I was six years old in 1970. It was a crisp November morning and I was wandering around outside my Kimberley, BC house, which was just up hill and around the corner from the local cenotaph. I was just kicking rocks and taking in the neighbourhood, maybe hoping that one of my friends would come outside to play. But then again, no… probably not. More likely I had no particular hopes for the day. I had only a beating heart and a boyish brain and body, and a need to be outside. Looking back on it now, it seems strange that a boy my age could have been wandering the block alone on a cold November morning, but I guess it was a different time.
This particular morning something was happening. Around the cenotaph just down the hill, a crowd of people was gathering. I remember standing back and watching, the crowd thickening around me. I remember black coats, and some people weeping and embracing. I don’t remember anything glorious or spectacular. It was an adult ceremony – church-like in its solemnity, and completely unfathomable to a boy of six. What did I know of war? Of loss? What were these round arrangement of flowers, that I later found out were called, “wreaths”? And what were these red flowers that people had pinned to their lapels? I remember the bright red poppies – contrasting starkly with people’s grey and black coats. How I wanted one!
I regarded the whole thing with detached curiosity. Before long, Dad came out and stood beside me. I can’t quite recall the sequence of events, only that at some point, I was joined by my dad. Maybe he’d been there the whole time. I don’t think so, though. And I don’t recall at what time I acquired a poppy of my own that day. I guess my Dad got me one.
My Dad was born in the middle of World War II. His father, my grandpa, was lucky enough to have been stationed on Canadian soil in the RCAF. And my mom? LIkely she had sent Dad out after me, opting to tend to my sister and brother who were still in the house. Her dad, Grandpa Gray, had enlisted in the navy, and had steamed around the Pacific coast in a mine-sweep during the War.
The War… It must have been very much alive in the memories of the people standing around the grey cenotaph that day. The emotions certainly were still quite raw in some people, and seemed to be expressed more openly during the placing of wreaths. I remember old people – particularly old women bending down and placing the wreaths on the cenotaph – probably old mothers of boys whom the war had taken, or maybe war widows who had never stepped away, never been able to let go of a life to which they were so deeply committed. Likely there were more than a few women who had seen two World Wars. What of their sorrow?
I don’t remember pride or even gratitude. All I remember is the sobriety of the whole thing – the stillness, the distance, the occasional muted sob, the presider’s voice rising sternly, unamplified over the sounds of the day, the echoes.
This event has forever coloured my understanding of the poppy. Its associations for me have nothing to do with Canada or with patriotism. What does a 6 year old child know of such things? For me, the poppy has its association with cold, with mysterious sorrow – with black-coated women grieving, and with large groups of men standing silently, exhaling steam into the cold November air. Many miles and years away from the battles, here they were, so much wreckage of the War – bewildered souls still unable to shake their grief. The only colour on that colourless morning was the poppy, a sober remembrance of a lurking horror that threatens us all; a reminder of the evil that is in our own souls that when mobilized by mad emperors, can spiral out of control in an ecstasy of violence.
I try to imagine what it must have been like for the war generation. Those women and men whose wounds never healed, their dreams radically altered by the savagery of their time. How surprised they must have been by the senselessness of the enemy’s aggression. How bizarre it must have been for Londoners when the war touched down in their streets – screeching obscenely from the sky out of the bellies of the roaring German bombers.
Even in Canada, so far away, how shocking the reports must have been when the first soldiers fell. How abandoned the World War I veterans must have felt when their sons went off to fight in World War II! What must peace have meant to them? How precious to them was democracy, openness, and good will.
Though I was a small boy that November day, I saw a glimpse of it. I saw the meaning of the poppy, and it has stuck with me. No matter how its message is co-opted by ambitious politicians or exploitive capitalists, its meaning remains for me. It is a remembrance of war, not a glorification of it. It marks the place of the dead – if not their place on earth, their place in time, and it compels us to think soberly about tyranny, and about loss. It bids us look at our own frailty, our own propensity for brutality. It demands that we remember, and become activists, so as not to allow our country to repeat such a bloody history.
So. To all of you who protest the wearing of the traditional red poppy, godspeed. To all of you who defile the symbol: to hell with you. I will wear the humble poppy, and know what it means.