Sometimes the smallest things can change a life. This happened to my Dad during WWII. He was a young soldier studying Radio Communications at the University of Georgia staying in the Georgian Hotel with other soldiers-in-training. Missing family, friends, and everything familiar, he and his buddies shared many of the same feelings as they prepared to go overseas.
My Dad had a green thumb and growing flowers was a passion he’d had ever since he was a little boy–a trait I, unfortunately, didn’t inherit. That’s what led him to notice the comings and goings of a woman who also lived in the hotel. She looked to be in her seventies, and everyday she would place fresh field flowers in the lobby and on every floor.
It was a small gesture, but it helped raise the morale of my Dad and the other soldiers. It made them feel better about being away from home. The woman would also stop and talk to soldiers who seemed worried or troubled.
Fortunately, she was present the day my Dad received a letter from his mother telling him that his two brothers had been taken prisoners of war. He felt helpless as he sat on the sofa in the hotel lobby. The woman seemed to sense his need and asked to sit beside him. Her name was Moina Michael, and the two of them spoke for hours. In the weeks that followed, she would look for my Dad when he returned from his studies to see how he was doing. One day, she asked if she could write to his fiancé, my soon-to-be mother, back home in Pennsylvania. She made my Dad feel like family.
I first heard about Moina when I was ten years old and searching through my Dad’s WWII memory box for a show-and-tell assignment. I found the postcard Moina had written to my Mom. It had a red crepe-paper poppy attached to one corner. It was the only war story he had ever shared.
As I listened, it seemed that Moina’s kindness had become second nature to her. She had done the same for other soldiers and their families dating back to WWI. During that time, she had worked tirelessly to establish the red poppy as the symbol to honor and remember soldiers. Since then, the millions of dollars raised in donations had helped countless veterans and their families in need.
Fifty years later, Moina came into my life, once again. I was taking my first writing course for children, and had to come up with a nonfiction character. After hours of deliberation, I mentioned my frustration to my Dad. He urged me to write about the “Poppy Lady.”
He explained how he wouldn’t have made it through that terrible time if it hadn’t been for Moina’s kindness, and his eyes filled with tears. He worried that people were forgetting about what she had done for our servicemen and women. He was also concerned that the significance of the poppy had diminished over the years.
It made me sad to hear him say that his generation was almost gone. He felt for the young soldiers and their families of this generation. They still needed help.
For these reasons, my Dad was determined to keep Moina’s legacy alive. And I was determined to do whatever I could to help make that a reality.
But I was new to writing and had no idea how to write a children’s book, which is why it took seven years from first draft to getting published. My Dad was my mentor and watched over my writing every step of the way. Finally, his dream came true. And I was grateful for the opportunity to share this inspiring story.
When I called to tell him that THE POPPY LADY was going to be published, you could hear his cheers from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. But my Dad’s one last request was that I donate my portion of the book’s proceeds to an organization that would carry on Moina’s legacy. He reminded me that the poppy was Moina’s idea and she never kept a penny–the donations raised went to our servicemen and women.
Since it was a book for children, we wanted to find an organization that would benefit children of the U.S. military. After much research we found the perfect one: The National Military Family Association (NMFA)! Their belief, Military Kids Serve, Too!®, touched my heart.
Moina believed that taking one small step in the right direction could bring about powerful results. And that was certainly the case when she showed kindness to my Dad and his soldier buddies.
How nice would it be if everyone followed Moina’s example? You never know where that next step might lead.
Barbara Walsh is a former elementary school teacher, and military child of a WWII veteran. She has written articles in Highlights for Children and Cricket Magazine. The Poppy Lady is her first children’s book. She and her husband live in Mantoloking, New Jersey, and Key Largo, Florida.