For my first column as editor of Ohio Valley Publishing, I initially considered writing about the fallout from the recent presidential election, but like many of you I suspect, I don’t think I can process one more word or image from it. I have compartmentalized it all by telling myself, though some of my neighbors, friends, and even family, didn’t vote for the person I voted for (and no, I’m not telling if it was for him or with her), they are all good people. That’s how I know we’ll all be fine. It’s a matter of disagreement not disrespect with the ones in my world, and I am guessing (and hoping), in your world, too. So, moving on, to the topic of poppies.
Growing up in Point Pleasant, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s home on Third Street. Each year, next to her house and under a pine tree, a patch of poppies grew. I didn’t pay much attention to them; I just knew Nannie appreciated their arrival, whether the patch was thick or thin. If she had told the story about where they came from when I was a child, either I wasn’t listening (which only happened maybe twice) or I didn’t understand (this happened more than twice). There was nothing too impressive about the poppies other than they all grew up together in one spot on long stems and were orange. In fact, the sherbet orange was in contrast to the bright red, paper poppies Nannie and my grandfather wore each year to support veterans. My grandparents were from a generation where, not only did you wear poppies on your lapel, but you put your American flag out each morning and took it in each night. My Nannie did this each day, long before 9/11 and not just on Flag Day, the Fourth of July or Memorial Day. She was a member of the VFW ladies auxiliary, my grandfather served in the US Navy in World War II, as did two of their sons in Vietnam. I’m sure many of you have similar stories of service in your family which is one of the many reasons Mason, Gallia and Meigs counties are unique, at least to me.
As for the uniqueness of those poppies in West Virginia, it turns out, they weren’t originally from West Virginia at all. The unveiling of their origins was revealed when I was an adult and my Nannie’s sister, Sarie, began talking about “In Flanders Fields.” Being a child of the 1980’s, I didn’t know what that meant. Was it a song? Was it a movie? When I expressed my ignorance, my aunt Sarie gave me a look that I now give people under the age of 30 who should know what they don’t know. Sarie explained, “In Flanders Fields” was a poem but beyond that, Nannie’s poppies were from the real Flanders Fields. Turns out, the father of Nannie and Sarie, my great grandfather, Alonzo Dickens, served in the U.S. Army in World War I. When he was in Belgium, he walked in the actual Flanders Fields, where hundreds of American servicemen would come to be buried. The area was a major battle theatre in WW I. As many of you know, the “In Flanders Fields” poem written by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, talks about the poppies which grew over the graves of fallen soldiers.
While in Flanders Fields, my great grandfather placed poppy seeds in his pocket and carried them all the way back to his home in West Columbia in Mason County, where my great grandmother got them to grow. Then, my Nannie got the seeds to grow in Point Pleasant and my aunt Sarie did the same in Barberton, Ohio. Though the poppies no longer grow at the homes of my grandmother or my aunt Sarie since they passed away, family members have carried on the tradition (and the seeds) and they have bloomed in places far from Belgium right here in the Ohio Valley.
If something as fragile as poppy seeds can make the journey from Belgium to West Virginia and bloom nearly 100 years later, we can all survive Facebook posts we don’t like. Instead of making a comment on social media, Google “In Flanders Fields,” make the effort to thank a veteran for their service, and take a moment to appreciate the ones who tend the poppies for next year.
(Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing, which includes the Gallipolis Daily Tribune, Point Pleasant Register, The Daily Sentinel and Sunday Times-Sentinel. She can be reached at 304-675-1333, Ext. 1992, 740-446-2342, Ext. 2102 or at [email protected])