If you live in, or have ever visited Britain or Canada during the week of November 11 – Veterans’ Day – you may have noticed many people, of all ages, with a plastic poppy pinned to their jacket.
As a Canadian living in the U.S., who recently bought her poppy outside that other Canadian institution – the doughnut chain Tim Hortons – in rural Ontario, I’ll wear it proudly and happily explain it.
For these two countries, November 11 is also known as Poppy Day, thanks to the poem by Lt. Col. John McRae, a Canadian who fought in WWI, who was born in Guelph, Ontario.
I can’t read it aloud without crying:
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.
If, as I do, you watch BBC Television, you’ll see their announcers this week wearing poppies as well. It’s almost unthinkable not to – 18 million poppies have so far been distributed in Canada this year, The Globe and Mail reported last week.
Not only does wearing the poppy honor the men and women lost to previous wars, it honors those still fighting them, far away, out of sight and, too often, out of mind.
No one in my family – Canadian born and raised – served in the military, so I have no personal attachment to the poppy or its powerful association. But a visit in November 2008 to the Canadian cemetery near Juno Beach, in Normandy, left me weeping for an hour, stunned by the rows of maple-leaf-etched gravestones, the wet green grass carpeted by the reds and golds of the maples planted there.
War is too easily dismissed, abstracted, shoved to the margins of our consciousness. Unless or until it touches us directly – and we are fortunate when it does not – the ultimate sacrifice soldiers make remains a notion, an idea, the mementoes in someone else’s living room: the folded flag in its triangular box, a handful of medals, a dog tag on a chain.
Wearing a plastic flower may not look like much.
But when enough of us do it, proudly and publicly, it’s something.