OFFBEAT: Between the crosses, row on row...

This morning, people will line the eerily calm U.S. 250 with their folding chairs and blankets. In their hands or fol
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010


This morning, people will line the eerily calm U.S. 250 with their folding chairs and blankets.

In their hands or folded into their pockets or dropped onto the ground are the petals of crimson-colored poppies made from tissue paper.

The poppies have been in the background of my Memorial Day memories, present but silent. It wasn't until recently that I read some history on the significance of the poppy flower to Memorial Day.

The tradition of the red blossoms has its roots in the words of a Canadian solider who served during World War I. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem "In Flanders Fields" in May of 1915.

The poem reads:

"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."

As a poetry student myself, I was especially intrigued to learn the symbol of the red poppy had a literary origin.

I interpret the first stanza, as it makes note of the visible red poppies and then goes on to say that the brave birds cannot be heard over the gunfire, to mean that nature can be overpowered by the violence of humanity but it cannot be entirely destroyed. The red poppies mark life; the rich, red petals are like blood that cannot be washed away.

But the responsibility of remembrance cannot be left to nature, as the last stanza tells readers. The dead cannot sleep if others do not take up the torch and keep faith, even though the poppies will continue to bloom.

In 1918, American Moina Michael wrote a poem in response to McCrae's. Her poem reads:

"We cherish too, the Poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led,

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies."

The crimson petals of the crinkled paper flowers are just paper flowers in the same way the American flag is just a collection of dyed threads.

These symbols become significant only when we make them so, when we allow our memorials to bloom into living reminders.

Time cannot be neatly divided into chapters of war and peace. Just as poppy flowers take root, grow and eventually blossom, our history is not a series of isolated events.

Everything has roots. Everything has a story.