Peonies, Decoration Day, and the rituals of small-town life

Peonies near my house in Lawrence.

FAIRBURY, Neb. – The peonies bloomed early this year.

A mild winter and an early spring coaxed up their long stems in late March, and by mid-April, tight green buds formed on those stems. They were in full bloom by the first week of May: white and pink and red blossoms that swayed in the warm breeze. A heavy rain cut their show time short, leaving them sodden and bedraggled, their stems drooping, their heavy, tousled heads sprawled on the wet grass.

That may seem insignificant, but it means that families throughout the Midwest will be forced to alter a tradition started more than a century ago: They will have no peonies to place on graves on Decoration Day.

Yes, the official name is Memorial Day, and has been since the 1860s, but for many of us in the northern half of the United States, it will always be Decoration Day, just as peonies will always mark its arrival.

Here in Nebraska, people count on the blooming of peonies and irises and lilacs to decorate the graves of loved ones. With dedication born of pride and tradition and love, they illuminate the hundreds of small cemeteries on the Plains with red, pink, white, lavender and yellow petals each Memorial Day weekend.

Peonies have always taken center stage, though.

When I grew up here in the 1960s and 1970s, we could count on the peonies blooming in late May, not long after the garden began producing rhubarb and radishes, lettuce and even a few bowls of strawberries. They provided the perfect adornment for the graves of the Wards and the Pickers, the Swetts and the Naimans, the Marschmans and the Helveys, the Zabels and the Zwiefels: parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors.

A peony bush near my grandparents' grave at the Fairbury cemetery.

The choice of the peony was hardly random. European immigrants brought them to America and planted them in their gardens and alongside their houses. Peony bushes require little care, shrugging off wind-spiked winters and searing summers, pests of all kinds, and even the all-too-common droughts. From Maine to Oregon, but especially in the Midwest, they provide magnificent bouquets with only the investment of time to clip their stems. Even the buds are hardy: Place them in water, with or without stems, and they eventually unfold into colorful fist-size blooms.

The peony’s resilience helped make it part of an important ritual. Each Memorial Day morning, I would follow my grandparents and my parents to the garden, where the peony bushes grew at the ends of carefully planted rows of vegetables. We’d clip the long stems of peonies, still dripping with dew, and lay them gently in shallow cardboard boxes. Then we’d carry them to the house, where we’d trim the stems until the flowers could stand without tipping over the old Mason jars that served as vases, jars that had been gathered from the cellar, washed and dried, and then carefully covered in aluminum foil. These were the same Mason jars that had been boiled clean season after season and filled with cucumbers and rhubarb, corn and beets, green beans and tomatoes.

Once these home-grown bouquets were complete, we’d hold boxes of them on our laps as we drove to the cemetery to complete the ritual of Decoration Day. The name is old-fashioned, but Decoration Day lingers in the lexicon of the Midwest. Here, “memorial” seems out of character with the farmers and laborers and shopkeepers whose livelihoods were tied to the land. Each May, people kneel before the graves of those who helped them learn about life and love, sacrifice and reward, past and future, and offer bouquets of peonies. They remember. They weep. But they don’t memorialize the dead. That would elevate neighbor over neighbor, relative over friend. In the egalitarian farm country born of shared sacrifice, memorialization has never seemed right.

In the egalitarian farm country born of shared sacrifice, memorialization has never seemed right.

On a trip here last week, I made a stop at the Fairbury cemetery, where the many peony bushes planted next to gravestones had only a few white and pink petals left. Mostly, they stood barren and scorched by the hot winds of record-breaking warmth of the last few months. A few people were already stopping to leave flowers, but most graves contained only faded artificial bouquets leaning askew in brass planters alongside headstones.

This weekend, though, the cemeteries will bloom again as families travel solemnly and dutifully to the graves of loved ones. They will take flowers cut from gardens and flowers bought from florists and grocery stores, and lay them on and before gravestones etched with familiar names. They will take artificial bouquets pieced together during stops at garage sales and craft stores, and arrange them in heavy vases that will remain until next year. Grave by grave, they will re-create the traditions of Decoration Day.

There will be no peonies, though. Not here anyway. They will return next year, of course. If we’re lucky, they will wait until late May to bloom. If not, Decoration Day will go on, just as it has this year, just as it has for generations.

Use of the term "Decoration Day" peaked around World War I. It has fallen since, as a search of Google Books shows.
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