Poppy Field

Author: Joan Donaldson

When our son, the late SGT Mateo Donaldson was in high school, he and his brother, Carlos, maintained a bee business of 100 hives. The bees pollinated our blooming blueberry bushes, and our sons also rented their hives to a pumpkin farmer. During a family discussion, the lads explained how after the spring flowers and orchards bloomed, a nectar valley limited their bees from finding adequate food. We tossed out various solutions, and after researching the issue, we decided to plant wildflowers that would provide food in June for their hives. 

After preparing the soil as if we planned to sow rye, my husband, John, used a seed drill attached to a tractor to plant a five-acre meadow of red poppies, daisies, and blue bachelor buttons. The following year, the flowers created a stunning landscape that fed the bees. For several years, John sowed up to 20 acres of wildflowers, and our sons’ hives thrived. Even after they left home, we continued the tradition, turning fields near our home into a lovely site. 

Mateo joined the Navy, married his wife, Mayme, then switched to the Army, and he served a tour in Afghanistan. Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) stalked him. Because he knew how to drive tractors, Mateo became the manager of the farm at Fort Lewis, including their beehives, and we hoped the outdoor activities would help heal him. But, on February 19, 2015, he took his life and was buried in our local cemetery that borders our farm.

Mateo and girls

Poppy fields with Mayme and girls

In the fall of 2019, John and I decided to plant wildflowers in the field next to the cemetery as a memorial to our son, hoping that a beautiful sight would bring peace to other grieving families. John sowed our usual mixture of red, white, and blue flowers. In June, the red Flanders poppies dominated the meadow sprinkled with daisies and bachelor buttons. 

Then Covid invaded our country. As we worked on our farm, we spied folks taking photos or just standing there gazing at the flowers. A retired art teacher painted a sign, explaining that the wildflowers were a memorial to our late son. 

A television reporter learned about the landscape, and we agreed to an interview. Standing by the poppies, we explained our son’s suicide and our hope that the memorial would remind others about the need to help our veterans and service members suffering from PTSD. The evening the feature aired, the reporter texted me that the clip hit the number-one spot in viewed videos. Before long, other stations across the country had picked it up, and by morning, we learned that the Associated Press had nabbed the story that now aired around the world. 

Because people were homebound due to Covid restrictions, thousands of visitors walked the path that John mowed around the meadow. At all times during the day, artists painted, photographers set up their equipment, and some men flew drones. Because the story had rippled across the country, some folks drove over five hours to view the poppies.

Poppy fields

At times, John and I felt overwhelmed by the crowds, but then the messages and letters arrived: “My husband suffers from PTSD, and he sat and looked at the poppies all afternoon. I haven’t seen him this peaceful in years.” One Gold Star Mother wrote about her son dying when the USS Cole was attacked. The most poignant message came from a female vet living in Georgia who confided that twice, she had almost taken her life. But after watching the television story, she wanted to plant wildflowers and keep bees. I gave her the TAPS Helpline (800-959-TAPS (8277)), shared how to create a wildflower garden, and encouraged her to investigate the program Hives for Heroes, which provides training in beekeeping. Finally, a local veterans group offered to provide a military salute to our late son. Standing by the shimmering poppies, the trumpeter played taps, and the vets fired their guns as tears ran down my cheeks. 

The death of a loved one always resounds in our hearts. Every June, visitors continue to gaze at a sea of red poppies as they sparkle and sway in our meadow. Their beauty brings hope, healing, and peace to those who mourn.

Joan Donaldson is the surviving mother of SGT Mateo Donaldson, U.S. Army.

Photos: Joan Donaldson, Angie Smith Photography