I also realize that October is a funny time to be talking about Peonies, but another part of my life, genealogy, has recently reminded me of this moment when Peonies proved to solve a family mystery.
This gardening tale comes from the northern part of our state in Pendleton County. As so many of you know, small abandoned cemeteries dot the countryside as little testaments to the thriving communities that once populated these remote areas. As we moved away from farming as the main income producer, the familial descendants of these ancestors also moved away leaving the cemeteries to fall into serious disrepair or even complete obscurity.
This little cemetery is known as the Fisher Cemetery in the northern end of the county on number 10. It sits just down from the old Fisher School house. Unfortunately, the cemetery has had most of its stones knocked down and then piled into the middle of the cemetery on a skid by a kind person that cleaned them out of the fence row. Either scenario is horrible since the exact location of the stone in relation to remains was forever lost.
After going through the stones I could lift and checking a similar inventory taken years ago, I noticed that some relatives appeared to be unaccounted for. Let's put it this way, when you get to official burial records for 19th century small country cemeteries, the "official" part can be extremely sketchy. I have a set of 4th great grandparents whose burial location is unknown. They could be buried on previously owned family property, or even more likely, they could be in a cemetery like this one, where the number of related individuals to this couple is pretty high, therefore increasing the odds of a final resting place.
I suspect my elusive 4th great grandparents could be in this cemetery, but I still have not found confirmation, even though a teenage son as well as a grown son and entire family are in this cemetery.....pretty good circumstantial evidence. As I searched for this elusive couple, I also had another individual on my "lost" list that I had very little hope of ever finding.
Her name was Mary Malinda Mockbee. She was the daughter of William Mockbee and Jane (Allender) Mockbee, but was named after her grandmother Mary Malinda (Moore) Mockbee - one of the elusive 4th great grandparents I had been searching for. This Mary Malinda Mockbee died at the age of 14 from Typhoid Fever, and her burial place has been in question.
On a trip to this cemetery in middle March, I was admiring the gravestones of my other 4th great grandparents - James Jackson Allender & Mary (Stout) Allender - whose gravestones were some of the very few still standing. Since it was very early Spring, the Peony stalks were breaking ground at a height of about 6 inches above the grassline on this couple's plot. As I pondered which family members might have planted these peonies so long ago, a small cluster of the same peonies a few yards away suddenly caught my attention. They were growing vigorously with no stone to signify who they might be honoring each year, and the stone could be in the pile at the other end, but I wasn't so sure since I hadn't found any of my relatives in the pile.
I took this opportunity to run back to the car for the tire-iron in my trunk and proceeded to stab the ground around the peonies. Within a few seconds I hit stone and digging only a few inches under the soil uncovered the broken pieces of the stone belonging to Mary Malinda Mockbee. I could read enough to know who it was and even noted that her parents' names were inscribed there as well. Apparently, the pieces had been under the ground for so many years that they had eluded the previous cemetery inventory taken in the 1970s.
The discovery was such a small moment in the grand course of history and small even for my own family history. But she was precious to someone at some time, and I was happy to be able to solve this little family mystery once and for all. The records are now complete as to where this teenager was laid to rest.....right next to her grandparents. It gives me hope that her other set of grandparents might be nearby, but more importantly, it reminded me of how important gardening is historically.
Those flowers were lovingly planted as a reminder of the life renewed and the life that continues even after we are gone. Where did these peonies come from? Probably from Mary's mother's house, or one of her many sibling's homes. Perhaps they came from her grandparents homes and had quite a genealogy of their own. We may never know, but they are a living, breathing, glimpse into the vibrant world that came before us....a link to our families and a celebration of our heritage.
This story serves to represent another reason why I enjoy visiting cemeteries....not only for the historical information and artistry of the stones, but for the colorful gifts planted on the plots of loved ones so many years ago. If you want to begin the wonderful journey of heritage gardening, cemeteries are a wonderful place to start as they have wonderful examples of the varieties grown during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Plus, they can tell you a little about your ancestors and their favorite choices in gardening!