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.”