Thursday, May 27, 2021

In Flanders Fields

Jill - Memorial Day cemetery visit - May 1988
Most of the year, cemeteries are quiet places. They may provide an off-the-beaten-track place for a solitary evening walk, accompanied only by singing birds and a gentle breeze. 
My sister, Lisa, is a cemetery walker. She posted the photo below to Snapchat last Friday:
Photo by Lisa Bauer, Clay Center

Ideally, those peonies would be blooming this coming weekend as families make their annual pilgrimages, dotting the rigid pillars of stone with delicate fresh plants, silk arrangements or colorful plastic displays. The cemetery becomes a place to gather around great-grandmother's grave and tell a story or two. Visitors wave at neighbors across the narrow lanes. They may take time to visit for a minute or two before moving on to the next grave. American flags blow in the breeze between tombstones and wave a tribute to fallen heroes. 

Most flowers are toted in by visitors, like in the long-ago photo of Jill, who carried a mum about half as big as she was on our yearly cemetery tour.
But a few of the flowers are already in place - like the peonies in Lisa's photo. A few years ago, our  neighbor, Shirley, gave a program to my PEO group about the poem, In Flanders Fields, after she and her family visited the World War I Museum in Kansas City. It's the most famous poem to emerge from World War I. It was penned by Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD, who served at a field hospital in Belgium within sight of poppies blooming across the old battlefields and fresh graves. Since it was written, it's been memorized by schoolchildren in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. The poem is the impetus behind the little paper poppies long sold by American Legion and VFW posts during the Memorial Day weekend.

In Flanders Fields
by Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD (1972-1918) 
Canadian Army

In Flanders field, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That make 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.

On the other side of the museum commemorative card, there's a verse by another unidentified wartime poet, who was inspired by the McCrae poem.

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. 

Iuka Cemetery
Though I've not seen poppies blooming during my annual cemetery jaunts, at some cemeteries - like the Clay Center one - the peony bushes offer their pink, red or white blossoms, adding fragrance to the setting as families arrive for Decoration Day. In the cemeteries we annually visit, it does seem that peonies are the perennial flowers in permanent plantings. But, on occasion, I've seen stately irises decorate a family's plot.
"My" irises aren't found at a cemetery, though they are at a similarly solitary place. These irises I've claimed are just north of Zenith along a road we travel frequently to get to where we're going.

In late June, the roadway will be littered with wheat kernels that have blown out of rumbling trucks as they make their way to dump their grain at the Zenith branch of the Kanza Co-op. 
But, in May, both Randy and I look slow down as we reach the grove of cottonwood trees and look for the purple blooms playing hide-and-seek in the light and shadows.

The irises don't mark a grave. Instead, we imagine that they provided a splash of color by a long-ago farmstead. 

No one still living remembers a farmstead at that location. But one lone post from a fence or gate still stands among the blooms. 

These days, the irises are flanked by a CRP field, and the dry, brown grasses of winter offer a sharp contrast to the brilliant colors that form the old-fashioned spring flowers.  

The fragile blossoms are such a contrast to the rough bark of the towering old cottonwoods or the bristly branches of the evergreen tree.

Irises remind me of my Grandma Neelly, who had them in her backyard. You could see them from her kitchen window, where she cleaned up the dishes after poaching eggs for breakfast or serving Sunday's homemade chicken and noodles after church, followed by her light-as-air angel food cake. Seeing irises stirs up those memories as deftly as Grandma stirred up her rhubarb pies each spring.

Randy knows my affinity for irises. When our cottonwood was felled by wind last year, Randy planted irises, along with tulips, by our mailbox. 
 Whether your Memorial Day weekend includes your first trip to the lake or an annual pilgrimage to cemeteries, remember the message of the irises:
What in your life is calling you? When all the noise is silenced, the meetings adjourned, the lists laid aside. And the wild iris blooms by itself in the dark forest. What still pulls on your soul?


  1. I think our Anzac Day is the equivalent of your Memorial Day, but it has no tradition of visiting cemeteries.
    Your poem when sung, reduces me to tears.

    1. I'm glad it stuck a chord in you, Helen.