The fields of Europe gave birth to an American holiday tradition
"Some woman asked me if I wanted to buy a paper poppy," said my college son. "I couldn't believe it. Why would she be doing that right outside the grocery store?"
Oh, my son, I thought. What else have I neglected to teach you?
This tradition of selling poppies on Memorial Day goes back to World War I. American soldiers were buried in the pastures and wheat fields and on the battlefields of Europe, where bright red poppies grow wild.
The delicate poppy blossoms, as red as the shed blood they have come to symbolize, nodded among fresh graves.
"In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row...." are the lines jotted down by a Canadian doctor, Lt. Col. John McCrae, while caring for the wounded near a battlefield. His simple words inspired two women on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
When Georgia schoolteacher Moina Michael read Colonel McCrae's poignant poem, she was so moved by it that she resolved to wear a red poppy to remember those who had died in the war. And she brought silk poppies for her co-workers to wear.
Across the ocean, children orphaned by the war picked poppies to lay on the graves of American soldiers.
A Frenchwoman named Anna Guerin watched them, and her heart went out to them and to the dead Americans who had delivered her country. She came up with the idea of selling silk poppies to help the orphans in the devastated areas of Europe.
The ideas of these two young women eventually grew into the poppy programs of the American Legion Auxiliary and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Both patriotic groups sell poppies made by disabled and hospitalized veterans. And the proceeds go to help disabled veterans and their families.
Those poppies, as I told my son, are to help us remember the young men and women who gave up their lives to secure our freedom. To me, these fragile flowers are the perfect remembrance of what our freedom cost.