We Called It Decoration Day

On this Memorial Day, I’m thinking about peonies, which, for some reason, folks in my part of southeastern Illinois always called “pineys,” with a long “i” as in “pine,” meaning to long for.

On our farm, when I was a boy, we had peony bushes along the edge of the side yard where each summer the grass gave way to the start of my parents’ vegetable garden. Each year on what we called Decoration Day, my mother cut the “pineys” (we had crimson and pink and white) and arranged them in coffee cans wrapped in foil paper. She filled in around the flowers with loose gravel I gathered from our lane, making arrangements we could leave on the family graves in the country cemeteries where my ancestors, all of them farm folks from Lawrence and Richland Counties, were buried.

It took me a long time to know that the proper pronunciation of peony was different from the way I’d always heard it said. The first time I heard someone say “pe (long “e”)- uh (schwa)-ne” (long “e”) with that accent on the first syllable, I didn’t know what to think. I remember feeling a combination of anger and embarrassment. I was angry I suppose because I felt like a judgment had been passed on me and may family, who were too unworldly to know the proper way to say the word. I was embarrassed because it was clear that there were people who were more sophisticated, people who said words in ways I’d never imagined.

They took the “pine” out of that flower, but they couldn’t rob me of the longing. Wherever I’ve lived, no matter how distant from my native southeastern Illinois, I’ve pined for it. I’ve had to write it again and again in my stories and essays and novels to keep it near to me. Each year when I see the peonies in bloom, I think of those Decoration Days spent driving from one country cemetery to another. I think of those coffee cans full of peonies and irises. I remember the sweet smells and the rush of air through the open car windows, the spray of gravel from the road under our tires, the freshly mowed cemeteries, some of them on hillsides overlooking fields of timothy grass, others alongside country churches. I recall the way my mother stooped to place the coffee cans along the base of the headstones, the way my father read the names and the dates of birth and death the way he did each year when we came, telling again the stories of grandparents and great-grandparents as far back as John A. Martin, my great-great-grandfather, whose monument was in remarkable condition in the Ridgley Cemetery in Lukin Township. I remember paying respect to our dead with these lovely flowers of spring.


  1. Julia Munroe Martin on May 30, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    What a lovely story and lovelier memory.

    • Lee Martin on May 30, 2011 at 5:44 pm

      Thanks, Julia!

  2. Mike Dean on May 30, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    There must be something about Decoration Day and Southeastern Illinois. I too can remember visiting the cemeteries with my grandmother and placing flowers on the graves of deceased family members. Then we would go visit the living, having fried chicken more often than not- because grilling hadn’t become a big thing as yet. If I was lucky I might catch a few laps of the Indy 500 as the race wrapped up. Now all my kin are buried in Illinois and I’m 150 miles away with no living relatives in the area- my How things change!

    • Lee Martin on May 30, 2011 at 8:23 pm

      Mike, thanks for those stories. I bet they’re really good memories for you, if a little bittersweet as all memories are. I know what you mean about being far away from the home place. I found a great web site today,”Find a Grave.” Here’s a link to their search form: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gs&

      You can search by name and state and sometimes find a photo of an ancestor’s grave.

  3. Byron Edgington on May 31, 2011 at 6:42 am

    Lee: Wonderful memories here as well. I remember being embarrassed on learning those flowers were ‘Peonies,’ and not Pee-(OH)-nies as my passel of Irish relatives referred to them. Mostly I remember the ants.

    • Lee Martin on May 31, 2011 at 5:13 pm

      Byron, I was aware of that pronunciation of the word, and, yes, indeed, I also recall the ants.

  4. Richard Gilbert on June 3, 2011 at 7:13 am

    In southern Indiana when we lived there the locals called peonies as you say, maybe closer to “pionies” but maybe it was “pineys.” Such lovely, iconic flowers. They are Memorial Day—I like Decoration Day better, so humble and descriptive and prescriptive: get out and decorate the graves.

  5. Lee Martin on June 4, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Richard, where in southern Indiana did you grow up?

    • Richard Gilbert on June 13, 2011 at 1:33 pm

      Lee, I did not grow up there but lived there for 13 years: Bloomington, Indiana. Happy years, those were.

  6. Lee Martin on June 13, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Richard, Bloomington has always been one of my favorite towns. I love the restaurants, the IU campus, the Oliver Winery, etc.

  7. Ella Poindexter on July 18, 2012 at 4:29 am

    My grandfather called them pineys too. He was born and raised in northwest Missouri but his father was from Knightstown, Indiana which is in Henry County so my grandfather maybe picked it up from his father. BTW something kind of funny. My grandson was born in South (New) Jersey near the Pine Barrens. Folks from there are considered hicks and are called Pineys. My grandson says “I’m a Piney and proud of it!” I’ve got to tell him about his great-great grandfather and the flower sometime. 🙂

    • Lee Martin on July 18, 2012 at 11:50 am

      Ella, I love the stories that you’ve shared. Thank you so much! And thanks for reading my blog and taking the time to comment. The pineys here this year weren’t very prolific. Too hot too early, perhaps? I sure do miss those crimson and cream pineys from the farm where I grew up. Blessings to you.

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  10. Deb Graner on May 26, 2020 at 7:20 pm

    Here in Kentucky they are called Pee-OH-knees. When I moved here from PA, I almost had no idea what they meant.
    Enjoyed your memories! TX!

    • Lee Martin on May 27, 2020 at 12:03 pm

      In my part of southeastern Illinois, they pronounced it pineys, with a long i. I was likewise unsettled when I heard the proper pronunciation. Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

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