“The morning of my eviction I awoke before dawn. My room was empty, the floor still damp and dirty in patches where the milk jugs had been. My imminent homelessness had not been a conscious decision; yet, rising to dress on the morning I was to be turned out onto the street, I was surprised to find that I was not afraid. Where I had expected fear, or anger, I was filled with nervous anticipation, the feeling similar to what I’d experienced as a young girl, on the eve of each new adoptive placement. Now, as an adult, my hopes for the future were simple: I wanted to be alone, and to be surrounded by flowers. It seemed, finally, I might get exactly what I wanted.” — Victoria Jones from The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
There are approximately 397,000 children in foster care in the United States. When they turn 18, if they haven’t been adopted, they are “emancipated” and are put out of the system without a home, financial aid, or emotional support.
The novel The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Ballantine Books, 2011, follows Victoria Jones, as she navigates her dismissal from the system. She was abandoned as a baby and has lived in 32 different foster homes in her 18 years. Her plan is to live in a San Francisco park. Her intense desire to be alone makes living and gardening in a secluded area of the park seem more like an emancipation than homelessness. The first thing we learn about her is that she is obsessed with flowers.
Unsurprisingly, her little Eden doesn’t turn out to be safe or even comfortable. She’s an expert at slipping into restaurants and taking tables just as someone leaves so she can finish their leftovers. And she’s not above filching what she can, but she’s hungry all the time. She needs a job. She tries for a position with a florist and soon proves herself capable and hardworking, with a tendency to show up with leaves in her hair.
The florist, Renata, is as tough in her way as Victoria and they work well together. Renata helps Victoria find somewhat better living conditions and soon their lives are intertwined. She connects with a mysterious vendor at the flower market and begins to have a conversation in flowers with him. She finds out she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. This gift stems from her education in the Victorian language of flowers, which she learned from the woman who almost adopted her, the closest Victoria ever got to having a mother.
The novel shifts back and forth in time, from her present struggle to survive, to when she was 10 years old and lived with the woman who promised to love her forever and adopt her, no matter what. Elizabeth was a lonely woman estranged from her family who ran a vineyard and decided it was time to adopt a child. Victoria was difficult and stubborn, but Elizabeth was used to difficult people and had a rough family history of her own. She set up stern guidelines and nurtured Victoria as if she were revitalizing a neglected garden. Elizabeth took Victoria out of school and taught her how flowers had meaning and were used to convey emotions and romantic intentions. Honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, red roses for love, yellow roses for infidelity.
We don’t find out until late in the novel what prevented the adoption, but Victoria learns early in her emancipation that the language of flowers is not consistent:
“Hours passed as I took in hundreds of pages of new information. I sat frozen, only the pages of the books turning. Looking up flowers one at a time, I cross-referenced everything I had memorized with the dictionaries stacked on the table.
It wasn’t long before I knew. Elizabeth had been as wrong about the language of flowers as she was about me.”
This “wrongness” sets Victoria on a quest to make a definitive dictionary. She has discovered her skill as a photographer. She has let herself get involved with a man from her past. She seems to be growing. And yet she notices how different she is. There is a core of damage in her that she believes she will never rise above. While she helps customers use flowers to repair damaged relationships, she reflects:
“The conversations were sad, and amusing, and strangely hopeful all at the same time. The relentlessness with which these women tried to repair their relationships was foreign to me; I didn’t understand why they didn’t simply give up.
“I knew that if it were me I would have let go: of the man, of the child, and of the women with whom I discussed them. But for the first time in my life, this thought did not bring me relief. I began to notice the ways in which I kept myself isolated. There were obvious things, such as living in a closet with six locks, and subtler ones, such as working on the opposite side of the table from Renata or standing behind the cash register when I talked to customers. Whenever possible, I separated my body from those around me with plaster walls, solid wood tables, or heavy metal objects.”
As she grows closer to the man who emerged from her past:
“My feelings for Grant, too, felt hidden, and I began to image a sphere surrounding my heart, as hard and polished as the surface of a hazelnut, impenetrable.”
Opening the sphere around one’s heart is a painful process, and not just for someone with no family who is trying to survive and make sense of world. In this book, everyone has complex relationships with their families. It’s compelling to see that the way people treat Victoria, the little kindnesses, make a huge difference in her life. She does not heal easily, however. Her inability to truly connect causes more grief and separations. Her emotional distance remains a part of her character throughout the book, which made her seem very real.
The intricacies of the flower business makes a nice counterpoint to Victoria’s character. All the characters know that different flowers need different kinds of nurturing. Victoria blows through their lives like a human air plant, unable to really understand what it means to be rooted. Everyone can see that she’s smart, creative and capable of love, and of being loved – but she keeps locking doors or disappearing.
Since I mentor children who have been in the foster care system, I was impressed with how realistically Diffenbaugh wrote about Victoria’s life. Her flower obsession is uniquely hers, but I know children just as smart with equally unique obsessions – these are the threads they hang on to in a world that is unstable and shifting. Where one day they are in a group home, the next they are taken to a new family, and then, after varying times for varying reasons, they are taken back into the system. Some become hardened and difficult, others too anxious to please. It takes years of constancy to break through some of their shells.
Within those shells, though, there are bright souls. I think Diffenbaugh illuminated one such soul and I’m glad the book became a best seller.
In writing The Language of Flowers, Diffenbaugh was inspired by her own experience as a foster mother and the stories she heard while teaching art and writing to young people in low-income communities.
She and Isis Dallis Keigwin founded The Camellia Network, a nationwide support organization for young people making the transition from foster care to independence. The advance from The Language of Flowers was donated by Diffenbaugh to get it started.
“Camellia Network harnesses the power of new technology to connect youth “aging out” of the foster care system with a community of resources, opportunities, encouragement and support. Youth have profiles on the site, giving them a place to express themselves, share their goals for the future and articulate what they need to be successful. Individuals and companies from across the country are able to collectively provide the support these young people lack by offering up doses of encouragement, career advice, professional connections, and financial support to help them navigate their way into adulthood.”
It’s an innovative way to help. You can support a former foster child by helping them furnish their spaces (something as simple as a trash can) or help them pay for training to be a nurse, or go to community college. Check it out here.
This book in no way reads like a plea to help foster youth. It’s a compelling and beautifully written novel. But I love that it’s a seed that started a network to help foster youth. Camellia means my destiny is in your hands in the language of flowers. We tend to forget that the destinies of those around us can be improved by little acts of kindness. If we can simply learn not to pre-judge what it means to live in foster care, and what kind of person emerges from that system of support, then we can see the world around us a little more clearly.
I often mention that I live in Bridge Meadows, a community set up to support families adopting children out of the foster care system, so that they can have permanent homes. Bridge Meadows is now in the process of building a small apartment complex for teens aging out of foster care. It will be in the same neighborhood, and these young people will have access to the same elder network as the families who have adopted children.
The Camellia Network and Bridge Meadows are innovative programs that can make life better for kids who are struggling to find their place in our society. They serve as a way for us to connect, and sometimes that’s all it takes to give a complex story a happier ending.