Shawn Alexandra Graham remembers "borrowing" flowers from all over her Blue Bell neighborhood as a little girl, arranging them in water-filled jelly jars, and proudly presenting them to the very people whose gardens she'd just raided.
"Some people were not happy," she says.
Clearly, they missed the significance of this innocent gesture, because Graham, now 44, grew up to be a floral designer.
But it was not a direct path from there to here, which underscores the idea that there are many ways to come to a calling.
You can be born into a family business or tradition. You can discover a talent in school and go for it. And you can follow your heart, no matter what your age.
For an unlucky few, a life's work can have a traumatic birth, as was the case for Graham.
First came a career in human resources.
A graduate of Wissahickon High School and Cabrini College, Graham spent 13 years planning corporate and community events for US Healthcare in Blue Bell and GMAC Mortgage in Horsham.
"The awakening" - or "my watershed moment," as she sometimes calls it - came on Jan. 29, 2003, in late morning. Graham was racing back to her Horsham office from an early-morning event in Center City when her minivan hit a patch of ice, crossed into oncoming traffic, crashed into a barrier, and tumbled down an embankment.
"Next thing I remember, there were people all around me, my kids' car seats scattered in the snow, and I'm wondering, will I ever see my kids again?" Graham recalls.
In the confusion, she couldn't remember if her young son and daughter were in the car with her. (They were not.) And though wearing a seat belt, she suffered severe neck and back injuries that took a year to heal.
Later, she would agonize over what might have happened without the protection of a seat belt. But she was alive - and just two weeks away from marrying Roger Graham, whom she'd met at GMAC.
For both of them, the shock of the accident was so great, they decided immediately that "life is too short for both of us to be in corporate America, running around, caught up in the rat race," says Shawn Graham, who underwent extensive physical and massage therapy and walked with a cane for nine months after the accident.
The two managed to marry on schedule, thanks to the wonders of modern painkillers. And from then on, life was different.
"I think, truly, this began my celebration of life," Graham says.
The celebration included Graham's leaving the workplace and being home, in Wyncote, for her kids. Son Hunter is now a 10th grader at Cheltenham High School; daughter Taylor is a junior at Temple, majoring in hospitality.
And soon enough, as Graham now thinks it was meant to be, flowers reentered her life. Actually, they had been there all along.
As a child, she often accompanied her parents to the Philadelphia Flower Show. Her mother had a perennial cutting garden and took her to a flower-arranging program when she was only 11 or so. Mom had a substantial collection of African violets, too.
"I can remember at the beginning and end of the season, lugging those plants outside and then back in the house, not always happily," Graham says.
Once she recovered from the accident, she signed up for a floral design workshop, which she loved so much she took another. Next came courses at Temple University Ambler, then the more formal floral design certificate program at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.
"I found a brand new passion," Graham says. "It's about the joy of capturing the essence of a celebration, that great, tangible, beautiful piece that celebrates the event."
For this, she was inspired by her Longwood teacher, Jane Godshalk, who describes Graham's work as "wanting to be light and simple, very pristine, having a positive quality about it that is just like Shawn.
"Shawn was so meticulous about placing every flower perfectly, and I recall her work being exquisite but very, very slow," Godshalk says.
But that can be a positive. "When you're going to make something look good and simple," she says, "it has to be perfect."
Graham, who started her floral/social events business, Soirée Fleur, in 2006, has no interest in racing - to work, to school, to anything - anymore. As for the perfectionist thing, "I admit it! It's true," she says.
For a client like Charlotte O. McKines-Lawrence, "the perfectionist thing" is a positive.
McKines-Lawrence, vice president of marketing at Merck, has known Graham, her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sister, for a decade. Graham has done the flowers for, among other things, McKines-Lawrence's wedding, a fund-raiser at her Horsham home, and parties celebrating her husband's 65th birthday and President Obama's inauguration in 2009.
For the birthday party, Graham went all high drama with white hydrangeas, lilies that were dyed black, crystals (a client favorite), and dark pebbles. For the wedding, she paired red, the color of the bride's dress, and gold.
"I love Shawn's style. It's elegant, a little bit sassy, and very rich-looking," McKines-Lawrence says.
Graham is a member of Norristown Garden Club, which will celebrate 100 years in 2013. There, and most other places she goes for floral design, she's often the only person of color.
Which is why she feels strongly about designing for African American groups and organizations, and teaching young African American girls, in particular, about proper etiquette and floral design, a field not known for its diversity.
She's taking a young helper to the 2013 Flower Show. "She'd never even heard of it," Graham says.
Norristown club treasurer Barbara Schmidt has seen how children respond to Graham. "They love her," Schmidt says. "They can see what she does and think, 'I'm just like her. I can do that.' "
Which, for Graham, is precisely the point.
Christmas does not mean pinecones and poinsettias to Shawn Alexandra Graham. Red and green? She doesn't go there.
More than ever this season, Graham says, she's doing monochromatic or monofloral designs that use a single flower or shades of only one color - and color combinations that match her clients' personalities and homes. Orange, especially the mango mini-calla lily, is huge. So are jewel-toned pairings like purple and red.
The Inquirer asked Graham to create three nontraditional arrangements for a festive holiday table. Here's what she came up with:
1. For a client who loves bling, she filled three glass cylinders with water, lily grass, white callas, and glass beads, with sparkly "gems" scattered around the table. Graham floated votive candles in the cylinders and wrapped a rhinestone "necklace" around the top.
Graham would place the cylinders in groupings around the dinner table. "Very clean," she says.
2. For a client with Afrocentric artwork and artifacts, Graham opted for gold and other "earthy, warm tones" that offset the home's dark woods and bright colors. She filled bubble bowls with a little water and added black stones and cymbidium orchids of lime green, with a touch of burgundy and cream on the throat.
Votive candles burn in smaller roly-poly holders, with the same stones on the bottom. Graham says she would place a lot of these arrangements on her client's long table.
3. For another creation, Graham made a surprising choice - carnations, which have a reputation for being boring. Guess what? They're brighter, bigger, and even fragrant now, perfect for another of Graham's clients - a couple in a new, and mixed, marriage.
He's African American. She's Jewish. "They're dealing with a lot of issues coming together," Graham says, "so they decided to come up with their own colors" for a holiday centerpiece - the richly royal red and violet.
To a densely packed mound of violet carnations (two shades) stuck in floral foam and covered with a little water (applied with a turkey baster), Graham adds "beads," large red Saint-John's-wort berries. It will really pop on the couple's dark wood rectangular table.
"And it will last a good long time," she says.
Like a happy marriage.
Well before your party, buy the same flowers you're using and do a trial run. See how quickly the buds open and how long the blossoms stay fresh.
Use candles with a generous 10-hour burn time. Avoid scented candles; they mix with food smells and can even make people sick. And avoid candles (or floral arrangements) that obscure the view across the table.
If you plan a nice party, why slum it up with paper plates and plastic cutlery? "If you have china, silver, and linens, use them. Don't keep everything for 'good,' " says Graham, who recently served her son's OJ in a champagne flute.
Consider the space an arrangement will fill. "Rectangular table, rectangular vase. Look at the space and see what works best," Graham says.
And this may sound obvious, but Graham insists she sees it a lot: "I go to an event and I can tell in an instant if the flowers were an afterthought, bought at the last minute," she says, "because they look it."
- Virginia A. Smith
Shawn Alexandra Graham offers tips for holiday floral designs at www.