I Have Excellent News: The Poppy Is Not Extinct!
I’ve just returned from the Inwood Memorial Day parade. It is the only Memorial Day parade in Manhattan. Manhattan is home to many and enormous parades: Saint Patrick’s Day, Gay Pride, Puerto Rican Day, Dominican Day, Steuben Day, Israeli Day. It’s perverse that in such a city, with such liberty, such diversity, such pride, that the Memorial Day Parade travels a mere seven blocks from Dyckman and Broadway into Inwood Hill Park.
I’ve been attending the parade since I moved into the neighborhood some years ago. I’d never heard of it before then, and I doubt that most New Yorkers are aware of it. Fleet Week Celebrations, The Parade of Ships: these are well-attended spectacles. Although the Memorial Day parade in Inwood has representation from the Marines, the Coast Guard and the Navy (including the Seabees), New York school marching bands, the MTA pipers, Boy and Girl Scouts, fraternal and religious organizations and local Little League clubs, and while there is a loyal and patriotic contingency from the neighborhood lining the streets including Democrats, Republicans, Socialists and Anarcho-Monarchists the politicians who attend cannot even be bothered to write a speech. The local politicians seem to feel that speaking off the cuff to a largely neighborhood crowd will suffice, as they ramble on about veterans and those currently serving as if they were little more than talking points. And did they not hear the priest from the local Roman parish church state that this is not Armed Forces Day, not Veterans Day?
The history of Memorial Day goes back to the end of the Civil War, when it was called Decoration Day. It was a day set aside to remember the Union soldiers who gave their lives for the unity of the country. People would go to the cemetery to decorate the graves of those who’d fallen on the field of battle. As the Civil war fell farther and farther into history, Decoration Day was changed to Memorial Day in honor of all Americans who’d fallen in service to their country. After World War I, the American Legion adopted the poppy as their symbol of remembrance, and I can remember growing up in the ’70s seeing veterans and little old ladies selling poppies and people wearing them on Memorial day and Armistice Day.
It’s been years that I’ve been asking “Where have all the flowers gone?” Actually I’d completely forgotten about poppies until I took a trip to the United Kingdom in November of 2005. There were poppies everywhere, and worn by people of all stripes, from royals to labourers, from members of parliament to Punks. Everyone was wearing a poppy. This was, of course in honor of Armistice Day and the men lost in the Great War, but it struck me that the tradition of wearing a poppy in remembrance of the war dead was all but lost in its country of origin, but thriving in the countries of the Commonwealth. Yes, it is an American tradition.
Ever since that trip to the UK, I’ve worn a poppy on both Armistice Day and Memorial Day. I admit that I do get some strange looks on Armistice Day since it’s been changed to Veteran’s Day, but as they say, “Lest we forget.” I mean no disrespect to veterans, but I also feel it is important to remember those who gave their lives in the War to End All Wars. Memorial Day is another story. Reactions for years have been varied: everything from,”Why are you wearing a paper rose? Isn’t that cute,” to, “That’s an English custom. Why are you doing that?” This year, however, as we stood around the flagpole in Inwood Hill Park for the wreath laying, I noticed that the park was just barley in bloom. There were poppies on the breasts of half a dozen or so men and women in honor of Memorial Day and the American war dead. I hope this is an augury of flowers to come. Including the poppies worn by my friend Michaela and my partner and I, there were just about enough blossoms to make a nice nosegay. Perhaps next year there will be enough poppies that the politicians will participate in this appropriate display of patriotism rather than rambling on off the cuff. Maybe the Mayor will come. And maybe we can take the poppy off the endangered species list.