Poppies

This year, spring quickly turned to summer in Vermont. It’s only the third week in May but the hills are green, the fields are yellow with dandelions, the days are in the high 70s, and the stream running through the farm is getting low. The apple blossoms have been magnificent, but the bloom’s been short. Already the petals have started to fall.

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My painting of the perennial oriental poppies in my garden. Not corn poppies, but similar.

It’s about this time of year when the red field poppies started blooming on the shell torn battlegrounds and graves in France and Belgium during WWI. This annual poppy, also called the corn poppy, was such a prevalent weed that it was often confused for the crop. The seeds could lay dormant in the soil for years, but once the soil was disturbed by plowing (or by an exploding shell for example), they germinated and grew, creating bright red fields from May through August.

In 1915, a Canadian soldier and physician, John McCrae wrote a well known WWI poem called “In Flanders Fields” which begins, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.” The corn poppy became a popular symbol for Remembrance Day in Commonweath Countries.

Our own Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) started in the union states after the Civil War and was a day for decorating the graves of the soldiers who had died in defense of the country. During WWI, it came to be a day for honoring all those who died serving the nation during war. Moina Michaels conceived of the idea of using the corn poppy as a symbol of remembrance in the U.S. in 1915.

My own recollection of Memorial Day was the Memorial Day parade in Jamestown, NY. We sat on the curb in front of Orpha’s house and watched the sights especially the marching bands. First, there was my oldest sister, Diane. She played the flute in the Lincoln Jr. High Marching Band and the Jamestown High School Marching Band. My mom was good at spotting her amongst the throng of band members. A couple years later, my brother Rick joined the ranks playing the clarinet. I remember sister Annie amongst the baton twirlers, but that was a short lived adventure. A couple years later, I was marching in the parade myself, playing the clarinet. My younger brother, Steve, sat on the curb watching his big sister faking notes and desperately trying to keep  her white buck band shoes in step.

My mom decorated the graves of family members by planting flowers, usually some geraniums or impatiens depending on whether the grave was in the sun or shade. Annie has taken over that job now including planting mom’s grave. I was probably in High School before I realized that Memorial Day was some kind of military holiday. For me, it has always been about family, whether trying to catch a glimpse of  a brother or sister in the parade, an after-parade cook out, or remembering those family members who are no longer with us.

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