Research and Resurrection: Writing the Dead
The peonies are late this year. Here we are, Memorial Day weekend, and the buds have yet to open. When I was a boy, my mother made arrangements from peonies and irises in coffee cans anchored with gravel in their bottoms, and we drove from country cemetery to country cemetery, leaving those flowers on the family graves. These were the days when Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day. What began as a holiday to commemorate our Civil War dead, became a way to honor all our dead ancestors whether veterans or not.
So I became familiar with the names of the family members I never had the chance to know: John A. Martin, James Henry Martin, George William Martin, Elizabeth Gaunce Martin, Mary Ann Inyart Martin, Stella Inyart Martin, Warren Read, Harrison Read, Abigail Dean Read. All of them at one time in the bloom of their youth.
The public library in the county seat where I grew up has an online newspaper project that catalogs entire issues from the county newspapers beginning in 1840. There was a time when these newspapers had what they called “items” from all the rural communities, places like Petrolia, Pleasant Hill, and Lukin where my family lived. Each community had a correspondent who reported the week’s comings and goings. I can search for my ancestors’ names and find, for instance, that on a Sunday afternoon July, 1961, my parents and I and my grandmother, Stella Martin, paid a visit to Mr. and Mrs. John Inyart to celebrate John’s birthday. John was my grandmother’s brother. His wife was named Lillie and they lived on Maple Street in Lawrenceville. I remember my great-uncle as a gregarious sort who liked to play the harmonica and sing and dance a jig. Reading this item in a long-ago newspaper brings him back to me. I remember that when we visited, if three p.m rolled around, all conversation stopped so he could listen to the local news on WAKO radio. I remember the linoleum on their living room floor, the side porch of their clapboard house and the gingerbread corbels of its screen door. I can hear the squeal of that door’s spring when someone pushed it open and the tap against the frame when it came closed. Tall maple trees that shaded the backyard, the smell of chicken frying for supper, the rustle of a wall calendar every time the oscillating fan disturbed its pages, on summer days the chirring of the locusts and the bumping of the June bugs against the porch light, hollyhocks at the front steps, the squeak of the porch swing, and finally—off in a future I couldn’t begin to imagine—the sweet scent of carnations and the containers of gladioli and chrysanthemums around John’s and Lillie’s caskets at the funeral home.
This one item in this old newspaper has brought all these details back to me. Just the fact of our visit on that July Sunday in 1961 has invited me to go back in memory. I can’t say I recall that particular day, but I do remember many such visits. Research can stimulate a writer’s memory. It can also tell stories the writer may have forgotten or never known. Using the Find a Grave website, I learn that John Inyart died at 11 a.m. on January 1, 1971. Lillie died the next morning at 7 o’clock. Funeral services were held for Mr. and Mrs. Inyart at the Nichols Chapel with the Reverend M. E. Haynes officiating. Burial was in the Derr Cemetery near Pinkstaff.
The dead are never far from us. They leave behind them the signs of their living, sometimes in old newspaper items, sometimes in letters or journals or lawsuits, and sometimes in the ruffled petals of peonies and their fragrant scent. For writers—particularly memoirists, but even poets and fiction writers—research can be like the unfolding of those petals, each detail a resurrection. We find the facts of a life, and through the careful arrangement on the page those who have gone return. “The bottom line,” Dorothy Allison says, “is I’m writing to save the dead. I’m writing to save the people I have lost, some of whose bodies are still walking around.”
This is a lovely memory and an instruction on writing. Thank you Lee.
Thank you for your comment, Kate. I send along all good wishes to you.
I thoroughly enjoy being transported to another era through your writings! Your instructions on writing, as well as your books, are filled with such rich, descriptive, enveloping text! Thank you for sharing your gift with the world!
Thank you, Cleora!
Thank you for this reminder of the tradition of visiting graves on Memorial Day and how important it is to bring our young people along.
Thanks for reading and responding, Cathy. I still love driving out into the country and visiting those old cemeteries.
I love this. I am a genealogist first, but some of what I learn from my research always leeches into my writing in some way!
Tina, what we learn in our research can always be used in our fiction or our poetry as well as our nonfiction.
“The dead are never far from us. They leave behind them the signs of their living…” — so poetic, lilting, and emotional. I very much enjoyed reading this beautiful writing. Thank you, Lee Martin! Thanks also to Jeanne Voelker for providing the link to your website. There is a lot to think about here; what we remember, what we will leave behind, even, the treasures still in our possession. For your amusement, I will tell you that as a young teenager in the 1960’s, I wrote “items” for our local weekly, the Peninsula Gateway in Gig Harbor. I recall being paid 35 cents per inch, back when a ticket to see the Beatles in person cost $10! Sometimes it was a scramble to find enough social doings, but everyone liked to see their name in the paper. Thanks for that memory, too!
Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to respond. I love the fact that you were paid 35 cents per inch. I always remember the correspondent’s family members getting quite a bit of space in our local items.
Thank you, Lee. I’ve just finished a piece about my hidden family. Your comments brought many things home, especially the research part, which in my case, yielded some surprises.
Lorraine, that research can indeed yield surprises and cause us to revise the history we thought we knew.
Sometimes research can yield a discomforting, even embarrassing glimpse into the past. I recently came across a group photo from the 1950s that featured people dressed in costumes representing different countries from around the world. My mother was dressed as a Spanish woman. No problem there. Unfortunately, several other people had put on blackface in an effort to look like Africans. Knowing that my grandchildren might someday find this photo, I thought about destroying it. In the end, I decided to keep it but add a note on the back stressing that putting on blackface is a totally unacceptable thing to do.
Ah, yes. Whenever we start poking around in the past, we just don’t know what we might find. Thanks for sharing your story!
Wow, this so takes me back to my childhood and all my relatives still in the Ozarks. I joined Ancestry a number of years ago, leading me to facts, pictures, and stories I never would have known.
We come from similar places, Debbie. Sometimes we find the facts and sometimes they find us.
Lee, this is absolutely beautiful, and something I’ve been thinking about lately. Thanks for this, and I especially love this Dorothy Allison quote.
Thanks, Nancy! Wishing you all the best with your future work.
This piece resonated so strongly for me. I’ve based many of my characters on members of my family, many of whom are gone now. I used to tell people that it would be impossible for me to create characters as fascinating and crazy as the people I grew up with. So why not use them? Of course, I realized along the way that I was searching for a way to understand them, these people who had shaped the person I became, to decipher what often seemed like senseless or cruel or self-defeating behavior. But they were joyful too, and generous in ways I didn’t recognize as a girl. I would place them in fictional situations and imagine how they’d behave. Of course, it taught me more about myself than about them, but the work of trying to understand them on the page triggered compassion that I’m not sure would have come on its own. Thank you for writing about this, Lee. Very powerful. ~MA
I love what you say about the work on the page triggering compassion that you’re not sure you’d come to on you own. Exactly! Such is the power of storytelling.