The Scent of Peonies: Sensory Details and Memoir

Compared to a year ago, the world seems a bit more open. With COVID positivity rates dropping and mask mandates relaxing, a certain degree of normalcy is returning to our lives. I fear, though, that too many people think this signals the end of the pandemic, but, of course, it doesn’t. There’s still too much we don’t know about how long our vaccines will be effective, new variants, and what will happen once cold weather drives us all inside when fall and then winter arrive. Still, there’s reason to hope, but there’s also sufficient reason to respect this virus and to remember the many lives it’s taken.

On this Memorial Day weekend, the peonies are in bloom. When I was a boy, we called this holiday, Decoration Day because it was the day when we decorated the family graves with flowers. I helped my mother make bouquets of peonies and irises. We cut the flowers and arranged them in coffee cans with foil wrapped around them. We put gravel in the bottoms to give the cans weight, and we added water. I rode in the backseat of my parents’ car, cans of flowers on the floorboards. Each time I smell a peony, no matter how old I get, I always remember those days when we took the flowers to Ridgley and Gilead and Shiloh where generations of Martins and Reads were buried.

What scents will we remember from our pandemic days?  Hand sanitizer, paper mask, bleach, soap? Or in the worst-case scenarios, no smells at all. So much of the fabric of our lives resides in our bodies. Sensory details evoke specific time periods and people and emotions. This can be particularly important for writers of memoir. In this case, the smells we remember can call up our most poignant memories and help us access the stories we have to tell.

What are your scents, the ones that immerse you in a particular time of your life? I remember the sweet smell of the peonies and how careful I was when I carried the coffee cans full of flowers to the graves. At the oldest cemeteries, the ones off gravel roads deep in the country, I remember the chattering of squirrels, the breeze moving through the cedar trees, the scent of honeysuckle in the fence rows. I remember how my mother told me not to run across the graves because people were sleeping there. I remember her soft, sweet voice and how patient she was with me even at the times when I didn’t deserve her patience. I remember so many times when I seemed to stretch that patience to its limit before she tapped some bottomless well of love within her, and she never lost faith in me.

Decoration Day is a day for remembering the dead. Let your body take you to them. Find the sensory details that help you resurrect those who are now gone. Settle on a particular time period of your life. Remember the specific moments—the ones that shaped who you are in the here and now, the unresolved events that still haunt you in the middle of the night, the days unlike any others, the ones you want to preserve on the page. Start writing the scenes, trusting the particular details to make them resonate for your readers. Look for a causal chain of events, one creating another. Find the shape of your narrative. All things are possible if we trust the sensory details we carry in our bodies, the details that take us back to the dead.


  1. Kathleen on May 31, 2021 at 11:41 pm

    Thank you, Lee, for a helpful column. Decoration Day was my birthday in those years of childhood, which is enough to engender many memories that came to me today as I filled a vase at Mom’s grave with deep red carnations.

    • Lee Martin on June 1, 2021 at 11:58 am

      Thank you for your comment, Kathleen. I’m sure those red carnations brought back many memories.

  2. Virginia Chase Sutton on June 1, 2021 at 9:16 pm

    I love and adore peonies–remember how they were on the table, petals gently falling, at VCFA graduation. No peonies in the desert though and I miss them terribly. I remember this as Memorial Day and we had a parade, and as a Girl Scout, I marched in it. Pressed uniform, sash, white socks, black shoes. There was a tine cemetery in town, no one ever went there as no recent burials there. But we lined up, saluted the girl scout (the only salute we knew other than the Pledge), Someone old would play taps. Someone old put flowers on inside the little cemetery. I was a bit baffled by the whole experience, pretty young, but loved the hoopla. And the respect.’.

    • Lee Martin on June 2, 2021 at 11:32 am

      That’s a great memory, Virginia! I love all the details, especially the pressed uniform, sash, white socks, black shoes. Such a picture of order and structure in what I know from your other work was sometimes a world of disorder. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Joy Gaines-Friedler on June 12, 2021 at 7:19 am

    Rubbing alcohol. A childhood in and out of the hospital from 5-12-years-old. Alone in a children’s ward with only my mother 35 miles from home. Also the smell of rubber – as when, back then, they put a rubber mask over your face to put you to sleep with a concoction including ether. Sorry. Sad stuff. But none-the-less.

    • Lee Martin on June 12, 2021 at 3:04 pm

      No need to apologize, Joy. Sensory details take us in all sorts of directions to all sorts of feelings.

Leave a Comment