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Memorial Day’s Flower

Red poppy holds honored place

The red poppy is the symbol of remembrance of all past veterans who have served. Courtesy photo

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The red poppy has served as a symbol of remembrance on Memorial Day for almost a century.

Millions of the red crepe paper poppies have been distributed in exchange for donations that support the welfare of veterans, active military personnel and their families.

The wearing of red poppies on Memorial Day is due to the efforts of Moina Michael.

On Nov. 9, 1918 -- two days before the end of World War I -- Michael was sitting in a room where servicemembers said their goodbyes to their loved ones. A soldier had given her a copy of that month's Ladies' Home Journal. On one well-thumbed page was a copy of Canadian Dr. (Lt. Col.) John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields.

While serving on the Western Front during the Second Battle of Ypres, McCrae performed a burial service for his good friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer. The next day, May 3, 1915, McCrae reportedly sat on the step of an ambulance wagon and composed his famous war memorial poem.

In it, he wrote of the presence of blooming red poppies among the rows of white crosses on the deserted battlefield of Flanders Fields, a stretch of land straddling the border between western Belgium and northern France. A hardy flower, the red poppy was the first to reappear when peace returned to Europe.

The last stanza of McCrae's poem changed Michael's life.

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.

"This was, for me, a full spiritual experience," Michael later wrote in her memoirs. "It seemed as though the silent voices again were vocal, whispering, in sighs of anxiety unto anguish ... I pledged to keep the faith and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance."

On the back of an envelope, Michael wrote a poem, We Shall Keep the Faith, in response to McCrae's verse. The last stanza of her poem suggests her idea of wearing a red poppy to honor the war dead.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought

In Flanders Fields.

After writing her poem, Michael determined to buy and always wear red poppies. She shared her idea with several businessmen, who gave her $10 and asked her to purchase poppies for them to wear. The wearing of the red poppy on Memorial Day soon became popular, and Michael became known as the "Poppy Lady."

In 1921, the American Legion Auxiliary adopted the poppy as its memorial flower, and in 1924 the Legion instituted the national Poppy Program to protect the memorial flower from becoming commercialized.

This month, the American Legion asks that all Americans wear a poppy May 24, National Poppy Day, on the Friday before Memorial Day.

For more information about how Mountain View honors veterans, please contact Clarke Thomson at 253.330.5449.

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