Poppies keep growing

Something Chantal Beaulieu saw on TV struck her.

The recreation manager at Oakwood Terrace in Dartmouth saw a story about a church in Calgary that created 7,000 fabric poppies. “The beauty of it moved me,” she recalls. “I thought working in long-term care and knowing ladies that knit and crochet, this could be something we could start.”

Beaulieu began putting a plan into action just after Christmas by creating flyers to post on bulletin boards at community centres. Presented with the project’s idea, Oakwood residents and volunteers were enthusiastic about coming on board. They began searching for online patterns to reach a goal of 2,000 poppies of different shapes and sized to sew on a blanket.

“I went around to community centres where I knew there was some knitting groups or quilting groups and approached some ladies,” she adds. “It grew beyond our wall. Every day they were working away at it… We have a knitting group that meets once a week and they would work at it during that time. It was nice because some of the staff wanted to learn how to knit or crochet and the residents taught them how to do it. Some staff took it home and doing a few poppies here and there in their spare time. It was good because it was a work of love by everybody.”

Word got out before the pandemic hit. Many people were home between March–May because of the public health rules; during that lockdown, they knitted and crocheted wool, acrylic, and felt poppies and sent them to Beaulieu.

And she received a notable contribution a couple of days before the deadline to have the display ready. When she opened up the bag, it contained 50 poppies and a card from the mother of a fallen soldier who fought in Afghanistan. This upcoming Remembrance Day would have been Captain Jefferson Clifford Francis’ 50th birthday, so the poppies represent that occasion. Beaulieu had tears in her eyes as she sewed each of those 50 poppies onto the canvas.

For Beaulieu, the poppy project hit close to home and has a special meaning. Her grandfather was a Second World War veteran, her brother is an Afghanistan veteran, and her son is currently in the reserves. Working at a long-term facility during a pandemic also demonstrates how fitting it is to launch the project this year with restrictions on gathering limits and ceremonies cancelled or held virtually.

“This project was important before COVID because I’ve worked with a lot of first-hand witnesses of war,” Beaulieu explains. “Last year, we lost our last veteran; he passed away right after Remembrance Day. Many of the residents are first-hand witnesses to war, whether they had family that served or contributed to the war effort. It’s essential that, especially with first-hand witnesses, we make sure these memories and these contributions don’t get forgotten… This year, we will all have to remember differently.”

Initially, the blanket canvas of poppies draped the front of Oakwood Terrace. Residents, staff, and volunteers go to pay tribute while reflecting on Remembrance Day means to them, plus see the completed blanket canvas. Soon after, they wanted to share it with the community by taking it down and draping it at the Cenotaph at Sullivan’s Pond.

“We always did plan to do that; it’s our way of still connecting with the outside community, and our presence still be a powerful element even though we are behind closed walls,” Beaulieu adds. “I took a walk to Sullivan’s Pond and was sitting on the bench watching people’s reactions to the poppies that are at the Cenotaph. It was moving to see how it was affecting the community. It gave them a place to come and pay their respects in their way.”

Oakwood resident Evelyn Graves participated in the project from the start. When Beaulieu shared the idea with residents, Graves was intrigued. It created a unique opportunity to bond with her daughter while keeping her busy to give some normalcy in her life.

“It is a fantastic project, but aside from the beauty of it, we always have so much fun doing it,” Graves recalls. “My daughter has done a lot of them, and we get together and make poppies, and we just had a lot of fun. Plus, we saw the finished product around the building here. It’s just fantastic because it was a beautiful display.”

Growing up during the Second World War era, Graves stressed the importance of younger generations to recognize the relevance of Remembrance Day. Inspired to write during the pandemic, the Oakwood resident penned a reflection called “And Poppies Grow.”

“We just have to make sure that the younger people coming on understand the core of war and what it brings about for everybody,” she says. “The poppies, of course, is something that brings it all, makes it all real when you go and see the cross with the poppies growing around them. It’s just such a beautiful tribute. It makes everybody think back to those days, and this is what we must make sure the young people remember this cannot be allowed to happen again.”

After Remembrance Day comes and goes, Beaulieu’s determination is for the poppy project to live on for future years. Already looking ahead to next year, the recreation manager’s goal is to add 2,000 more poppies. She’s looking for more volunteers to sow poppies and donations of red wool.

“If anyone understands the effort and hours it takes to sow one poppy and when you grow that to 2,000… this goes deeper than that,” Beaulieu says. “Every stitch made with love and Remembrance Day for us will not just come as one day out of the year. It’s a deep reverence, and I hope that the effort that people see in it will make them also realize that it’s something that we have to reflect on a deep level of how can we learn from the past and how can we make sure that no one gets forgotten or these stories I have been privileged to have first hand. We must document for the next generation…because these voices won’t be here forever to tell us. Hopefully, those stitches will also be there forever as a voice.”

And Poppies Grow
A reflection by Evelyn Graves

Poppies are not just flowers, but a symbol for us to remember the horrors of war. They grow among the thousands of crosses that mark the grounds of foreign countries where the soldiers lie. So many wonderful young people that had their ambitions ahead now lie among the poppies.

There was so much destruction and loss in so many places. We need to give Thanks that our beautiful country was not touched by the bombs and guns, but now so many of our young people lie among the poppies.

This message must be passed down from one generation to the next so they too will know and remember.

Time passes, but we must not forget that such horror could happen again. We need to live in peace with love and trust for our neighbors and friends and we always must remember!

And Poppies Grow

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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