Members of The American Legion Auxiliary were selling poppies in front of the grocery store. Every year, leading up to May 25th , National Poppy Day, they stand out front in partial uniform and tangerine sashes. I always buy one and this time, Connor bought one. He asked me why. “Later, I will tell you a story.”
The flowers are small fabric tokens “made by veterans for veterans”. Tiny red emblems of memory from WWI and Flanders field. Young men who never came home and old men who honor them.
We are over 100 years beyond WWI events. And yet they imprinted the worlds of people who made us. My grandfather, Alvie Green, served in WWII. And standing next to him at the age of 6, I bought my first poppy. I asked why. He said “Later, I will tell you a story.”
And he did tell me of the war that began when he was two and how his uncle and older family friends talked about serving. Some left their Kentucky homestead plots and left their ghost and bones in Europe to become part of another country’s earth. And I did not understand the gravitas of war itself, but I felt the weight of perceived sacrifice as he spoke.
We sat in lawn chairs under the big maple. The late May breeze settled between us and it got very quiet. I held the stiff red canvas flower in my small hands, rubbing each petal lightly. His eyes were damp and he nodded a bit. “Wasteful.” He mouthed the words, but no sound came.
Alvie Green was not a man easily riled or emotional. He loved his wife and his family. At 5’2’ he was a giant in my world. The kind of men who follow their heart and gut without fear, live by simplicity and common sense. The man in the Steinbeck novel who always does the right thing for everyone. And I was six and understood the Land of Oz better than the real world. And the Wicked Witch tried to trick Dorothy and her friends with poppies.
“In Flanders Field”
So this stayed with me. This understanding that conflict with weapons accelerates the waste of human life. “In Flanders Field” was written in 1915 by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae who fought in the Second Battle of Ypres. It was, at the time, sung as a round. A call from the dead to the living to pick up their cause. Because the dead are like us – dawns, sunsets, lives, loves. Moments of beauty shared and passed and ended and now drop between crosses and poppies as a call to arms.
In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
My Great Aunt Esther used to have what I guess you would call a butler? A gardener? He was of Japanese descent and his name was Aki. Aki could touch any instrument with strings and give it grace and meaning. Once, Alvie listened fascinated as Aki played “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
I had heard this song countless times by the Kingston Trio on my mom‘s 8-track compilation called “Solitary Dreams”.
And we come back to the cyclical nature. Where have all the flowers gone? Why buy a poppy? When will they ever learn?
My own poem is not nice. Not pretty. But all these tropes culminate over a lifetime. A hundred years later, we are still in conflict. Whether it be in a militarized zone or battling the opioid crisis, it ties back to that heavy sense of loss – tragedy of waste. I respect men and women who leave their homes to keep us safe. But now we know about the fallout of conflict and PTSD and lives that carry hurt and loss forward in a cycle – even when the event has passed.
I ache sometimes for a peaceful answer in a seemingly brutal world. We need to be able to say something other than “I’m sorry for your loss.”