The flower lady of Risskov

Like Bruce Springsteen, Lenore Messick was born in the USA. But she met a Dane while she was studying for a PhD at Johns Hopkins University. And when he returned to Denmark, she came with him. She has never regretted the decision to listen to the voice of her heart. But Danish was a tricky language to learn, and for many years she felt unable to express herself freely. It was like having your linguistic hands tied.

“It’s been a real delight to make bouquets of flowers for you this year. My next job is to plant a bazillion spring bulbs. The flower stall will be opening again in April. Best wishes. Lenore” 

This message was posted in late September on a Facebook site called Blomster fra baghaven (‘Flowers from my back garden’). The site is run by Lenore Messick, a translator at AU’s Events and Communication Support department. 

Her flower stall consists of an old and somewhat distressed farmhouse cabinet standing decoratively in front of her house in Risskov. Her bouquets are beautiful and generous, and they cost no more than DKK 20-50. So it’s no surprise to learn that she’s had plenty of customers throughout the summer – including many of her colleagues at the university. 

“Gardening and making bouquets from the flowers I grow gives me the chance to be creative,” explains Messick. “Although of course I also have to be a bit creative in my job as a translator. But I don’t create the texts I have to translate, and they don’t reflect my own thoughts. As a translator, I’m like a machine helping other people to communicate effectively in English. But in my garden I’m the only one who sets the agenda. And I simply love it!”  

This is no ordinary flower stall. It’s also a symbol of the stage in life that Lenore Messick has reached today. And it’s taken her many years to get here. 

“I’m a very sociable person, and opening the stall is my way of reaching out to other people and sharing the things I love,” she explains.  

She has dreamt of running a flower stall for many years, and has lived in the same house for almost two decades. But she has been too busy to realise her dream until now.

“My garden gives me the chance to forget all the other roles I play in life. As a ‘proper’ Danish woman, as a conscientious employee and as a good mom.”

And most important of all:

“In my garden I can express myself without worrying about perfect pronunciation.”

The fact that she needs a place to express herself without thinking about any linguistic implications is a real paradox, showing how strange the workings of fate can be. After all, throughout her childhood in the American South she was regarded as someone with a genuine talent for language. A talent that won her a place at some of the most prestigious universities in the country – despite the social odds that were stacked against her.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. My mom had an academic background but worked as a nurse. She was a single mom, and we never had much money,” she remembers.

But although things were a bit tough at times, Messick grew up in a family that could be described as both stimulating and chaotic.

There were always plenty of books and lots of art and music in the house, but divorce and financial difficulties meant that the family moved around a good deal. Despite this somewhat restless childhood, she always did well at school. At least, she did well in the subjects that interested her (history, English and art). She did so well that she was offered a grant at the prestigious Bryn Mawr College, a private university for women which was founded in 1885.

“It was a proper feminist university just outside Pennsylvania. I spent my time reading all the books I could possibly get hold of. In fact, I did very little else,” she says. 

Messick describes herself as an ambitious, slightly off-beat student with a dreamy turn of mind, living a protected life on the college campus. Until financial problems in the family meant that she had to abandon her four-year degree programme one year early. 

But her special talent for language led one of her supervisors to encourage her to apply for a PhD degree programme at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Which is where she met her future husband: Peter Mortensen, who is now an associate professor of English at the School of Communication and Culture at AU.

“Peter was studying English at Johns Hopkins, and I was studying literary theory. But when Peter finished his PhD in 1997, he had to leave the USA because his visa had run out.”

She decided to move to Denmark with him. Mortensen got a job as an assistant professor at AU, and Messick planned to finish her PhD while putting down roots in her adopted country. But a new idea started to sprout in her mind, taking her in a new direction and away from the academic world in which she had flourished and bloomed so far. 

“I realised that the move to Denmark was also an opportunity to think carefully for the first time in my life about what I really wanted to do. Did I really want to be an academic?”

She gradually realised that the answer to this question was ‘no’.

“The academic world was simply not right for me, so like many other immigrants in Denmark I spent a number of years trying to find my feet – although I was able to use my talent for language to get work at language schools and translation agencies.”

But even though she started learning Danish, she kept on hitting the language barrier. And the fact that she couldn’t express herself freely in Danish proved to be a major source of frustration.

“It was like being a dumbed-down version of myself, and this was particularly hard for me because until then language had always been my strong suit. If you can’t speak the language, you sometimes get treated in ways you might not be comfortable with. And you can’t do much about it because you can’t complain, either.” 

She searches for the right words to describe the sense of desolation that used to strike her on a regular basis in the early years. 

“You grieve for the person you used to be in another language. It’s like being an exile in your own life.”

And this is when she discovered that gardening could be a haven for her. Which is interesting, because ‘haven’ is actually the Danish word for ‘the garden’. About ten years ago, she started turning the neglected plot of land (about 1,000 square metres) surrounding the house that she and her husband had bought into her own personal haven.

“In the garden I could focus on the things that were important to me without wondering what other people might think, without worrying about making mistakes, and without worrying whether what I was doing was enough (or too much). The garden was like a counterweight to all the loss of face I suffered in my early years in Denmark.”

She struggled for a long time to find her feet in Denmark, but she also managed to build a life here alongside her husband Peter – a life which she had not imagined when she first took the leap across the Atlantic. But perhaps she had imagined this life subconsciously when she chose the man in her life.

“I was a young woman when I met Peter, but I could sense something in him I’d been searching for for a long time. As a child we were always moving around from pillar to post, but I wanted to put down roots. And what I saw in Peter was a man who would know how to come home. Who would know how to be a father. And a husband.”

And Messick concludes:

“We’ve lived in the same place for 20 years and created a stable and loving family home. So I feel that our life together proves that I made the right choice all those many years ago. And I’ve never regretted listening to the voice of my heart.”