Every year on the way to cut our christmas tree, my family passes a historical marker honoring the Poppy Lady. The red poppy was first introduced as a symbol of remembrance of memorial day by a university teacher, Miss Moina Michael. She graduated of Columbia University in the early 1900s and in 1918 was teaching at the Univeristy of Georgia. She was moved by the plight of young men leaving home, some of them her own students and volunteered for the Red Cross training at Columbia University. At 49 years of age it was decided that she was too old to go overseas to nurse the wounded and so she stayed for a while in New York at the YMCA to train others to go overseas in her stead.
On November 9, 1918, she sat with a cup of coffe to read the newspaper and read this poem.
In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
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.
Dr. John McCrae served as a doctor in the South African War as well as France. Although he was a battlefield surgeon for quite a while he noted that it was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood, and McCrae said he had seen and heard enough to last him a lifetime.
At Ypres he was to work around the clock for 17 days, snatching sleep where and when he could, but the wounded kept coming. "I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days... Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."
On May 2, 1915 one death affected him more than all the others. A friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer, had been killed that day and McCrae treated his wounds to no avail. Lt .Helmer was buried just outside of the field hospital in a cemetary that now stretches for acres and acres. McCrae had to perform the funeral ceremony because there was no chaplain.
The next day, there was a reprieve in the flow of the wounded to his station and he saw the wild poppies dancing in the wind in the ditches and among the graves and he wrote this poem. It was too painful for him to have it published himself and so another officer sent the poem to Punch and it was published in 1915.
Moina read the poem three years later in a New York paper, after McCrae had died from exhaustion and pneumonia while still serving his field hospital. She was moved by the poem. She felt that he passed the torch to her personally and described her experience as deeply spiritual. She felt called by the voices which had been silenced by death to remember. From then on, the Poppy Lady wore a poppy as a sign of remembrance and a symbol of "keeping the faith with all who died."
Perhaps you have a vet who sells the little paper poppies every year in your congregation. If you don't understand the meaning, it might be easy to dismiss him or brush him off as a bother. It doesn't matter if you support the war or not. Memorial day is a time to remember those who have died in the service of their country -- rightly or wrongly. It's a time to mourn the loss of loved ones who were pulled away by that service to die -- and to mourn that war is even possible in this sin-torn world of ours.