Saturday, December 1, 2012

Honor in all Seasons

“Yes, I remember those red poppies!” Eyes bright with recognition, an elderly friend reached for my book and eagerly turned the pages.  Soon others in the lobby of the assisted living center joined her. They had stepped back in time to greet a woman who turned a simple red flower into a tribute of thanks.

THE POPPY LADY: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans by Barbara Elizabeth Walsh, paintings by Layne Johnson, Calkins Creek, 2012

Moina Belle Michael was a determined woman. In WWI women were limited in what they could do for the war effort, but Moina helped wherever she could. She knitted socks and sweaters, rolled bandages, and gave enlisted friends and students who were going overseas little remembrances to take with them. 

That was not enough. Moina delivered books, candy, and magazines to the nearby camps, invited boys home to dinner, and saw them off at the train station.

Moina wouldn't stop there. She trained to be a canteen worker for the YMCA. At the completion of her training, she was told she was too old to go overseas. Her age? 49.

Moina would never be classified as a quitter. If she couldn’t go with the soldiers, she would help them before they left.  She set up a comfortable gathering place in the basement of Columbia’s Hamilton Hall for soldiers, sailors, marines, and secretaries to rest and relax during their free time.  Moina decorated the space with fresh flowers, became a good listener to those who wanted to talk about home, and wrote notes and letters to their families and sweethearts.

Still, Moina wanted to do more. A poem by a physician who served in the war but could not save everyone on the battlefields of Flanders inspired her. Then she saw a picture of the field of red poppies covering the graves. No names on the cross markers. No way to know who slept beneath the red poppies at Flanders Fields.

When she set her mind to something, Moina Belle Michael did it. She made her own pledge, to always wear the “poppy red”  “in honor of our dead,” the “poppies of Flanders Fields.”

Veteran’s Day and Memorial Days are set aside for us to remember those who put their lives on hold or gave them up entirely so the rest of us can live in freedom. We can honor these brave men and women on other holidays in other seasons, too. 

Some who have seen the trailer for The Poppy Lady, or read a review, or held an actual copy in hand, see this as an opportunity to tell their children of the sacrifices made to keep them safe today. As a Thanksgiving  memorial, what better way to show our thanks than to present a book like The Poppy Lady  to a children’s school library? It’s a lasting gift that will serve teachers who plan Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day events.

The trenchant paintings of illustrator Layne Johnson lead the reader into the midst of each crowd, whether it be soldiers on a train, in the heat of the battle, or relaxing in the room Moina prepared for them. His cross marked battlefield of red poppies is absorbing, a time for reflection. Johnson is also the creator of the stirring trailer on the author’s web page.
The play of expressions across Moina’s face, a tribute to the illustrator’s talent, captures the reader’s imagination. What was it like to sit across from this woman and tell her of home?

Author, Barbara Elizabeth Walsh, discovered the answer to this question
when she was ten years old and found a postcard written to her mother and signed “Pat’s Poppy Lady.” Who was this lady? Why was this note, written during WWII on behalf of her father, so important to her mother? Walsh was determined to find out. This fascinating story is related in a video featuring  the author, Moina Belle Michael’s two great nieces, and the author’s father, Pat Antrilli, still remembering fondly fifty years later the kindness of the Poppy Lady. 

As the author researched and came to know this incredible woman, her admiration grew. Those who visit the author's web page will see a recent addition to the page. The author's home in Mantoloking, NJ incurred a great deal of storm damage from Hurricane Sandy.  Her comments will inspire anyone unable to escape the wrath of a natural disaster. It is as if the courage of Moina Belle Michael has come to the aid of her biographer. Like Moina, author Walsh is not a quitter. Readers could choose either woman--or both--as role models.       
Families who don’t know what to give grandparents or great-grandparents who seem to have everything, take note. The Poppy Lady is a warm reminder that a grateful nation remembers. Senior citizens’communities and assisted living centers usually have libraries, too.  Vivid art and the larger type of a children’s picture book are easy on aging eyes.

One senior whose eyes lit up at sight of this book recalled seeing poppies sold on every street corner when she was a little girl. Her parents told her the money was used to benefit veterans. It delighted her to know that the author of The Poppy Lady has directed that a portion of this book’s proceeds will support Operation Purple, a program of the National Military Family Association, which benefits children of the U. S. military.

The red poppy remains a strong symbol. The story behind it, its meaning, and the young woman whose motto was “Whatsoever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.” is well crafted in this moving biography.  


Hillview School Library