Poetry and poppies: Reflections from The Netherlands

Guest blog post written by Jennifer M. Doelman

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It’s mid-May 2020. We’ve just celebrated Memorial Day and the 75th anniversary of Liberation Day in the Netherlands (my home since 1999). Memorial Day in the States is just around the corner. I find myself in the unusual yet privileged situation of being a university freshman at the age of 51. I am lucky: I have the opportunity to pursue my long-harbored dream of becoming a high school language teacher.

Last week, we had to write haiku for a course. In short, haiku is a three-line poetic observation of nature. It focuses on the moment and is thus, according to many scholars, devoid of symbolism.

Symbolism, however, slipped in through the back door as I stood observing a windstorm battering the poppy-dotted dyke that protects my town. I was carried back more than 40 years to the back seat of Big Red, our ’72 Dodge station wagon, waiting excitedly at the Rip van Winkle Bridge tollbooth. Crossing the bridge was always fun, but every Memorial Day Weekend I eagerly anticipated Dad getting me an American Legion Auxiliary poppy there. Thus it was in that back seat that the poppy’s meaning nestled itself into my consciousness. It was there that I learned that my grandfather was a Prisoner of War in World War II, that Dad served on the Berlin wall, and why the cemetery was full of American flags. It’s where I began to understand and appreciate the meaning of service and sacrifice.

As I walked home, I could feel the dry, ruffled crêpe paper poppy between my fingers again. Lines from John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields floated through my mind. I caught myself humming Sting’s Children’s Crusade. I got goosebumps as the thousands of white headstones at the Netherlands American Cemetery came back to me. The haiku composed itself.

May storm

Poppies shiver, sway.

Sun hides while storm batters fields

Stems snap, petals fly

It’s funny how such a simple flower can have such a powerful impact, evoking remembrance and immense gratitude for the sacrifices made by those who have served to defend liberty, democracy, and the freedom to pursue our dreams.

Born in the U.S. Air Force hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and now living in the Netherlands, Jennifer M. Doelman has every reason to be grateful for veterans’ service. Her grandfathers served in WWII: One was taken prisoner, and the other suffered permanent injury. Her husband’s grandfather served in the Dutch resistance movement. Seventy-five years later, the war still resonates in our daily life, emphasizing how precious and fragile freedom is, and at what price it came.

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