The peonies are in bloom. Each year, in time for Memorial Day, these fragrant flowers make their showy appearance. When I was a child, my mother made bouquets. She put a handful of gravel in the bottom of a coffee can wrapped in aluminum foil. She added the cut peonies and maybe a few irises if they happened to still be in bloom. She poured in water, and we set out for the cemeteries to tend to the family graves. Up until 1971, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day, a day set aside for remembrance.
These days, I live some distance from my native southeastern Illinois, so at times like these I must rely on my memory of Decoration Days gone by. My parents and I lived on a farm in Lukin Township on the Lawrence County side of the gravel road that divided it from Richland County. I sat in the back seat of my father’s Chevrolet Bel Air, coffee cans full of flowers on the floorboards at my feet while we drove the county line. Our Bel Air was redolent with the scent of peonies—pink and white and red. Gravel pinged our fender wells when my father steered too close to the center where a county road grader had left a ridge. Mourning doves and killdeer took wing ahead of our advancing car. The dust rolled out behind us.
I come from this place of dirt and dust. I come from the fields of soybeans and wheat and corn. Barbed wire hooked into my heart at an early age, and even though I eventually moved away, turning my back on a farmer’s life, those barbs never fully let go. If I close my eyes, I can see the milkweed in the fencerows. I can hear the lowing of cattle. I can remember the way the air smells just before rain. I remember my mother’s print cotton dresses, the ones with thin matching belts, and my father’s Dickies work suits in forest green or silver gray twill. I remember the way I helped my mother carry the flowers to the graves at Gilead and Ridgley and Shiloh, how we snugged them up against the headstones. I recognized my two grandmothers’ graves and the graves of the grandfathers I never knew because they died either before or shortly after I was born. I didn’t pay attention when my father and mother talked about other ancestors. They were merely names to me: Henry, John, Mary Ann, Warren, Abigail, Lola, Owen. It would be years before they’d matter to me, years before I’d gather their stories to connect me more fully to my family and this place I’d left.
Today, on what we now call Memorial Day, I’m thinking about all my ancestors, and I’m thinking about those country cemeteries and how sometimes, when you’re there, you can suddenly realize you’re removed from any artificially made sound—no traffic noise, no clamor of machinery, no blast of music, no human voice. Nothing but the call of a crow, the chatter of a squirrel, the wind moving through a field of timothy grass. The timothy moves in waves. It undulates. It whooshes in the wind. Listen. Listen to the whispers of all who came before, telling us to remember them. Once upon a time they were as alive as any of us can ever hope to be.