Thursday, April 15, 2010

Of Peewees and Peonies

There are many signs we all look for as spring takes its gentle hold and we anticipate the move into early summer. For some, it’s the sighting of the first robin, while others wait for tulips and daffodils to make their appearance. But for me, the two harbingers of spring and early summer days will always be the same--peewees and peonies.
Peewees, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, are “any of eight species of birds of the genus Contopus (family Tyrannidae); named for its call, which is monotonously repeated from an open perch.”
Monotonous or not, my mother loved the sound they made as they joined into the celebratory songfest that returned to our large backyard each year.
“Listen, I hear a peewee,” she’d say.
“Pee-wee, pee-wee,” she’d call back in a high, clear voice that always made me imagine the girl she once was.
Sometimes, they would even seem to answer her, or, at least, that’s what she thought, and the back-and-forth cry would continue on and on into the warm, spring day.
My father, on the other hand, was a peony lover. That same backyard was filled with flowers and flowering shrubs and trees, from the sweet-smelling lilac bush near our back door, to the apple and cherry trees that bloomed each spring. But most impressive, to me, at least, was the long row of peony bushes that dominated one section of yard. As a kid, I was fascinated by the sight of the tightly packed peony buds, which swarmed with ants consuming the flower’s sweet nectar. If I felt like living dangerously, I would grab my taped-up Louisville Slugger, pick out a few waist-high blossoms and practice my homerun stroke.
“Sloan steps to the plate. He takes a big cut at a fast ball and it’’’s OUTAHERE!”
Happily, there were plenty of flowers that survived my Mickey Mantle-wannabe phase and burst into full, beautiful bloom in time to serve their real purpose.
It was an every-Sunday occurrence that I remember like it was yesterday instead of decades ago. My dad would cut and gather armfuls of peonies, zinnias and other flowers he raised, then put them into buckets that he placed into the huge trunk of his beloved 1951 Packard and head, with me and/or my brother and sister in tow, to the Galva cemetery.
The old Sloan plot is located near the center of the cemetery, an interesting place for a young boy to play and explore. While those old family headstones of ours are nothing elaborate, they are surrounded by lavish and unique stones and markers, including a cut-stone stairway leading to one monument, and a large cinder-like stone that was, supposedly, a meteorite discovered in a field by the civil war veteran whose grave it marks. When I got old and strong enough to handle a pump and a full bucket, it became my job to dispose of the faded blossoms from the week before, then fill the buckets from one of the hand pumps that dotted the cemetery. My father would pour water into the large crocks he kept at the gravesite, then gently arrange the bright, beautiful gifts he had brought.
Dad wasn’t an especially demonstrative man, but that week-after-week trip spoke volumes about the love and respect he held for his mother and father, along with the grandparents and others who rested there.
My parents both died over 30 years ago, just over a year apart. The old family gravesite was too full to allow room for both of them, so my dad purchased lots in the newer section after the death of my mom. It’s a nice enough area, though quite windy at times and treeless to allow more space and easier maintenance. The wind and constant sun make it nearly impossible to maintain fresh flowers or living plants, so we’ve taken to marking their graves with artificial and dried arrangements and wreaths that we make ourselves and change with the seasons. It’s lovingly done, but no effort at all compared to my dad’s weekly ritual.
I go out there from time to time, sometimes to check to see if everything is still intact, and sometimes just to visit. I stop by the old family plot and the nearby grave of a dear family friend. But I always end up in that new section, where mom and dad and so many friends and neighbors now rest.
It is, as it should be, a quiet place that’s just right for thought, reflection and even a little prayer. A perfect place, even, to listen for those peewees, as they sing their unmistakeable song. And a perfect place, indeed, to breath deep, hoping to catch a lingering trace of those soft, sweet scents--and memories--of spring.

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