The Poppy

I have always had a difficult relationship with November 11th.

I was raised a pacifist in a Mennonite church. Sunday School stressed turning the other cheek and loving your enemies. My great uncles who ran away to fight in World War II were our family's black sheep. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was held up as a hero of pacificism. These were the things that rattled around in my brain every year when the teachers handed out those flimsy, plastic poppy pins in honour of Remembrance Day.

I felt bad for all the soldiers who had fallen in foreign fields, and being a child in the nuclear reality of the 1980s with parents who had been children in the post-H-bomb 1950s, I could not forget the possibility of war. I lied awake nights staring into the sparkles embedded in my stippled bedroom ceiling, praying earnestly for men to do good things that would save all of our lives. The poppies, though, despite my solemn thoughts about the deaths of innocents and my visceral fear of war, were problematic for the ten-year-old me.

If wearing the poppy meant that I accepted the use of war against other nations, then I couldn't wear it. If it was worn only to remember the dead soldiers, then I thought I could do that, but I worried that it was still a token of support for war. I was a child caught in an earnest moral struggle between man and God. I hid the poppy in my pocket and showed it to my mother at lunch.

"What does the poppy mean? If I wear it, does that mean I support war?"

"It doesn't necessarily mean that."

"Do you ever wear a poppy?"

"No. If it makes you uncomfortable to wear it, you don't have to."

I went back to school with the poppy still in my pocket. I felt conspicuous without having one pinned over my heart like everyone else, but I was too confused about the overlap of its symbolism and my religious upbringing. I was terribly ashamed that my lack of a poppy might be construed as a silent statement against all those poor soldiers, and I felt as though each person in my class was silently judging me for my callousness.

At recess, a bunch of the kids folded their poppies in half and put them over their lips to make their mouths look full and kissy. I pulled my poppy from my back pocket, removed the pin, and folded the poppy against my mouth, too.

"Ook at ny ips," I said, pursing to hold the fuzzed over plastic in place. "I'n so yootiful."

Someone laughed while I closed my eyes and pretended to lean in for big smooch, but I could not feel the humour.

"Your ears are red," another kid pointed out.

"Yeah. I'm hot," I lied, pulling at my jacket collar. "This coat's really hot."

I had only played along so that the others would see my poppy, so they might believe that I was like them. I had made a mockery of a symbol that might be sacred just so that I could hide myself in sameness, and I felt such shame burning up the back of my neck.

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PS. I wrote "Who Knew That I Could Love Jennifer Aniston This Much?" over at MamaPop today.

I am a participant in NaBloPoMo 2008, a challenge to write 30 posts in 30 days during the month of November. "National Blog Posting Month is the epicenter of daily blogging!"