In Britain, On the Sunday Before November 11th, There is Remembrance Day; In the United States it is Veterans Day. Both Remember Service and Sacrifice. The Poppy is the Flower to Remind Us Never to Forget.
“The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans”
By Barbara Elizabeth Walsh
Paintings by Layne Johnson
Perhaps you’ve heard of Remembrance Day in Britain. It is to remember that that on November 11th on the eleventh month, on the eleventh day and at the eleventh hour, the guns of World War l ceased. It was optimistically called “The Wat to End All Wars.”
There is a war memorial In Whitehall, London, called the Cenotaph. People gather at the site wearing poppies for two minutes of silence to remember the sacrifices and losses borne in that conflict. It is usually held on the Sunday before November 11th.
It has been said that the two minute silence is an opportunity for time to stand still as humanity looks back and remembers, but also looks forward with hope. Wreaths of poppies are laid at the base of the granite Cenotaph, where originally a peace rally had been held following the war. The Royal Family, politicians and regular folk gather and remember the loss.
There is a saying that things can be lost in the “fog of war.” People are certainly lost, families disrupted and freedom compromised.
But there are people, thank goodness, that have the conviction that, in some sense, everything is not lost, as long as memory of what was lost is commemorated, revered and remembered.
Almost one hundred years ago, a woman named Moina Belle Michael, via a small red poppy, did just that. And the legacy of her commitment echoes down the years to 2019.
Ms. Michael had a motto that she relied on since her youth, and I believe it is a motto worth sharing with young readers today. Her motto said:
“Whatsoever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.”
Fine words for a new generation that is struggling in some sense to find its way true north. Heck, even we parents are still muddling through at times. For aren’t we all on a learning curve together?
A school teacher from Georgia during WWI, Ms. Michael felt family and friends that were part of this “War to End All Wars”, were in need of a symbol. They needed a symbol that spoke to the courage and sacrifice involved in war.
She began a campaign to designate the poppy, the scarlet flower that spotted the famous Flanders Fields of Belgium, where so many fallen soldiers were buried, as such a symbol.
She imagined the poppy as a symbol for a lasting lifetime reminder of the sacrifice of war. And she accomplished that.
From a magazine left on her desk, Ms. Michael read the turned down page that marked a poem written by Lt. Colonel John McCrae. A Canadian physician, frustrated by the many lives he could not save, he wrote, “We Shall Not Sleep.” The version she saw happened to be illustrated in color, and she was struck by the red poppies that covered a field awash with white crosses, unnamed. The last lines of the poem stuck with her:
“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.
Turning over the poem, on an envelope, she wrote on its flap this pledge:
“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.”
Working with primary sources, experts and the great-nieces of Ms. Michael, Ms. Walsh uncovered the story of this remarkable woman of dogged determination.
Referencing the poppy as the Miracle Flower, the picture book author also interviewed veterans and their families, and members of The American Legion and The Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Illustrator, Layne Johnson, whose own father, brother and uncles served in WWII, had his biggest inspiration from an art teacher he had in high school that served as a B-24 bombardier in WWII.
Named by Bank Street College of Education among “Best Children’s Books of the Year” in 2012, part of that honor must certainly go to Mr. Johnson.
His paintings depict such events as the sinking of the British ship, the RMS Lusitania, in March 1917 with 128 American lives lost, setting the U.S. entry into WWI in motion. In April of the same year, Lt. Col. John McCrae, knelt amid crosses set in a flood of red poppies in Flanders Fields, and the artist juxtaposes this scene, with another of Ms. Michael “poppy hunting” in novelty shops in New York for artificial poppies to represent the real ones in Flanders Fields. It’s clearly done with respect and reverence for this woman on a memory mission. His subject is realized with both humanity and honor – and beauty. Well done!
This Veterans Day, November 11th, originally called Armistice Day, please let your young reader discover the legacy of the woman named Moina Belle Michael that took a poppy, and made it a yearly paper preserved patriotic symbol, both to veterans of foreign wars, and to all lives lost in the “fog of war.”
And if you see a poppy, please pin one on!
Maybe the poppy field in the “Wizard of Oz,” set on the route directly before the glorious Emerald City was no mere coincidence! How oddly prophetic that field of poppies also featured largely in this children’s classic written in 1900, some 15 years before the events that set the world at war.
And it is the poppy that, instead of lulling us into forgetfulness and sleep, as it does Dorothy, in “The Wizard of Oz”, in Ms. Michael’s picture book, it serves as a reminder of what and who should be remembered, as classic children’s books still are – with love!