Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Today's word of the day was: poppy

Our boy-grown-to-a-man John leaned his forearms down on the cold granite of our kitchen island and looked up. “It surprised them that I knew it.” In a flash not to be measured by time, I imagined him ten years ago, and I felt that tug inside, in the space between my heart and my belly button, where memories cinch themselves to me. I was not there with him then. He had crossed the wooded hill where I could not follow; nineteen years old, his hair cropped short and refusing to be trained to the side; over across the ocean, up the craggy shoreline, into the foggy streets of England and Wales, where he wore holes through the soles of his shoes in the name of Jesus Christ. It was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. On his lapel he pinned a blood red poppy, made of crepe paper. When people realized he was an American missionary, they quizzed him about the poppy.
Remembrance Day. Poppy Day. Armistice Day. Veteran’s Day here in America. Times had changed. The old men of the war to end all wars had left the round tin hats of their combat youth up in the attics of the stacks of townhomes lining the streets of England. Youngsters paid no attention any more. Even older people hardly cared. And certainly not an American boy. So they tried to trip him up, tossing their spent fags on the ground, twisting their shoes over the smoking butts. They lifted their heads like horses nodding and said “wha’s that on your lapel there?” The conversation would end up leading Johnny to these words:

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.

Gram-of-the-poet’s-heart had paid him to memorize it when he was a boy. She paid all our kids to memorize great poems. “You must stand erect, look me in the eyes, recite the title, the author, and the complete poem. Say it like you mean it, and do not let the break in lines and the use of rhyme make it sing-songy. Say it like you mean it.” Those were the rules. Then she would give them five dollars. Every time thereafter they could earn a quarter for each recital. Gram the patriot, who bore her first child alone in her youth while her young husband fought in the second war-to-end-all-wars. She worked in Los Angeles with the other wives of soldiers, stopping regularly at the post office after work to see the listing of names of the dead. Every afternoon the ladies huddled together around the list, grateful on the days when no one recognized a name, frightened and mournful on the days they heard a gasp from the crowd. Then they cradled their sister-wives in their arms and let them sob. Gram says she no longer knew the man she had married when he came home. Casualties of war.
When Gram was a small girl, she says, she sat in her classroom in the little school in Blackfoot, Idaho on Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, both of which honor veterans. She recalls the quivering voice of her teacher as she held a book of poetry against her chest and repeated the words. “In Flanders Fields the poppies grow…” Tears worked their way down the cheeks of the teacher she loved, dropping onto her chest as she read. There was no need for a book. She knew the poem by heart. Her husband had died in the First World War. Gram cannot hear the poem without feeling the little girl sorrow.
I feel the sorrow, too. I feel it and embrace it when I hear my boy speak, his shoulders back, the title and the author and the lilt in his voice, like he had left part of his own heart over in the streets of England and Wales. Today I will open the drawer of my jewelry box and retrieve the crepe paper poppy from the American Legion. I’ll pin it to my lapel. Though I have been spared, for no good reason, from the personal knowledge of war-loss, I know what it means.

Here's a link to the story of the writing of In Flanders Fields by Leiutenant Colonel John MaCrae: www.arlingtoncemetery.net/flanders.htm


  1. Wow!...just wow... I hate to admit my ignorance but I did not know about the poppy. I love that Gram paid the kids for memorizing poems- that's awesome. At work today they honored the vetrans in a little ceremony and many wore the poppy all day long. Thank you for sharing this, you have made me smarter :)and hopefully more compassionately aware that this isn't just a random day off work (for adam not me:)).

  2. Well done, Cori. Well done indeed.