This is that time of year when every lapel sports a red paper poppy to commemorate fallen British soldiers. A beautiful tradition followed by the young and old, soldier and civilian alike. It speaks to a nation that remembers.
When I first came to England, my boyfriend told me the story of a friend who had an idea to hire an airplane to fly over the Thames and release 3 million poppies. Everyone told him it couldn't be done, but he did it anyway. He dropped them from high above and the river ran red with poppies that Remembrance Day.
Now, I had just arrived from America where we don't use the symbols of poppies to honour our veterans. I had never heard of Poppy Day. And furthermore, I can rarely understand a word my boyfriend is saying because of the difference in accents. So when he told me this story, I heard the word "puppies," not "poppies." I was mortified. The carnage! To this day I get a chill whenever I pass the River Thames.
The poppies were in abundance at Westminster Abbey's Evensong where the 65th anniversary of the Normandy campaign was being marked. Costing the lives of thousands, the Normandy invasion was the most massive amphibious operation in history and it proved a turning point in the war.
It was a bittersweet day at Westminster Abbey. The Normandy Veterans' Association's literature stated that this would be the last such event. "Inevitably, the membership of the NVA decreases with each passing year. Eventually no veterans will remain."
Outside, the security was tight. The stark red of their own poppies contrasted with the dark uniforms and stern faces of the guards. I've never been frisked at church before.
Inside, it was a packed house, full of elderly medal-clad veterans, proud yet protective families, a few hand-sanitizer toting tourists, and various visiting dignitaries. The Abbey's statues of esteemed statesmen of the past glared down upon the Prime Minister, The Lord Mayor of Westminster, and His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester.
But the day belonged to the veterans. Ears pushed wide by hearing-aids, white hair feathering bald domes, shiny decorations on starched jackets, they sat proud and attentive even as their shoulders stooped from the weight of their memories.
This service would be different from most. The fact that almost every seat was taken half an hour early testified to that, as did the grey line of folded wheelchairs against a wall, and the program note advising on proper hearing-aid settings.
The service began as a graceful procession of white gauntlet-gloved veterans paraded through the aisles. They carried large flags, from NVA branches across Great Britain. They filled the church with colour, the jeweled spectacle of the standards below matching the Abbey's gorgeous stained-glass windows above. As the elderly men struggled beneath their weight, the flags waved unsteadily, like ship masts on their way to port after a long journey.
Pageantry and pride, England knows how to celebrate her heroes and her history. The readings were moving, the hymns, sung by the Westminster Abbey Special Service Choir, were haunting. As I couldn't see them from my seat, the effect of the choir and the Abbey's spectacular organ was of music coming straight from the angels. And as our prayers echoed off the ancient stonewalls, the congregation's communal voice sounded like thunder. This was how Westminster Abbey was meant to be experienced, majestic, beautifully lit, full of worshipers, a church at work.
The Reverend Martyn Percy reminded us of Winston Churchill's words,
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
But sadly, these were the only words that Mr. Percy spoke to those heroic men and women. His address turned quickly to an irrelevant bemoaning of youth today. "No one understands spit and polish anymore." It was a shame. This was an opportunity to celebrate bravery and service. Instead, he chose to chide us with the same sort of speech I imagine these veterans probably heard themselves when they were young.
No man or woman is born great. Each of us is tempered by our time. And it is right to honour those who heeded the call to duty. I looked around at this brave generation of whom so much was asked. So many men never left Normandy, while it was obvious that the survivors never left Normandy behind.
At the end of the service, wreaths were laid at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior as the Last Post made its plaintive plea.
Reveille sounded, imploring us always to remember. As the bugle cut the air, the veterans struggled to stand a little bit straighter, solemn, grim-faced.
Then we all burst into God Save the Queen, the veterans looking straight ahead as if soldiers once again, singing to another time, to that faraway beach, to their lost youth and their fallen brothers.
And then it was over and we all shuffled out quietly. It took ages to reach the door, a slow-moving parade of canes and wheelchairs. We finally spilled outside to find tears, handshakes, flashing cameras, a celebration of pride. For a moment, time and her wounds lifted from their faces and we could see the boys that these men had once been as they swapped their medal stories and their memories.
And we could feel too, the presence of those boys who were lost, who had sacrificed their opportunity to ever become men.
They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
And so we do.