Long ago, each year at the end of May, I helped my mother pick peonies and irises and then arrange them into bouquets. The peonies were my favorite. I remember their sweet scent and the ruffles of their blooms, some of them as broad as my mother’s hand. They grew on lush green bushes beneath the maple trees that separated our side yard from our vegetable garden. The irises let down their brilliant beards from the stalks that came up each spring along the wire fence that enclosed our front yard.
While my mother snipped the irises—purple and yellow—and the peonies—crimson and white—it was my job to wrap coffee cans with foil paper. It was Decoration Day, and we were going to the cemeteries to put flowers on the family graves, the generations of Martins who had preceded my father and me, who had come from Kentucky by way of Ohio and settled in Lukin Township in southeastern Illinois.
I knew nothing of death then. I was a child, and I lived on a farm where I had eighty acres of woodland and pasture and prairie to explore. It was the beginning of summer. The days were warm, and each evening it was longer and longer before darkness came. Our farm was on the county line, a gravel road that separated our county, Lawrence, from the next county, Richland. The official surveyor’s description announced that we owned the south half of the northwest quarter of section eighteen, township two north, range thirteen west of the second prime meridian. Our house sat a half-mile off the road at the end of a lane lined with hickory trees and oaks, with sassafras and milkweed. Tiger lilies and black-eyed Susans grew wild in the fence rows, as did blackberries and honeysuckle and multiflora rose.
On summer days I ran barefoot over the grass, arms outstretched to catch the winged seedlings that came twirling down from our maple trees. I walked deep into our woods and listened to the squirrels chattering and the woodpeckers drilling. I waded through the shallow water of creek beds to see the tracks that raccoons and coyotes had left. When I came out into open prairie, I lay down in pockets of grass where deer had slept and stared up at the wide, blue sky.
In my child’s mind I had a sovereign claim to those eighty acres. At dusk I stood outside and shouted my name for the sheer joy of hearing it echo back to me. Lee, Lee, Lee. The air itself seemed to announce my dominion. I had no thought that there had been other boys before me who had done the same thing. When darkness finally fell and the fireflies came out, I caught them in my hand and dropped them into a Mason jar. I can still recall the sensation of their wings pulsing against my palm, that tickle that told me I had caught them, that they were mine now to do with what I chose.
When I went with my parents to the cemeteries, I knew little about the ancestors whose graves we adorned with our bouquets. I had known my grandmother, Stella, but never my grandfather, Will, who had died fourteen years before I was born. The others—James Henry, Mary Ann, John, Owen, Lola—were only sounds to me, a collection of consonants and vowels. They meant nothing. I knew more intimately the irises and the peonies and how my mother weighted the coffee cans with gravel scooped from our lane. I knew the sparkle of the foil paper and the smell of freshly cut grass at the cemeteries.
On one of our visits, I started to run—it seems that I was always running, then—and my mother caught me by my arm. “Don’t run across the graves,” she said.
“Why?” I asked her.
Now I think of peonies in winter, when they die back and the little red buds on their crowns—their “eyes”—stare up through the frozen ground and wait for spring.
My mother put her finger to her lips. “Shh,” she said in a whisper I had to lean close to hear. “People are sleeping here,” she told me. “Don’t wake them.”