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The Poppy and the Kiss

It was the first Memorial Day parade that I’d gone to since my husband died.

He, Warren, had been a soldier stationed in the Midwest during the Cold War, and joked that it was only because of his vigilance that Indiana was never bombed by Soviet missiles. Warren used to joke about a lot of things. Firemen often did that to counterbalance the terrible realities they faced every day.

But Warren wasn’t like that. He was just funny. One day he might be advocating that we invade Canada because “it’s the largest undefended border in the world and …. such a waste,” and another he’d be telling me stories about how “Sister Mary Flowerpot “ used to “cuff me on the side of the head” during math class in Catholic school.

I hadn’t been looking for a husband when I met him, but any guy who can make you laugh so hard that you fall off a sofa and hit your head on a coffee table on the way down (if you survive the experience) has a major edge.

Recently, someone asked me what the happiest day so far in my life had been. Instead of saying, “the day I got married,” or “my first art gallery exhibition,” I answered, truthfully, “My entire twenty-year marriage.”

Warren has been gone a long time now. All of the guys from his firehouse are gone. Most retired in their mid-forties, went on to second careers, and lived into their sixties (Warren became a fire safety consultant; his captain became the editor of a fire engineering magazine; two guys from his ladder company became nurses, and so on). They’d fought fires in the 1970s before anyone used oxygen masks, and in those days (race riots and arson; Harlem and the Bronx burning down), firemen like Warren ran into burning buildings up to twelve times a day.

Eventually they all died from heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema, or whatever else might arise from breathing carbon monoxide, smoke and soot. Yet all of them, and Warren was no exception, had loved their jobs so much that none would have traded being a fireman for another few years of life.

This isn’t supposed to be about Warren, though. It’s supposed to be about how much he loved veterans. Whenever we used to stand on the sidewalk and applaud them as they marched by, Warren would murmur, “If they hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t be here.” Once, during a contentious business meeting with a client who had been a bomber pilot in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, Warren threw out his hands in surrender and said, “I don’t care if you’re right or wrong. You were there, so you have my vote either way.”

Warren was a hero worshipper.

Since he’s been gone, I’ve noticed that real heroes are much more likely to believe that other people are capable of valor than are cynical sit-on-their-butts philosophers (particularly academicians) or politicians who have never run into a burning building, jumped into a fox hole, or saved a life.

Following Warren’s example, my radar is always on the alert for heroes. I buy coffee for men in uniform waiting for a train. I buy lunches for guys and gals in the National Guard. I send money to the USO and the VFW. And I am mad about poppies.

The Memorial Day parade that I mentioned above was scheduled to start at City Hall and continue down Main Street. It could have been any parade on any Main Street in North America. And I could have been any woman in any town learning how to face the rest of her life without her man.

Warren had been much older than I, so on that particular May 31st, I was still young enough to be pretty. Within a week of my husband dying, I had already formulated my philosophy of widowhood. Simply stated, it was this: “Put on makeup, wear bright colors, go to work, don’t feel sorry for yourself, and function.”

Not exactly a twelve-step program, but it kept my chin off the ground.

The parade was supposed to begin at 10:00 a.m., but with all of the high school bands, scout troops, floats, classic cars, and veterans, I knew from experience that it would not reach my street corner until about 10:15. So I decided to people-watch. I saw families with small children craning their heads toward the sound of distant music. I saw scruffy Vietnam veterans wearing biker jackets and purple hearts. I saw a dog licking ice cream off the sidewalk where it had dropped from a little girl’s cone (she was crying).

And I saw Howard.

I don’t know if his name really was Howard, but that’s what I have come to call him. He was sitting on a folding chair behind a small table and wearing a dark blue cap with the words WORLD WAR II VETERAN stitched over the visor. He held a single red silk poppy in a big, calloused hand. On the table in front of him were more silk poppies and a white plastic jar filled with coins and dollar bills.

I strode across the street.

“Hi,” I said.

Howard had a deeply lined but handsome face, brown eyes under bushy gray eyebrows, a hawk nose, and a strong jaw. A rim of white hair poked out from under his cap.

When he looked up at me, I saw that his eyes were not pale and watery, like the eyes of so many old people. They were alert, observing, and accepting.

“May I have a poppy?” I asked.

He gave me the one in his hand. I stuck it in my hair, reached into my purse, pulled out a ten dollar bill, and tucked it into the plastic jar.

I said, “Thank you for saving the world.”

Then I leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. When I straighten up again, I saw a sweetly surprised and poignant smile on his face.

He said, “Nobody has kissed me since my wife died.”

I smiled back at him, and I walked away.

It was a lovey Memorial Day parade. Toddlers clutched small flags in their pudgy hands. High school majorettes twirled batons and led bands playing Sousa marches. Firemen grinned at girls from a bright red engine draped in American flags. And gray-haired ladies from the Women’s Army Corps sat in an ancient Jeep and waved to their great grandchildren.

I leaned against a lamp post and closed my eyes against the brilliant sun.

The smile that still lingered on my face grew wider as I thought about heroes, husbands, veterans, a man who might or might not be named Howard.

And an unforgettable kiss.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2017.

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