to read, as both her mother’s life and her own have been exceedingly difficult. Tweety’s path – her flight from the reservation, her abandonment of her children, and her death from alcohol withdrawal – deeply impacted Geller, who has struggled with her own vulnerabilities in the wake of her mother’s actions.

Geller does does not settle into the mire, though she shares her own experiences with remarkable candor. Instead, she brings a professional objectivity to the narrative and illustrates how the threads of addiction can weave through generations. These powerful incidents need no elaboration. With her simple, direct writing style, Geller lets them stand on their own.

The deliberate nature of Geller’s connection with the Navajo Nation also becomes apparent. She participates in Navajo weaving workshops, a palpably symbolic action. Hers is not an easy connection, but it is an enduring one – and while she does make peace with her cultural identity, she never settles into it. She visits, but she does not stay. 

Interspersed across the pages of the book are images of the actual contents of the suitcase, including children’s drawings, photos of Geller as a child, and pictures of her parents and her sister. The camera captured smiles and laughter – the faint promise of hope. Geller never lets go of that light.

She perseveres in her journey of discovery with an honesty and authenticity that resonate throughout the book and, presumably, her life. The result is a volume well worth reading. Her story takes on ramifications beyond her own experiences as Geller demonstrates that studying the past can improve an understanding of the present. While she accepts that her mother’s experiences have become a part of her own, she does not allow them to define her.

It is Geller’s strength, her honesty, and her kindness that provide the means to untangle her family history. “Writing the truth, or my understanding of it, is the only path I can see through the weeds,” she writes. In “Dog Flowers,” she seizes the opportunity to walk down that new track, trailing behind her a sense of hope and of healing.

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