The poppy. What better flower could be used as a symbol of remembrance and of hope? Springing forth from the poorest of soils and in the poorest of conditions, it wields it’s brightly coloured head on the slenderest of stalks, stalks that one imagines could not bear such a heavy load. Yet, they do.
The poppy, against all odds, flourishes despite all the hardships it endures, a symbol of hope that struggles can be overcome, sacrifices made meaningful, beauty found among horror. This common, lowly weed was one of the first flowers to establish itself on the battlegrounds and cemeteries of Europe during the war to end all wars, creating a mass of waving scarlet beauty where just a short time ago the same ground was drenched in blood.
It is not just our time that uses the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. The ancient Greeks and Romans gave offerings of poppies to the dead, as a symbol of a resurrection, a better life to come. Two hundred years ago, during the Napoleonic Wars, it was recorded that poppies covered the graves of those who had fallen. In addition, the poppy, due to its medicinal qualitites, has been used for thousands of years and across many cultures as a sleep aid. John McCrae was following these traditions when he penned his famous poem. Perhaps more importantly, even though he was surrounded by the images of war, he continued to see the beauty that still existed around him – flowers blowing gently in the breeze, larks singing as they flew overhead – and used those powerful but often overlooked images to convey a message of hope, of accepting the torch of freedom, of remembrance. “If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flander’s Fields” is a powerful statement on the nature of sacrifice from this doctor.
For many people, however, the word ‘poppy’ has another meaning. For me, growing up in Newfoundland, my grandfathers were called Poppy. Many a time I remember them, still miss them, wish I could talk them to once more in this life.
Poppy Ivany, my mother’s father, Eli, died in February 2001, after a terrible descendence into that anti-thesis of remembrance, Alzheimer’s. I have so many memories of him, but it was not until two years ago that I knew that he had volunteered to serve in World War II. He wanted to do his part, but was found medically unfit to serve, and so proudly wore his black armband showing that he was willing to fight but could not. After his memory had been destroyed and distorted by the ravages of his disease, my grandmother was forced to put him into a home. Yet she continued to visit him as often as she could. This was terribly difficult on her, not only having to make this decision but seeing him day after day descending further and further into his own private hell. I recall one day she was asked why she continued to visit him – after all, it was obvious that he no longer knew who she was. Her response? “He might not remember me. But I remember him.”
Eli’s father, Luke, was a Merchant Marine in the Great War. In the nineteen years that I knew him, he cautioned me many times to always do what was right, especially after he moved into our home when I was a teenager. One day after bestowing that same wisdom – along with many other insights – upon me once again, he paused. Getting a wistful look in his eye he told me that he always tried to be good, but there was one time he was glad he wasn’t. You see, he survived the Halifax Explosion because he and his cousin had been bad. He was positive that if they had not been sentenced to clean their ship as a punishment, that he would have been in the part of the harbour that was the worst hit when the explosion happened. His memories of that day and the days following, days when he was on clean-up detail, were etched in his memory like stone. A dazed young boy missing an arm, a father frantically searching for his family in the ruins of a house, a shell-shocked and blinded mother trying to feed her headless infant. My Poppy Luke had seen some terrible things during his time in service, and for many years he was quick to do his part at the Clarenville War Memorial ceremony as one of the last living veterans of World War I.
I sit here on this Remembrance Day, contemplating all of these things, and cannot help but think that when the Millennium comes it will be a strange experience for so many people. A time without war, without conflict, without sadness or loss…. Would that such a thing were possible before then, as we are admonished in the scriptures to ‘renounce war and proclaim peace’. Until that time, I will promote the cause of peace, support those who choose to be part of peace-keeping efforts, pray for a better tomorrow, and continue to wear the red poppy each year in remembrance of sacrifices made by loved ones, friends and strangers.
The poppies still grow in Flander’s Fields.