Remembering the Poppy

I don’t remember if the school handed us a poppy to wear sometime in early November, or whether we paid a modest amount to wear that beloved badge.

Our fathers went to work, our mothers shopped and played bridge, the postman dropped by — all sporting a poppy on a lapel. Canadians and Brits still wear them —  the newsreaders on the BBC news haven’t retired theirs as of last night, a few days after November 11. In fact, the British delegation took some heat at the G20 earlier this week for their poppies — some other countries didn’t appreciate that splash of red. I’m happy to report that David Cameron told them, diplomatically, to shove it. Fashion note: The UK version now includes a dashing splash of faux foliage.

The Poppy is certainly cheap for such a crimson splash, but its provenance isn’t cheerful. It was the chosen official emblem of mourning for, and remembrance of, the millions of British Empire dead in the First World War. (As WWI didn’t turn out to be The War to End All Wars, we’ve many more dead to remember.) It features in the first line of the Canadian Army surgeon John McCrea’s immortal war  poem “In Flanders Fields,” and was considered the natural choice for the pin of painful memories.

To this day, it’s one of the two poems I learned in school I can still recite without effort. (The other is “Ozymandias.”)

Only once have I discussed the First World War with someone who’d fought in it — our family friend, Doug Read. He kept it light and short, recalling being so tired, young and hungry that he slept through the carnage at Ypres (or was it Vimy Ridge?) My English grandfather served in the Royal Navy, but he died before I could ask him for war stories.

In the time I’ve lived in the USA I’ve discovered that the Poppy isn’t ubiquitous — in fact I’ve been able to buy one only twice since I moved here, from eldery vets at a stoplight. They were sad plasticky versions of the flowers I remembered, but I was happy to buy them and proud to wear them them. Each year, I was literally the only employee to own one.

I need to find a way to bring back the Poppy. Hmmmm — how about I make some next year and sell them, proceeds going to the VFW? I may be a genius.



Filed under Art, Books, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, History, Holidays, Less than 50 cents, Politics

2 responses to “Remembering the Poppy

  1. Oh, my Dear Lord!!! This is too much—I thought I was the only one to mutter of “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” over the dishpan and walking the dog!

    Our poppies were of a paper I’ve not seen before or since, and have no idea of the content of—they were not of the roundness of the above, like a pair of movie-lips, but were more of the shape of a tiny simplified Libman mop, with the flappy strands starched within an inch of their lives.

    They were of the stiffest crepe paper known, and had a little green-covered twisty-wire with a small metal button that you could squeeze open to attach the flower to your collar or lapel. We all walked out of stores or the bank or post office, our red badge of generosity shining, and that quarter we’d handed over to the vets was well spent.

    And then, in about the ninth grade, I washed one in the pocket of my new white shirt with the painstaking monogram. You’d have thought the EMT’s took the shirt off a gunshot victim—that was a foot-wide stain, and several pairs of underpants in that wash-load were dyed an Elvis-caddy pink, as well.

    Mark me down for a dozen, please.

    • sparrowgrass

      I missed buying one this year–the vets were out at the 4-way, stopping traffic, but I had not one red cent on me. Even my little catch-all compartment in the console was empty. And on my way back, the vets were already gone.

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