I think I must have been 10 years old when I actually remember donating money for a poppy at school. Mum had given me money and had stressed that it was all to be used for poppies.
I remember the box where we put the money and the paper poppy I was given and told to pin on my clothes. The whole school had these bright red paper flowers on our lapel. But I had no idea what it was all about. We just did it because we were told to. No explanations given. And yet, year after year, the poppies appeared and our donation was always given without hesitation, without explanation.
Maybe we did get an explanation. Maybe they told us it was for the men and women who had died in the war. But one is too young to fully understand.
I do remember though my first feeling of fear of what would happen if the world I lived in changed. It had been explained to me that Communism meant that everything belonged equally to everyone – which I thought was a great idea! Until that is, my Dad told me: “And how would you like to share our home with four other families?” That got me thinking. I certainly gave the issue a lot of thought and ultimately I chose the big bathroom on the top floor to be my home. Then suddenly, this faraway concept became even more real. My Dad pointed out a hammer and sickle painted on the wall of a store near home and told me it was the Communist symbol.
At that moment I became aware that fear and suffering could be so much more greater if a war was near by.
My family used to have the most interesting discussions after lunch and dinner, talking about an assortment of subjects. It was still the time when children were to be seen but not heard, but for me the pleasure was to listen to these curious, well-informed people talk about so many different subjects. I was particularly fascinated by my grandfather. He spoke very little. He would rather do that than talk. So, while the rest were discussing this or that, he would pick up the chocolate wrapping paper and slowly and carefully start to separate the common paper from the metallic one from one of the corners. He would be happy if the paper did not get broken. And then he would go and get another one… and make a ball with it, which he would roll over to me.
That would be a trigger, enough for my aunt to ask if I knew how important that bright metal little ball was? And then, the stories would slowly come through: getting enough metal paper to weigh a kilo, to send on to the war effort. To collect eggs, to send to the war effort. How my aunt couldn’t get silk stockings, because the factories were working for the war effort. The amount of socks and gloves they knitted, to help the war effort. There was no rubber, leather or rope for shoes, you used munched-up bread to correct your mistakes.
Slowly I started to understand what other people had gone through. My grandmother’s friends had lost their husband, or a son. People became real. Death became real. And suddenly, the poppies were something else. They had meaning, and I was proud to wear it in memory of those who had lost their lives. To honour them, to help their families.
Forty-odd years later, the poppy has changed yet again. I feel that today it is not just for World War I and World War II veterans, but also for all those that have lost their dear ones defending our future.
I wear it as a remembrance for our soldiers who fell on the southern islands, who went valiantly to defend our country and died for it, even if their chiefs had other reasons for that war. It represents all of those who gave their today, so that we could have a tomorrow.
War is still a rather far-away concept for us living today in Argentina, and especially in Buenos Aires as in all large cities. People under 35 have mostly never been in touch with someone who has lost someone.
Suffering, real tribulation, is a feeling that’s hard to emulate when there is no example to look at; when real war is far away, sometimes only a picture on the night news that hardly ever reaches mobile phones or Facebook pages, though sometimes it does in impersonal video games. And yet next year, in 2018, it will be 100 years on from the Armistice: the end of the First World War – which was, supposedly, the ‘War to End All Wars.’ I would love to teach children to make metal balls. To show them how my old French teacher would isolate the cold with a newspaper. To find out with them how to send eggs to the other end of the world for the wounded. To knit with common wire for a lack of needles, so as not to be cold, so as to keep your mind distracted from what was going on.
I would love to show children how to be proud of those now gone. To remember all those that have left us – whether we knew them or not – in order for us to be here today. A poppy is a way to start remembering.
(*) Member of the Argentine-British Community Council (ABCC).