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.