Gathering the Red Peonies A Painting and a Story by Michael Anthony Milton

Gathering Peonies. New Media. © 2020. Michael Anthony Milton.

The proud Peony is an old-fashioned perennial plant that blooms in the days leading up to Memorial Day in the United States. Found in several varieties and colors, the scarlet Peony—proudly bearing names like Adolphe Rousseau, 1890, and Philippe Rivoire, 1911— was a perfect floral choice for commemorating lives lost in national service. The English have their poppies. Americans have peonies. Today, all over America, we pay due homage to all Armed Forces personnel that lost their lives in war.

The years immediately following the American Civil War were a time to heal. Sometimes that goal was realized. Too often it was not.

The lankly old Lawyer-from-Illinois was already making a turn towards reunion when he gave the Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. The morning light had made its appearance that day through sheets of rain. It seemed that clouds followed Lincoln everywhere. However, as the President stood, and shifted his awkward and tired limbs towards the lectern, "the sun broke through the clouds. Many persons, at the time and for years after, commented on this celestial phenomenon" (White, Lincoln's Greatest Speech, 2006, p. 2).

"From the rusted metal roof in the distance to the great old conifer in the yard, the town and country scene is intended to portray the hope of a new season . . ."

Lincoln’s speech, 5 minutes and 1 second, was by some measures more of a theological reflection than an address of State. The President "previewed his plans for healing a once-divided nation" (NPS, 2020). Lincoln's conciliatory tone was met with open hostility by many in the Abolitionist movement, then, 41 days later, on Good Friday, 1865, at Ford's Theater, with a somber appreciation. Indeed, President Lincoln's magnaminty towards the South contributed greatly to the nation's path towards healing. His assassination also killed kindness in the air. Lincoln's disastrous successor, Andrew Johnson, did little to further Lincoln's vision of unity, and introduced just about everything bad to thwart it (McKitrick, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction, 1988). Confederate soldiers, sailors, and their widows received pensions from eleven state governments (believe it or not, I buried a daughter of a Civil War Soldier in Tennessee who received a war pension; yes, she was born very late in life to her father and his youthful bride). Because of the wedding-cake effect of federalism and budgets, it is not wrong to conclude that the Federal Government indirectly supported the care of Southern soldiers or their widows. By the end of the 19th century those former Confederates who could vow allegiance to the U.S.A. were given restored pensions by the War Department. It was important for national unity to honor both sides of the War. Lincoln had been clear, if not fiercely opposed by many in his own party, that reconciliation was the key to reconstruction. The Southern People were not to be treated as traitors but brothers and sisters.

"With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds."

— Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.

Memorial Day was born out of the "better angels" of Reconstruction. The custom of arranging flowers around the grave of a soldier fallen in battle was inaugurated by the mothers, sisters, and widows of the Southern soldiers lost in the American Civil War (see, e.g., Janney, Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause, 2008). Women were said to have "decorated" the graves of those lost in battle, or those who died afterwards from age or affliction, both worsened by the pestilence of war.

"Decoration Day is a powerful ritual of piety. At the deepest spiritual level, a decoration is an act of respect for the dead that reaffirms one's bonds with those who have gone before."

— Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour, Decoration Day in the Mountains (Univ. of NC Press), vii.

The tradition was soon adopted by the women of former Union soldiers. When I was a boy this civic holiday was still called Decoration Day (for decorating the graves of service members). We went to my father’s grave, and, then, to my uncle’s grave. We cleaned the headstones. We left Peony. Recently, I asked a colleague and friend (who is like a daughter to me) about her favorite flower. She replied, "Peonies." I asked about her favorite color for the Great American Peony. She replied, “Red.” I immediately knew that I would have to paint a picture of red peonies. For the red peonies represent not only Memorial Day but, in a real way, it stands for the spirit of a nation. The legacy and lore of the Peony, with its simple elegance—a sort of down-home, front-porch, iced-tea, and white-picket fence vision of American innocence— is a hope for a new day, a chance to start again, and an invitation to reconciliation. We had red colored peonies at our old home place. My wife and I also prefer red Peony. Those scarlet flowers are blooming outside as I write. The crimson Peony speaks of not only blood shed, but an heirloom flower that grew (and grows) in so many American gardens.

“The long roots of the peony strike deep into the past.”

— Alice Coats, Flowers and Their Histories (in Heirloom Peonies, 2020).

In the painting, red peonies petals fall into the shadows of a road running by the garden. Golden beams of buttercream sunlight illumine a warm spring day, and gently bathe the young lady in the straw hat. Amidst the perennial fields at a country home here in North Carolina the Peony works its magic. Saturated scarlet explosions are dashed against the green foliage. From the rusted metal roof in the distance to the great old conifer in the yard, the town and country scene is intended to portray the hope of a new season, while cherishing the comforting memories of an heirloom moment in time. I did not want it to be overly sentimental. So, I used a splattering effect to "rough up" the vision. There are shadows here. Decoration Day is still a day, not at the park, but, rather, at a grave. Hope is thus preserved in the ruins of war.

These imaginings seek to observe this year’s Memorial Day. May the Lord bless all of those who served, and, especially the mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters who, like their godly mothers in the faith who started this holiday, find resurrection hope in the humble Peony. I pray for those who have been made fatherless (and, yes, there are a few who lost a wife or mother, a sister or daughter in our wars, and the pain of that is beyond my comprehension). I pray for God's peace upon those who still felt the awful pain of loss. I give thanks for those intrepid souls that guard us today.

I asked about a flower. And I experienced the fragrance of God's presence. I hope this painting and maybe even these few words will be used to give you a lovely Memorial Day weekend.

Learn more at michaelmilton.org/art

Works Cited

Heirloom Peonies. (2020). Old House Gardens. https://oldhousegardens.com/display/cat/Peony

Jabbour, A., & Jabbour, K. S. (2010). Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians. Univ of North Carolina Press.

Janney, C. E. (2008). Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause. Univ of North Carolina Press.

McKitrick, E. L. (1988). Andrew Johnson and reconstruction. Oxford University Press on Demand.

Washington, M. A. 900 O. D. S., & Us, D. 20024 P.-6841 C. (n.d.). Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address—Lincoln Memorial (U.S. National Park Service). Retrieved May 21, 2020, from https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/lincoln-second-inaugural.htm

White, R. C. (2006). Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. Simon and Schuster.