The humble poppy, a symbol of memory and resilience | News, Sports, Jobs

I have fond memories of strolling my grandmother’s boardwalk in late spring and stopping to enjoy her bed of brightly colored poppies. Watching their bright crimson heads sway in the breeze always brought a smile. It wasn’t until much later that I learned of their meaning and connection to Memorial Day. This very resilient weed (yes, it is technically classified as a weed) became a symbol of hope and perseverance during a very dark and dark time in our history, the First World War.

Some war-weary soldiers enjoyed seeing these bright splashes of color so much that they tore off the colorful heads, pressed them, and included them in their letters to loved ones back home. Their brilliance, unlike the carnage that surrounded them, lifted spirits and they were seen as a beacon of hope.

A story related to poppies is that of Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a brigade surgeon for the Allied artillery unit during the First World War. He also noticed that all over Europe, on various battlefields, even destroyed and devastated by war, in the spring, these brightly colored poppies appeared in clusters across the desolate landscape.

After a particularly large and bloody battle that killed 87,000 Allied soldiers, including one of the surgeon’s closest friends on Flanders Fields in Belgium, he took his overwhelming grief and transferred it to paper as he composed what is now a very famous poem, “In the fields of Flanders.” This haunting poem is written from the perspective of those who died there, lying underground, now covered by those blooming poppies.

In the fields of Flanders, the poppies blow Between the crosses, row upon row, Which mark our place; and in the sky The larks, ever bravely singing, fly Rarely heard among the guns below.

We are the dead. A few days ago We lived, felt the dawn, saw the sunset shine, Loved and were loved, and now we lay In the fields of Flanders.

Resume our quarrel with the enemy: We throw the torch to you through our failing hands; be yours to hold it high. If you break faith with us dying we won’t sleep even though poppies grow

In the fields of Flanders.

McCrae’s poem was first published in 1915 and became an instant hit, being published in numerous publications including the Women’s Home Journal. It was here that a University of Georgia professor, Moina Belle Michael, first saw the poem and couldn’t forget its moving words. She has sworn to always wear a red poppy in remembrance of those who fell in Flanders Fields and for all fallen soldiers. Soon people around her were wearing poppies and through her efforts this humble red flower officially became the national symbol of remembrance and different variations were sold to raise funds for veterans organizations. There’s a wonderful children’s book written about Moina called, “The Poppy Lady” which you can listen to on YouTube, buy locally or order online.

As we approach Memorial Day, I invite you to join me in remembering those who selflessly sacrificed their lives to secure the freedom of others and the heartbroken families who have been left behind. This holiday is more than picnics, swimming and fun, it’s also a time of remembrance. Perhaps consider taking a few moments to read this poem with your loved ones. Because, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said so well, “Those who have long enjoyed such privileges that we forget with time that men died to earn them.”

May we never forget.


Rhonda S. Kelley is Executive Director of the Juniata River Valley Chamber of Commerce.

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