Making Poppies: Creating an ANZAC Tradition for a lifetime

It seems unbelievable that two years running New Zealand’s ANZAC day commemorations have been thwarted: first because of the fear that arose from the despicable Christchurch shooting in 2019 and now thanks to Covid-19. As a nation, we have twice now recently experienced a sense that our safe haven doesn’t feel terribly safe. It’s a tiny – minuscule –  insight into that stirring of fear that must have sat in the bellies of the ANZACs as they sailed toward a foreign shore. One that grew stronger and stronger as they landed, unwittingly, on the wrong beach and had to go into battle.

I’ve been trying to explain the concept of war to Goldie. It’s really hard. She still gets frightened watching Frozen and Aladdin let alone trying to get to grips with real, live ‘baddies’ let alone death on a gigantic scale. Oddly, as I tried to explain the idea of wartime rationing (during a separate conversation about ‘making do’ with what we have while we need to avoid the supermarket) she trotted off to her room to get her book, Aotearoa New Zealand: Creating a Colony by Gavin Bishop and casually flipped to the page showing our troops heading off with their horses during the Great War. I was stunned. She had taken in the detail of a pretty complex book and really got it – not yet 5 years old. Later, Facetiming Grandpa, the book came out again so she could distinguish World War Two: the page with the planes on it. She pointed out the our Spitfires from the Messerschmitts. Oddly, all this talk of war and she seemed unperturbed. I showed her the final scene of Blackadder’s “Over the Top” which breaks my heart every time I see the battlefield blur into a field of poppies. I wanted her to understand why the poppy is the symbol it is but without images it is lost.

So we talked on and on about war, me an my little 4 year old – and we made poppies. Lots of them. She recalled the story of ‘Tui’ we’d seen on a recent holiday to Langs Beach where a storyboard stands by the surf about Private Hugh ‘Tui’ Gordon Haswell of the Auckland Mounted Rifles going off to war with his beloved horse. Neither made it back.

We cut up egg cartons and Goldie painted the insides and I did the outsides ‘like a factory’ she said. Our factory made enough poppies to make a wreath. Then we moved on to a window display. Goldie planned to wear the miniature medals her Uncle had made in memory of her Great Great Grandfather William. I told her the story of how ‘Billie’ was gased and his hair went white overnight. He was strapped to a big gun and pulled out of battle ‘onboard’ that big rig. Somehow he still went on to have a gleaming career as a baritone despite the mustard gas setting his lungs seemingly on fire.

We used supermarket paper bags for the window display, using hand prints and Rainbow’s finger painting to give each poppie a unique shape. Unique to represent the lives of the individuals who fell to set us free. The raffia bag handles got dyed in green food colouring, dried and wound around skewers which we glued into the remaining egg carton poppies and corrugated cardboard versions.

Just before dawn, we lifted our sweet girl out of bed, wrapped her in her dressing gown and pinned Billie’s medals on. With a lit candle, we went up the drive and greeted our many neighbours all present on the road to #standatdawn for ANZAC Day 2020. Goldie hung her wreath on a tree on the verge and poked the skewered poppies into the earth. An awesome display for such a little person to have created. 

I watched her, standing there trying to stay silent when she just wanted to wiggle about and felt so torn about teaching my innocent little one about something so genuinely frightening. But I knew that this third year of acknowledgement is creating a ritual for her that marks the beginning of a lifetime of tolerance and understanding.

As the sun rose, the light caught Goldie’s window full of handmade poppies, I know that she will always remember Them. 

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