I’m “reblogging” this thoughtful and moving Memorial Day post from my friend and colleague Chris McDonough. I’ll add that the poppy referred to in the poems of WWI is the European poppy, Papaver rhoeas, a annual plant that specializes on colonizing disturbed soils. It therefore bloomed all over the bombed-out landscape of Northern Europe during the war. The plant is still a successful “weed” in European grain fields; these days, the “war” is against herbicide-resistant varieties of poppy: progress of a kind, surely.
Before I heard of Pete Seeger and the Weavers and PP&M and long before I read McCrae, Sassoon, or my brilliant and beloved Wilfred Owen, and certainly before I read or taught The Iliad, I remember seeing those red paper poppies in the labels of men’s suits and pinned on ladies’ dresses. They looked cheerful, but weren’t, migrating to buttonholes from scarlet bouquets in small, white plastic buckets. Many people wore them. We lived in a small, Missouri town where people didn’t talk much, but always remembered sorrow quietly, individually, rarely as a group. My immigrant English mother made the connection for me of the red flowers and her father’s time in the trenches during WWI. His health suffered after, of course, for years, but seems he was lucky. I recently found letters from him to Mama and her step-mother in Yorkshire. They were sent from a convalescent home on the south coast that he was in and out of–“Gas, gas! Quick boys,” or something like that Owen writes. My grandfather’s letters were promising though and upbeat–‘getting stronger; breathing better; home soon; will find work; will pay fully what is owed; don’t worry; buy wee Jean some chocolate.’ Also before art, I remember the reverence with which we walked by an older, white frame house with a gold star in the front window. There were a couple of those gold star houses in our little town. We’d never talk as we passed. Children, we really didn’t understand, yet we sensed the proud, quiet hurt of the unseen people inside who were mourning still, years after WWII ended. And then my uncle in Korea; handsome, fun, bright classmates shipped off to their 1968 Senior Trip–Vietnam. We remember, Pete, but don’t “ever learn.”
Thank you for this moving remembrance. “What candles may be held to speed them all?”