Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Under Glass

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Birmingham Museum Trust

Photo by Birmingham Museum Trust. See more at birminghammuseums.org.uk/.

It looks like a still life from a sculptor's garden: a bud pink vase holding a nosegay of porcelain blossoms. Butter yellow, baby-blanket blue, shell pink and white, they bloom amid green leaves and tiny sprays of gold leaf. Issued by the Franklin Mint decades ago, "The Imperial Palace Bouquet from the House of Igor Carl Faberge," was purchased by my mother shortly afterward. She kept hers—elevated on a round, wooden platform and domed by a glass cloche—in her line of sight for the rest of her life.

I was mystified when she left the whole arrangement to me in her will. She never elaborated her thinking about the bouquet, an object I'd never liked.

The only time Mom spoke directly to me about the flowers was before she bought them. I can still see her handing over the small full-color ad she had clipped from a magazine.

"I really like this," Mom said, "but I'm not sure if I should buy it."

I remember being grateful that she didn't ask me to appraise the seven-inch sculpture, which struck me as fussy and old-ladylike. My idea of floral beauty was the Arts and Crafts textiles of William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, or the wild painted gardens of folk artists.

"If you really like it, you should buy it," I said, wondering why she was wavering about the inexpensive purchase. "Why shouldn't you have this thing you like?"

It was only later that I heard my mother refer to her sculpture as "Daniel's flowers." And although I never asked, I guessed that she thought of them as a remembrance of my missing son—her second grandchild—who I had given up for adoption when I was barely out of my teens. I had prepared to raise him with my oldest sister, Maura, who coached me through Lamaze classes, helped me acquire baby clothes and supplies, and worked two jobs to support us. Once I was admitted early to the hospital (for high blood pressure and swollen legs) and kept late for reasons no one explained, my certainty waned. I was terrified of making a mistake. The social worker, and my parents, were certain my son would have a better life with the older married couple who longed to build a family through adoption. I understood that his new parents would probably change his name, but I gave him one anyway—Daniel Isaac—as a protection and a sign. I hoped that his first name would shield him, like the biblical Daniel in the den of lions, and that his second would be a clue about me for him to read: letting him go had been a sacrifice. When I heard my mother call the floral arrangement by his name, I felt annoyed that she was using it for an object I disliked, but grateful that she was remembering my son in a tangible way. Still, we didn't talk about her reasons. She never brought them up, and I never asked.

After Mom died in 2002, her flowers arrived at my house in a box, each component carefully cushioned in bubble wrap and newspaper. I unwrapped each piece before tucking them all back into the box. At the time, I thought I was keeping them safe.

By then, I was five years into my reunion with the 26-year-old man my son had become, whose parents had christened him Jeff. We were trying to focus on what lay ahead in our lives, not the past. My mother's death had left me swamped with grief, incredulous that I had ever prayed for her release from multiple sclerosis, which had robbed her of mobility, thinking and voice. Once she was gone, I only wanted her back.

Only when I married again in 2008, and my new husband offered me the largest room in our apartment for a study, did I take the flowers out and display them. Out of the box for the first time, but not exactly in my line of sight, the sculpture sat on the top shelf of my bookcase, wedged next to the now-empty silver urn that had transported both my parents' ashes, another receptacle for mixed emotions. In 2012, I rented a tiny office in an old building downtown, across from the courthouse. Again, I stuck Mom's flowers on the top of my bookshelf, still vexed by those tiny buds shielded by glass. Why had my mother never talked to me about her flowers, or my son, or what had happened to us?

Seven years later, going through boxes of family papers, I come across one of my mother's daybooks. Inside, I find a full-color, life-size photo she must have received after ordering her beloved flowers. Folded in thirds, the front beckons with italics: "You'll soon be receiving….." and completes the sentence on the back, "…a hand-enameled, handcrafted, hand-assembled porcelain vase decorated with pure 24-karat gold." Stamped underneath, in tiny black print, is the year: 1986.

The date jolts me. I always thought Mom got her flowers in 1976, the year I returned to Poughkeepsie, N. Y., from San Diego without my newborn. I could see her handing me the Franklin Mint ad in our old Victorian on Academy Street, sitting in her cobalt blue study downstairs. I could envision it ever after, perched on her glossy white shelf of treasures along the wall behind her TV.

The paper in my hands proves that this memory is fiction. I look out the office window into the green leaves of the oak below, swooshing in the afternoon breeze. "1986," I say out loud. The year my son turned 10, and I turned 30 and was capsized by a wave of grief. I must have told Mom I had decided to reach out to Libby, the social worker who had handled the adoption, to make sure he was okay. It must have been after that, during a visit to see her in Florida, that she showed me the ad. My mind's eye relocates the conversation to the kitchen of my parents' first retirement condo. I track the flowers to their next house, a sprawling two-story a mile down the coastal highway. There, "Daniel's flowers" sat at the end of the long shelf under Mom's wall of family pictures, where she sat all day in a wheelchair. When her deterioration led her to a nursing home, the flowers came too. For the rest of her life, they perched next to her most treasured photos, always in her line of sight.

Now, I get up and walk to the high shelf where I've wedged her bequest, pulling it down gingerly and placing it on my desk. Like Mom, I surround myself with the faces of my loved ones, whose photos—including several of her—line windowsills and shelves. I lift the glass dome and dust it, then pick up the tiny vase it sheltered. The baby pink, blue, and white petals and their new green leaves dangle from gold-plated wires, as if freshly plucked from a field, as if they had been alive seconds before Carl Igor Faberge froze them into delicate porcelain.

For the first time, I feel the bounty of frozen love my mother instilled in these flowers, making them a magical repository of all she hadn't known how to say. I feel her intention to leave me a clue of her own: Even though we never spoke of my loss, or hers, she never forgot my son, and she wanted to make sure I knew that. Hot tears sting my eyes, shame at being so blind.

My mother didn't meet the son I named Daniel until she was 72. She was living in the nursing home in Maine, and Jeff, 23, was visiting from California for her birthday party. In her room, as I watched them together at last, these beloved bookends of my physical life, I marveled at their matching sea-blue eyes and freckles.

They held hands that day, studying one another's faces for a space of time I can't measure. She was in the wheelchair by her bed, and he sat on the closest chair. I can't remember what they said to one another—did she tell him she'd prayed for him every day of his life? Did he tell her he felt it?—but eventually he stood, and we resumed the jokey patter we relied on during times of great emotion. At some point, I answered one of his stories with the line, "Well, everything's relative."

And Mom, who had been watching us without a word, since speaking had become so difficult, lobbed over a loud and clear, "No!" Her sentences often sounded trapped in glue, but not this one. "It's not. Some things are absolute," she said, "like love."

My son and I caught one another's eyes, beyond words for once, then looked back at her. Was she talking about us? Herself? The three of us? I wasn't sure. The whirl of introducing Jeff to his extended family had left us both a little dizzy. We didn't press her. She had said what she wanted to say and no more.

Now, I'm staring through wet eyes at the tiny porcelain flowers she named after him and left to me, upended by the sense that I am finally putting together what she had wanted me to know. I move her flowers to the front corner of my desk, where I will see them whenever I sit down to work. As I set the cloche gently over the sculpture, I remember that my mother added it later, after the flowers had arrived. I'll never know if she wanted that protective dome to guard Daniel's flowers from dust, or if she simply preferred them under glass, like her feelings, where they'd stay where she could find them, even if just out of reach.


Eileen Drennen is a writer and editor with 27 years of daily newspaper experience, most at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she oversaw award-winning arts coverage, managed teams of critics and reporters and wrote profiles and reviews. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C. in 2009 and taught Critical Writing at the University of Georgia in 2011. She has been published in the online magazines The Rumpus, The Manifestation, and in O, The Oprah magazine. Samples of her work are at www.eileendrennen.com


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Beautifully said, Eileen. It's amazing what I found out about family members as they started to confront their own mortality. My memoir could only be written after my parents' death, a truth I'm sure my taciturn dad could appreciate, while my gregarious and imperial mom would be outraged that I betrayed her secrets.
I understand completely, Chris -- it's something everyone who writes about their parents has to wrestle with. Thanks for your kind words xo
You've got me misting up, Eileen. This is so beautiful. Well done.
Tears in my eyes. Family mysteries continue to blossom long after my parents left us.
Absolutely lovely, Eileen.
Thanks, Jim and Susan! And Paul -- you are so right. It's so wild to continue to get to know them and understand them so much more deeply years after their passing. xo
Thank you so much for sharing this, Eileen! It is truly touching.
Thank you, Laura xo
Very moving.
Very beautiful, Eileen. So much of our attempts at understanding our past ( and the past is ever present) seems to be trying to interpret these gestures in that foggy realm of memory and emotion. This feels so nicely sorted out, and wonderfully written.
Love this! I love the lines about “bookends “ ant “it’s relative.”
I was completely drawn into reading your story. You should complete it with a novel! I always enjoyed reading and my biggest wish was to write someday. But life had a different road for me to travel. I congratulate you for your ambition and never giving up on what you love.
Thank you Péralte! So true, Stephanie -- "foggy realm of memory and emotion" is perfect. Thank you Pam xo I hope you consider writing from wherever you are, Immacolata Greco! Thanks for your kind note!