One Day a Year Set Aside for Those Who Paid With Their Very Lives

Grandma Leora Wilson wore a red crepe paper poppy as she stooped beside a headstone in Violet Hill Cemetery in Perry to arrange flowers from her garden for this Memorial Day ritual.

A small silver bell dangled from her watch–a souvenir from Capri which had been returned from Italy with the other property of her son Danny, who was Killed in Action in World War II.


All five of Grandma’s sons left the farm at Minburn, where they lived during the war, to serve in the navy or army air force.

Only two came home.

Every year for Decoration Day, as she still called it, Grandma–a member of the women’s American Legion Auxiliary for decades–handed out red poppies where she lived in Guthrie Center after World War II.  The paper blossoms are actually distributed in exchange for donations to benefit disabled veterans.

During World War I, American soldiers were buried in the pastures and on the battlefields of Europe, where bright red poppies grew wild among the fresh graves.

While caring for the wounded near one of the battlefields, Canadian doctor, Lt. Col. John McCrae, jotted down the lines “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row. . .” This poignant poem was the inspiration for patriotic groups who raise money for disabled veterans and their families by distributing the crepe paper poppies–which are made by disabled and hospitalized veterans.

When Grandma Leora was a girl, Decoration Day was observed with a solemn ceremony on May 30, attended by the whole town of Guthrie Center. At age nine, she was one of about twenty young girls who were part of the ritual.

Veterans of the Civil and Spanish American Wars decorated a hay rack wagon, she remembered, for that Decoration Day procession in 1900. A team of Palomino horses pulled the wagon to the cemetery. Wearing white dresses, the girls rode on the wagon, while the veterans marched behind. At the cemetery, each girl–with a red, white, and blue sash over her shoulder–accompanied a veteran in uniform to lay flowers on soldiers’ graves.

When Leora’s daughter Doris was about thirteen, she was part of a similar ceremony in the town of Dexter in the 1930s. The band marched from town to the cemetery, followed by uniformed World War I veterans, then the girls–two by two, wearing white dresses with red and blue sashes. Each girl carried two bouquets of mostly pale blue iris, one in each arm.

As a Legionnaire called out a name, one girl laid a bouquet on his grave. Another name, her other bouquet. Her partner was next. The crowd of townspeople followed through the rows of stones.

A trumpet sounded Taps.

As a young girl, I too was part of a Memorial Day ritual–not as dramatic and memorable, but more personal and poignant for family members.

Every year, my sister and I went with Mom, Aunt Darlene, and Grandma to decorate the Wilson stones in Violet Hill Cemetery with home-grown bouquets. Only Junior Wilson, age 20, is buried there. One stone commemorates Dale, age 22 when lost, and Danny, age 21. Danny Wilson is buried in France.

popp (2)
Dale, Danny, and Junior Wilson

Dale’s twin sister, Darlene, died just before her 98th birthday earlier this month. Only God knows where Dale’s remains lie.

We’d also leave a bouquet for their father Clabe Wilson who died in 1946 of a stroke–and a broken heart.

Memorial Day is the one day a year set aside for those who paid for our freedoms with their very lives.

The older poignant Decoration Day traditions are no longer common in America. But those fragile red poppy blossoms are the perfect remembrance of the ones–such as the three Wilson brothers of Dallas County–who never came home.

Published in The Des Moines Register Memorial Day 2019.

Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II by Joy Neal Kidney is about the war years of this family. It’s also available as an audiobook, narrated by Paul Berge.


  1. We cherish Memorial Day as a remembrance of our loved ones that gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect our great country. We always give for the poppies and proudly display them. It is sad to think our younger generations do not know what the poppies symbolize.

    • I was surprised that my son didn’t know when he was in high school! He’d even been to the cemetery with us, but I hadn’t passed on what I should have. I’m making up for that now.

  2. Oddly, i remember the paper poppies. My great grandmother wore one on Memorial Day. I think there’s a story there I need to dig into, something I don’t know about.

    • Was she related to the Sicily uncle? Your dad? That would explain it, but in small towns, everyone bought one to support veterans who survived. If ladies didn’t wear them, they tied them to their purse handles.

      • No, she was the Franklin side, so I’m not sure. She might have had it for my Uncle Neff who came back minus a leg. So that piece makes sense.

      • Since I’ve been doing some writing, I’ve learned how important feedback can be, so have made a habit of it–unless I really disliked the book! This morning I’ve had feedback about my Memorial Day essay in The Des Moines Register. The man is a retired doctor, and he said that he had a grandfather who handled the horses and repaired tack for a mobile artillery unit with the AEF, so I told him about your book.

  3. Beautiful remembrance of family memories and Memorial Day. Some of those Decoration Day traditions should be revived. They were wonderful ways to honor those who gave their lives.

  4. Lovely Memorial Day remembrance. I remember wearing paper poppies as a schoolgirl — not sure if they were sold at school or bought for us children by my dad, a WWII Navy veteran. Heartbreaking that your grandmother lost three sons — and wonderful that you pay tribute to them here.

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