By Richard Mammana

When I was small, the first half of November meant poppies. After the first frosts of October, after Halloween, but before Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie, there were poppy flowers pinned on coats.

For a few weeks, old men — and sometimes old women — sat outside of the supermarket on metal folding chairs at card tables, wearing short, peaked green and khaki caps. They took donations in exchange for the round, red flowers. (Or, more often, red fabric cut to look like poppies, mounted on green wax-papered wires.)

I remember squeezing dollar bills out of my grandmother to go buy these poppies and imitation poppies, though I am sure I had no idea what a veteran was, or why they took donations, or what poppies had to do with any of it.

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A few years ago, I decided I would go in search of poppies in New York — not to wear in a buttonhole, not really even to put in a glass on my desk, but mostly just to see them again.

Now every year on November 11 I have these discussions early in the morning with a series of flowermongers:

Good morning, how are you?
How can I help you?
I was wondering if you have any poppies.
This isn’t a pet store, sir.
No, no, poppies, not puppies.
Oh, a poppy? No, we never had that.
Do you know if there’s anywhere else I could look around here?
Not really.

Trying again elsewhere:

Good morning!
Good morning, how are you?
I was wondering if I could buy some poppies for Veterans’ Day.
Puppies?
No, poppies, the flower.
[To another flowermonger]: We got any poppies?
Puppies?
No, this guy wants some poppies for Veterans Day.
Sorry. You could try at the bodega on 45th.
Thank you.

¿Hola?
¡Amigo! Buenos días.
Lo siento, pero … do you sell poppies, no se en español, pero … las flores, poppies?
Poppies … poppies … no, I don’t think so. You want some tulips, maybe?
No, no, thanks, though.

In eight years of trying, I have yet to find anyone in New York who will sell me a plain poppy. Puppies, yes. Tulips, with a smile. But no poppies — not even jokes about opium or bagels, which might at this point be preferable. November is becoming a month with only the memory of poppies. I miss them! And if they’re absent from New York, I am fairly sure that still

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

—John McCrae (1872-1918)

Richard Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation.

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