I have a poppy. I get one every year. Sometimes I get more than one because I tend to lose them or actually, they often fall off during the week before Remembrance Sunday. Sometimes, when I come across them, I might get a white poppy as well. But I always buy a red one.
They also can help nudge some of the conversation and memories of the people that I see in my day to day work. It really does help to create a sense of solidarity across generations as I enter the properties of those who fought in and were affected dramatically by the Second World War. London felt it profoundly.
So last week, I went to see a woman who had been newly allocated to me. The doctors had more or less established a diagnosis and treatment plan. I was part of that treatment plan. There were lots of things to get to grips with but my first role as usual was about building a relationship.
She saw my poppy and she smiled. She told me she had wanted one. She got one every year – but this year, she had not been able to get out and about. That’s the other way that I sometimes ‘lose’ poppies. I left her my slightly rain-soiled poppy and in exchange she told me a story.
She explained how she had been young when the war started and with her brothers and sisters had been evacuated to Wales.
She told me about the separations that ensued and about the cruelty she was confronted with on a daily basis by this extrinsically ‘respectable’ family and how she was virtually starved and constantly blamed just for being a Londoner. She told me that she still remembers the hunger – in fact, it has affected her relationship with food throughout her life.
The story, while ending not entirely happily, did end with her ‘escaping’ this particular placement . She returned as a young child to London to see out the rest of the war and the Blitz with her mother.
Her brother and her sister, who were happily placed with a kind and thoughtful family with many children of their own, both ended up staying in Wales after the war. Her sister married one of the children of the couple and the family still live there.
But for her, that period of abandonment ordained by the state, although it was for a relatively brief part of her youth, remains an absolutely defining part of her subsequent life.
There must be thousands of stories, if not millions, that are retold within families, my own family has an ‘evacuation tale’ within it. The people who suffered are far broader than those who went to fight.
These stories and the stories that I have heard over the years, allow me to build a virtual patchwork quilt of stories of the war as it affected different people at different stages of their lives across London and across the world.
I remember the man I visited in the care home who had fought with the Polish Free Army, the elderly woman who recalls her stories of her time in the WAAF and the old Italian man who tells me with a tragic earnestness of the duplicity of Mussolini who promised them the world and delivered extreme poverty.
As the woman related her evacuation story to me, I recalled all the victims created by the war and by wars more generally. The soldiers, the conscripts and the children displaced by warfare and politics.
I see people who live the war every day and have for decades and it is for them, and the people who never were able to return, that I have the poppy.
I think back on the epitaph on the Kohima Memorial
“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”
Some, those who did return and those who suffered at home, gave their tomorrows as well. We shouldn’t forget those who continue to live vastly changed and marked lives as well as those who never returned.
- The story of a poppy, and 35 remarkable men and women (thestar.com)
- Remembrance Sunday: a history of the poppy (telegraph.co.uk)
- The white poppy, an acceptable symbol of remebrance? (politics.ie)