Buy a Poppy

Monday is Memorial Day which means that outside every Krogers and Sam’s Club and fill-in-the-name-of-any-high-traffic-store-here is a guy in uniform, usually elderly, with a bunch of cheap flowers and a can, making me feel guilty because I’m not shelling out for them. I’ve seen those poppies all my life; in the little blue-collar town I grew up in, you wore one of those on Memorial Day because the VFW was everywhere, and everybody you knew had either served or knew somebody who had, and I have mixed feelings about that town. Plus the flowers are poppies because of John McCrea’s “In Flanders Fields:”

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.

Famous poem, it drills in my head whenever I see any kind of poppy, but the thought of all those crosses and blood-colored flowers is not one that goes with a long sunny weekend and the smell of grilling meat. McCrea’s war was WWI, the war my grandfather was proud to have served in. My uncle was proud to serve in WWII. My dad was mad that he qualified as a pilot just as that war ended so he never got to fly in combat; my mother was relieved. That history is kind of romantic, but then there was my war: before I got to my freshman year of college, I’d lost a friend from my graduating class to Viet Nam. Two years later, the government shot people like me in Ohio, the safest place in the world, because they were protesting the war, and as the child of Republican parents who never questioned the government, everything I believed in blew up in an instant. I started protesting the war and, by extension, the military. Two years later I was living on a military base with a husband in the ranks at home and a brother-in-law in the worst of the fighting in Viet Nam.

Poppies. I have mixed feelings.

But I believe in Memorial Day. I believe we need a strong military and from my experience within, I believe that the majority of military personnel are proud to serve their country. They go places I would not go and do things I could not do, and in doing so they keep me and those I love safe. I disagree with how our military is being used, and I’m appalled at how our military personnel are abused, but I’m grateful for the work they do every day.

So now it’s Memorial Day weekend, and as Paul Rieckhoff says, the military celebrate it very differently than civilians do. What he said made me remember everything I wrote above, the things I never think about because they’re in the past or because they’re happening far away to people I don’t know. So today I’m remembering the classmates I lost in Viet Nam, and the boy from our county who was captured and executed in Iraq, and all the others who gave their lives for their country, not just the ones who died but also the ones who left their families and put their lives on hold to serve. Whatever the political climate, whatever your political bent, Memorial Day is not about politics or war or peace or right or wrong or anything else but remembering and being grateful to those who served.

Which is why, when I went to Sam’s Club for asthma meds and kids’ suntan lotion and paper towels, I stopped at the poppy table on the way out and looked at a piece of wire and some cheap red fabric, and sixty years of mixed memories and mixed emotions came rolling back.

I bought a poppy.

Happy Memorial Day.

55 thoughts on “Buy a Poppy

  1. I always buy the poppies, too. The Veterans of Foreign Wars put out a little magazine that’s sometimes available in waiting rooms and one day I read an issue cover to cover. The Buddy Poppy program started back in the 1920’s, and making the poppies was a way for some disabled vets to earn money, to feel productive. I believe the poppy program is trademarked, as well. I do know that the VFW has raised millions to aid veterans and their families. And I remember one sentence vividly although I don’t remember who wrote it: “There is no sacrifice without remembrance.”.

  2. This is, unsurprisingly, beautifully put. It’s so lovely when someone more skilled with words than I am expresses precisely what I’ve been trying to say.

  3. Thank you.

    When you first mentioned the poppies, I wasn’t sure what you meant, and then I saw the photo. We used to go to my grandparent’s for Memorial Day every year and they lived in a town that at the time was nearly 90% retirees parking their double-wides in the desert and those poppies were EVERYWHERE. The photo snapped all that back into place for me. As we are out and about this weekend, I’ll make sure to keep an eye out for the poppies and give my thanks.

  4. But that’s not true! I’m not saying that remembrance is not a good thing and a duty, but not being remembered doesn’t lessen the sacrifice. I’m sure many people’s sacrifices over the millennia have gone unacknowledged and are unremembered. That doesn’t lessen the sacrifices or their worth in the slightest.

    1. Oh, wait. I posted here and then realized you were referring to the quote above. I agree that sacrifice is sacrifice whether its remembered or not. But I also think the sacrifices that change other people are the ones they hear about, remember, and respect.

    2. I agree. I believe the VFW (or its spokesman) is speaking of the consciousness of the country, and that sometimes needs reminders. A sacrifice is still a sacrifice no matter how large or small it is, but remembering and honoring can be lost in a holiday atmosphere. The sacrifices of veterans and their families as a collective is so immense that I think it would be a tragedy if groups like the VFW didn’t exist. Personally, the sacrifices would be remembered by friends and loved ones, if no one else. But the VFW asks the country as a whole and as individuals to stop and remember and pay tribute.

  5. I think it just means that the act of remembrance is important to honour the sacrifice – it’s an act of respect or acknowledgment of the sacrifice, and hopefully enables us to learn from history. For me, the quote that brings it home is the Kohima Epitaph – “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.”

  6. You’ve described a lot of the emotions I feel. My father enlisted during the Viet Nam years, not out of a sense of patriotism, but b/c he knew his chances of getting drafted were very high. He was one of the lucky ones He didn’t go to Viet Nam.. He was in Navy for 21 years by choice and is proud, but even for him, there are mixed emotions. He would never say he “served” b/c so many people gave so much more.
    One of the few times I’ve ever seen him angry is when I came home and told him that our history teacher said the Vietnam protesters were a bunch of whiny babies. He said flat out that wasn’t true and gave me his honest view of the Vietnam War. It’s not something that was easy for him to talk about, but I think he felt it was important.

    “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

    At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
    We will remember them.”
    Laurence Binyon ‘For the Fallen’

    1. wasn’t easy. Not was easy. Yesh. You think I would manage to leave a comment w/out screwing something up.

  7. I was obediently trying not to nest comments, but of course then others post while you are typing and it becomes confusing. I should have quoted, sorry.

    I’ve seen that same epitaph on the war memorial just outside York Minster, LilyC. It’s very moving. And it’s a variation on Simonides’ epitaph on the three hundred who died defending Thermopylae. That is 2,500 years old. Learning from history is not exactly our strong point.

  8. I’m the big nesting violator. When I reply from the dashboard, it automatically nests. I think we’re okay at one or two levels; I think when the blog broke we were at level fourteen or something and the blog cried.

  9. I don’t like war (or even war movies), and am anti-flag waving in general and anti-what-our-government-is-doing-with-the-miliary in particular. But that doesn’t mean I’m not grateful. I dated a few guys who were in Viet Nam, and the nightmares they brought home with them never left. So although I’m not leaving my house today, I will send out a big mental “thank you” to all those who sacrificed on our behalf, and those who are still doing it.

  10. I came of age with the war in Viet Nam on the nightly news. The militry is big presence, and the major employer where I went to high school and college. So the war was that much closer as older classmates, older brothers and sisters of classmates went to war. People I knew, kids I shared the trauma of every day life in suburban high school. The war was brought even closer to our doors as not every one came home, and those that did were changed. It was hard then as it is now to separte the war from the soldiers who fought out of duty and commitment and pride in their country

  11. I like that poem. Gives me* goosebumps.

    My Dad was in WWI

    I was in WWII

    One of our sons was in Viet Nam.

    Another son was in the Army.

  12. When I was a political science teaching assistant a couple years ago, leading conference discussions often about war, it gave me the shivers to think that these were the kids who fought those wars.

    The poppies for Remembrance Day in Canada are quite popular, but you see the poppy-people less and less as the last of the WW2 vets die. And that makes me kind of sad too.

    Speaking of sacrifice, if you want a really good people-centered WW2 read, pick up Connie Willis’ Blackout. Everyday heroes is one of her favourite themes.

  13. Interesting.

    I grew up in Canada. The poppies come out for November 11th. I always bought two – one to wear in the weeks before, and one for the day of, because I would invariably lose it.

    1. I grew up in Canada too. From when I was eight. I’d never seen the poppies in the USA, didn’t know they existed until Canada. The memories this brought back are so mixed I cannot really make sense of them. There were the Canadian poppies we always bought and pinned on our coats. I loved them even as a child. Then there is my family. My father told me he served in the Korean War. My mother said he lied. I have seen a photo of him in his Navy uniform. They are both gone now, I don’t really know how or why to find out the truth.

      I hate war. It is so mindless and the loss of lives is tragic. But we cannot always control when and if we engage in warfare and because of that I respect, and am indebted to, those who serve to protect our freedom. And I hold in my heart the hope for a world at peace.

  14. Jill, that quote, from ‘for the fallen’ for me is totally synonymous with Anzac Day – ‘Lest We Forget’. Though I don’t think I actually knew who it was by, it just gets quoted at every Anzac day service or ceremony. Anzac Day being, I assume, roughly approximate to Memorial Day for Australians and New Zealanders (though for Australians with some additional meanings relating to the history of WWI, the disaster that was Gallipoli and where it fits in Australian history. I don’t want to speak for the New Zealanders out there!) There are also poppies for Anzac Day, though they are seen at Remembrance Day, November 11, but with both there are always elederly vets and young service men and women, and sometimes scouts, selling them.

  15. London Mabel, I loved “Blackout.” I’ve been thinking a lot about the Dunkirk evacuation and the Blitz. 70 anniversary for them both this year.
    Emily, yes I think the poem is much more associated with Anzac Day and Remembrance/Veterans’ Day, but I hope you don’t mind me borrowing it. 🙂 I don’t think it’s as well known here (which is a shame b/c it is a moving poem) and I thought the sentiments were appropriate for Memorial Day as well.

  16. Today’s column made me remember that the last time I bought a poppy was when my dad was in the hospice program at the local veteran’s hospital. Somehow I haven’t been out and about to get one and thank the elderly vet selling them…maybe when I go to the store tomorrow someone will be there with them.

    The last time I drove by the hospital I saw that their small sign as you drove in needed repainting. I should see if they need the funds to do it. The sign says: “Here is seen the price of freedom” because so many of the vets are disabled. Dad was injured when his training flight went down in the Gulf of Mexico and watched some of his buddies die in the water around him so he was very affected emotionally as well as physically but he always said that the Navy was the best time he ever had in his life.

  17. Oh Jill, of course not, absolutely! 😀 It is such a moving stanza of a beautiful poem (I just went and read the whole thing).

  18. We lived in Normady. Poppies everywhere, beautiful.
    The poppies are for the people. Not the military. Not the government. Not the mistakes. The sacrifices, the families, the people.

  19. I don’t know why, but it seems like so many of our holidays have started to lose their meanings, and it’s just a day off with a lot of food. We see this a lot with Christmas . . . a lot of baggage goes along with the whole Christmas thing, and so maybe for our own psychic protection we ignore all that, and concentrate on the turkey and the cookies.

    But ignoring the basis for Memorial Day is going to result in a lot of shock one of these days . . . we need to remember, and we need to try to promote diplomacy through non-violent means so people don’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice.

    As part of the “speak softly but carry a big stick” way of preventing violence, our service men and women are vital to diplomacy, and they are doing a hard job under difficult circumstances, and really don’t seem to get the kind of respect they deserve.

    Thanks for blogging about this. Today, I will remember.

    1. Actually, a lot of what our army is doing right now is peaceKeeping work. I otherworks, much closer to diplomacy than to traditional solders. This si part of why it’s so important our armed forces remain a volunteer, citizen force. It takes more character and brains to do what we are asking them to do. We are sending some our best men and women out into the world to fight our battles. Battles that aren’t always won with bullets and artillery. Just as we honor their predeccessors, we need to support our currant military by not just paying, training, and equiping them well – but by using them wisely.

  20. When I was in high school I read “In Flanders Fields” over the PA as part of a remembrance on Veteran’s Day. I can still quote parts of the poem and it has always seemed to sum up for me the tremendous losses that war exacts and the irony of beauty in a place of death.

    Jill spoke of her father’s reaction to her teacher’s reference to war protesters as whiney babies. My husband was drafted and sent to Vietnam, but he holds no animosity toward protesters or those who left the country. He only has contempt for those who kept getting deferments and did everything to avoid serving and later became hawks who agitate for war, in particular certain politicians.

    Like many people I deplore what has happened in recent years as to the use of our military, but I will always support the people who are willing to serve. And while it is sad to think of loss, I think is necessary to do so, because without this basis, we run the risk of reducing war to numbers and not people.

  21. Kathy G – you can find out the information from the Veterans Affairs Office in Ottawa. After filling out a form, I received my dad’s records for the years he was in the AirForce WWII. My uncles were all in the army during WWII. I am forever thankful for their contribution and those who are currently serving.

    I always buy 2 or more poppies in November. I always loose a few. Love the poem. I bought a little book of poetry written by service men from WWI and WWII. Very touching.

  22. War is hell and there are those that take it out on the men and women serving in our military. Supporting the troops and remembering those who have served and sacrificed for our country is not supporting the war. Jenny is correct, a strong military is essential.

    I posted this on Lucy’s blog today and since the subject came up here I thought I’d include everyone at ArghInk too.

    The quilt guild I belong to makes quilts in support of The Quilts of Valor Foundation. The quilts are given to those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, we send ours directly to Landstuhl in Germany. We received a letter this week from a Navy Chaplain requesting baby wipes for the Troops in Afghanistan. The temperatures in the field are soaring and the patrols are long with no showers, the baby wipes are a God send.You can find out all about the Quilts of Valor Foundation on their website
    The address of the chaplain organizing this can be found by anyone interested on the blog of the shop I work at
    As the wife of a Navy veteran, and Mom of an active duty Navy son and a safely out of the Army son, it means a lot.

  23. I’ve stood in the military cemetery overlooking the Flanders fields on memorial day. I don’t know that I can explain how it is.

    It’s quiet. Everyone talks in low voices, just above a whisper. You crunch with a measured pace down the groomed gravel path, past row upon row of folding chairs toward a podium at the end of the path. The podium is flanked by groups of solemn faced young men with rifles. You slide into the first row of available chairs and looks forward. Directly in front of you are the straight strong backs of more men and women in uniform, a bit older this time in blue and green and black dress. In front of them are a few rows of chairs deliberately left empty and then running across the front of the assembly area is another groomed gravel path perpendicular to the one you walked. The border between the path and the grass it cuts through is softened with rainbows of flowered memorial wreaths in red and yellow and pink and white and purple and blue and orange, each with a white banner across it with the name of the rememberers. Beyond the wreaths the white marble crosses and stars stand out against the deep green manicured lawns and beyond those the fields have been left long and free and the waves of green and white and orange and red flow and bend with the wind.

    The murmur of voices blend with the sounds of the wind so that it is almost a single sound punctuated by crunch of gravel as yet more people arrive until all the chairs behind you are filled. A final group arrives, much more slowly than the others. They move haltingly, some walking with care, some with a cane, some are pushed in wheel chairs. All are in uniforms from the history books. With deliberation these men take their places in the empty rows of chairs at the front, in the place of honor.

    Introductory speeches are made and finally one of the oldest of soldiers takes his place at the podium and tells the story of battle, the fighting and the dirt and the loss and the need and the necessity of their actions and that the loss needs to mean something still today. He passes the podium to a senior officer who honors those who went before and tells the story of the continuing fight.

    The solemn-faced young men step forward. They fire their rifles four times, place them at rest, and salute the old guard before stepping back into formation and marching out, followed by the dignitaries at the front.

    The old soldiers stay, making their way slowly to the wreaths touching this one and that, sometimes walking among the graves. The younger men in uniform stay as well, talking quietly in small groups or with their families. Sometimes they take their children to the graves and the memorials and explain what happened and tell them the story of the battles.

    The voices stay quiet, blending still with the sound of the wind until they retreat to the parking lot and all that is left is the wind and the lonely graves and the empty chairs waiting for retrieval.

  24. That is very special, Nic. Especially as now there are no survivors of the trenches left.

  25. Poppies? I’ve never seen any in Kentucky. I thought, until recent years, they were entirely a British-and-Commonwealth thing, but apparently in other parts of the US they are also an old tradition.
    Here, Memorial Day is only partly about the military. It’s more like Day of the Dead: everyone spruces up the graveyards, and at family get togethers all the family is remembered. The services recognizing the war dead are only a small part.

    1. Wow. And I’m right across the river from you and there are poppy tables everywhere here. All over Ohio, I’m pretty sure.

  26. I haven’t seen poppies on sale in years, though I remember buying them when I was younger. I associate them with November, though, and Armistice Day (which is what Veteran’s Day was always referred to in my family). Memorial Day was always Decoration Day, the day for visiting the old graveyards and decorating the graves of those who’d served.

    I have mixed feelings about how our military is used these days as well, but I can’t forget the sacrifices these men and women have made. I see what it has wrought in the lives of friends, who still bear the invisible scars of jungles and rice paddies. So we remember and we honor those who, to paraphrase Sullivan Ballou, have burned to ashes the hopes of future years because they felt a call to serve.

  27. @Anne – I’ve never seen the poppies sold either.
    I grew up in the DC area and live in Central VA now. Growing up our Memorial Day was very patriotic – parades that we marched in, etc. But my mom grew up in the midwest and she remembers getting in the car with her parents and driving across 3 states to go back to their families cemeteries for a visit and to tak flowers, etc. Personally, I’m glad that it has some meaning for people. Some use as a time of reflection. Instead of it just being an unofficial opening to the summer season.

  28. I just assumed the poppies were everywhere because they’re everywhere I go here and I’m sure they’re in Wapak now. Must remember not to make assumptions based on my personal experience.

    1. I remember seeing them in Seattle when I lived there about 10 years ago. I’m in Houston now, but didn’t go out today to see if they are here.

  29. I adore the convenience of living in the burbs of a big city, but we don’t do this kind of thing well. It’s an impersonal kind of life. However …

    My dad served during Vietnam and was proud to have done so, despite the disrespect he faced here at home for choosing to serve his country. Thats the thing about making the choice, you don’t get to choose where. One of his uncles lost both his legs in WWII.

  30. wow. I don’t have any stories to add, just wanted to say thanks to jenny and nic and everyone for the best memorial day tribute I’ve read anywhere. thanks.

  31. I was surprised to learn that poppies are also used symbolically in the USA: I had never heard of this. As others have already said, the British and Commonwealth Remembrance Day is November 11, commemorating the end of the First World War in 1918, and now, naturally, encompassing all the later wars of the 20th century and up to the present. The poppies allude to the dreadful trench warfare of that conflict in Belgium and northern France.
    Poppies are still very generally worn in the UK on and around November 11: for example, television newsreaders and presenters always wear them at that time. I think even more people have started wearing them in recent years, no doubt in response to the almost daily deaths of UK servicemen in Afghanistan.

  32. Poppies were sold everywhere when I was growing up in St. Louis in the 70’s and 80’s. I never saw them when I lived in LA, or in Philadelphia. I see them occasionally here in the northern suburbs of Chicago, but not every year.

  33. I associate the poppies with Veteran’s Day (November 11), rather than Memorial Day. I haven’t seen anyone here in Oxford (SW Ohio) on either day, but I am not certain that I would’ve been to Kroger on those days. I’ll go this afternoon and see and buy one if I see one. With one of my last dollars, because I gave away most of my cash at church yesterday (I put some in the offering envelope, then discovered that if we wanted any to go to Historic Hopewell Church, where we worshiped that morning, it did NOT go in the envelopes, so I put in some loose money for them, too) and forgot to refill my wallet.

    Memorial Day is a big deal in Columbus, MS, where I lived for 3 years: they claim to be the site of the original “Decoration Day” that started it, but I remember it as being red, white and blue and flags, not so much with the Flanders poppies (being associated with a different war, perhaps, than that which preoccupies the locals).

  34. I’m in western Kentucky & there ARE vets in front of Kroger & Walmart with donation cans giving out the little red poppies in this part of the state.
    People here treat it like day of the dead, also. Trips to the graveyards with fresh plastic flowers for the relatives headstones.

  35. We live in the country on a gravel road. There are fields of corn and beans all around us. For 35 years we have attended the small white church 2 miles from home. We were married there and our children were baptized and attended Sunday school classes. Our boy was married there last year. Memorial Day is VERY important in this area and services are always held at this church. EVERY year we sing the patriotic songs, ask the veterans to stand and tell where they served then walk to the cemetery with flags and flowers. Today, it rained-not just a light showerbut a drenching downpour. A young boy asked if we were still walking to the cemetery and an old WWII vet said,”Of course we are.It is the least we can do.” And we all got umbrells from our cars and walked over to hear a young boy play taps and to salute the flag. This ceremony will always continue even if the church closes because honoring the fallen is important.

  36. I remember the lists that would run on the evening news, listing the names of the casualties and MIA’s during the Viet Nam war. We would watch, praying that there wouldn’t be a name we knew in that list. I remember standing on the four square court the day that President Nixon declared the end of the war. I was in 6th grade, and I remember thinking, as I stood under a blue sky in the shade of a large almond tree, “So this is what peace feels like” and savoring it, the knowledge that there wouldn’t be any more lists of names of young men who had lost their lives for a cause none of us really understood.
    I remember the day I told my youngest daughter that the young man she considers her big brother had shipped out to Iraq. I remember her sobs and how helpless I felt as I watched her succomb to her fears of losing her brother to a war she didn’t understand, and I remembered…
    Today is a day to remember. I still have a daughter in the Air Force and a future son-in-law in the National Guard. I am incredibly proud of them and their service to our country, but I pray that they will never be called on to defend us again in a war that doesn’t make sense. Because I remember…

  37. Jenny, what a beautiful post. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I cried.

    My father served in WWII and was never one to really talk about his time in the army — at least not to his daughter. So for years all I knew was that he was a sergeant and a medic. He passed away in 1983 and I have so many regrets that I don’t know more about his military service. After my mother passed away in 1998, I was sorting through her things and I found a case of ribbons and a Bronze Star from Dad’s service years. I found a website with pictures of the ribbons so that I could match them up and know what they represented. I tried to research more on his medal but, apparently, his records were in some facility that burned in 1993. I have to think that somewhere there’s a list of who has received Bronze Stars and what they specifically did to earn them but I’ve had no luck with this research. My uncle (Dad’s bro-in-law) doesn’t know

    Not knowing makes me no less proud of my father but still . . .

    Anyway, today is not only Memorial Day, but it would have been Dad’s 90th birthday. So, here’s to you Dad! I celebrated by going fishing — something you taught me to love as a kid.

  38. Thank you all for sharing Memorial Day with me. You’re supposed to spend the day with family, and I feel like we did.

  39. Jenny said

    I just assumed the poppies were everywhere because they’re everywhere I go here and I’m sure they’re in Wapak now. Must remember not to make assumptions based on my personal experience.

    Thank you for the beautiful post and for the education. I love learning new things.

  40. Just FYI, I believe that the poppies are prevalent in Canada because John McCrea was a Canadian.

  41. Thanks, Jenny, and all the rest of you, for remembering. This is a little late, but I think you’ll like this. I’d say “enjoy” it, but I doubt if you can watch the whole video without at least tearing up.
    Also, here is a sung version of Lawrence Binyon’s For the Fallen – this one, I think you’ll enjoy! (British Rememberance Service, 2008)


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