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Springboro author who wrote of birth mother search, won DDN award dies

Peggy Barnes — a Dayton-area author who embarked on a journey to find her birth mother once Alabama unsealed its adoption records in 2004 — will be buried Tuesday.

Barnes, 77, died Dec. 5 surrounded by her family, according to a Dayton Daily News obituary.

OBITUARIES: Read Dayton Daily News obituaries

Barnes, of Springboro, won best in show in the Dayton Daily News’ 2014 Short Story Contest for her fiction piece, “The Evening News.”

“The greatest advice I’ve ever received is to write every day, which sounds sort of boring and lame but is ever so true,” she told the newspaper in 2014.

The Birmingham, Ala., native published a memoir — “I Knew You By Name: The Search for My Lost Mother” — in 2015.

“I’d always been told my birth parents were dead,” Barnes wrote. “At age 65, the last thing I needed was another mother. But I wanted to find Pauline. If I could find out what happened to her, maybe I could answer some of the questions I had never understood about my own cracked-up life.”

A 4:30 p.m. memorial service will be held Tuesday after a 3:30 p.m. visitation at Schlientz & Moore, 820 Miamisburg Centerville Road, in Centerville.

Former Dayton Daily News columnist Mary McCarty wrote of Barnes’ love of writing in 2001. Below, reprinted in full, is her column.

A TAKE ON THE JOY OF WRITING

By Mary McCarty

Published: Jan. 31, 2001

The first time you meet Peggy Barnes, you can’t help noticing that she has a gift for story.

I noticed it, actually, before I met her. She couldn’t very well provide directions to her home in Springboro, after all, without telling the story about the peacocks.

“Don’t run them over,” she warned, before launching into her tale of peacock love:

The male, Rainbow, had come with the house when Barnes and her husband, John, moved in several years ago. One day Rainbow disappeared, and, as the days and months wore on, the Barnes despaired of his return. Five months later, Rainbow returned with his mate, a pea hen named Henrietta. “He just showed up at the doorstep with her, as if to say, ‘Isn’t she cute?’ ’ Barnes recalled.

What had Rainbow been doing all that time? Hanging out at peacock singles bars? Signing up for an online dating service? And how did this beplumed Cyrano convince his Roxane to come home with him?

It’s the kind of thing Peggy Barnes would think about, because stories are always swirling in her brain like snowflakes in a snow globe. A former teacher, Barnes free-lanced for many years and served as food editor for the now-defunct Dayton magazine. But it wasn’t until the age of 53 that she wrote her first short story, Tropical Depression, which won Cincinnati magazine’s annual fiction award and a trip to the annual writers’ conference in Santa Barbara, Calif. When her second short story won a Short Story Digest competition, Barnes thought, “Hmmm … this isn’t so hard.”

A failed attempt at novel-writing convinced her otherwise, and for a long time, she couldn’t write. Her writers’ group, the Byliners, encouraged her to return to short fiction.

So did her acceptance in the prestigious MFA program at Bennington College in Vermont, known as the Bennington Writing Seminars. She was one of two incoming students to be awarded the $2,000 Alumni scholarship.

So today, at 60, she is embarking on a rigorous academic program when she could be relaxing at her tranquil home in the country, playing hostess to her four children and nine grandchildren. Why is she chained to her computer instead?

“Creating fiction becomes almost an affliction,” Barnes said. “It’s obsessive behavior. Why else would I be writing stories nobody wants? Who’s reading short fiction these days? But you have these characters in your mind and their stories must be told.”

It took time to reach that point: “At first I couldn’t think of anything, and just sat at my computer and wept. But when you write every day and keep at it, at some point the characters will tell you what they’re going to do and what they’re going to say, and it’s thrilling.” Her husband’s encouragement has made all the difference. “I don’t understand why she wants to work that hard,” said John Barnes, smiling. “But I couldn’t be prouder of her.” Bennington’s program allows the graduate students to study from home, while attending intensive lecture sessions twice a year. During her first session in January, Barnes initially felt self-conscious about being one of the oldest students on campus. “It was a little difficult at first to know whether to be a Mom or to fit in,” she said. “But I felt just like them; we’re all in this together.”

Whether her fellow students are 25 or 50, whether they hail from Georgia or Greece or Guatemala, she knows they share something important: This terrible, wonderful affliction of writing.

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