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A Woodhaven Memorial Day tradition lives on

One-hundred years ago, residents of Woodhaven were still reeling from the brutal one-two punch of the deadly 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and World War I. Out of all that loss and despair, an idea for a beautiful and unique tribute was born: the Memorial Trees of Forest Park.
Located at the top of Forest Parkway and running through the park, each tree was planted in the name of a soldier who left Woodhaven to fight overseas but never came home.
And every year on Memorial Day, friends and family of the fallen would gather in the park to decorate their trees.
We’ve written many times about how this tradition faded away over time, as well as how it came to be rediscovered and revived.
But because we are so far removed from the tradition itself, there are few details on the decorations themselves. Articles in the Leader-Observer 100 years ago mention ribbons and flags, so we’ve incorporated those into our decorations.
And they also mention notes the friends and families wrote to their loved ones, telling them the things they wish they could if they were still alive.
So whenever I’ve imagined former Woodhaven residents decorating the trees, I’ve always pictured a somber scene. Quiet, tearful, mournful.
That would better describe last year’s decorating of the trees in Forest Park when we were limited to four people due to COVID-19. The park was empty that morning. It was quiet. It was somber. Our voices echoed around the back stretch of trees and any passersby kept their distance.
But this year was a little different. And I wonder if, years ago, the decorating of the trees came to more closely resemble yesterday. I wonder if, over time, the decorating of the trees was part of the healing.
I would never compare the last year to what residents of Woodhaven went through 100 years ago, but I think the healing effects of the trees works just as well now as it did a century ago.
It was really good seeing a bunch of friendly faces again in person, not via a computer screen. It felt good to be together again, setting off to complete a job and seeing it all the way through.
To be honest, I really didn’t have to do much. I decorated the first tree as an example, and the group took it from there.
Instead, I was able to amble along and just enjoy everyone’s company. And as they moved from tree to tree, I was struck by the tone in conversation. It was quiet and respectful, but there was also a happy tone, people enjoying one another’s company once again.
As I walked along, I began thinking that if the tradition itself was far removed from us, the people we were honoring were not.
They lived in our houses. If they turned up alive in 2021, most of them would be able to bring you to the very homes they grew up in.
They went to the same schools and churches we go to. They rode the same elevated train we do, though it was just a few years old at the time.
They walked the same streets we do, and they would still recognize their old hometown.
And I think they would be touched to see that their loved ones were still remembered all these years later. I think they would recognize the people who decorated the trees this year as the same kinds of people that began the tradition a century before.
And that’s why this year’s decorating of the trees is one I will remember for the rest of my life. It felt wonderful to see these faces again and enjoy some healing time together in Forest Park.
It felt like the worst was behind us and we were moving forward, that everything was going to get better. It was a very good day.

Garden proves that Woodhaven always remembers

The Garden of Remembrance is one of Woodhaven’s oldest Memorial Day traditions, spanning at least seven decades.
Created by American Legion Post 118, the Garden at at 91st Street and 89th Avenue consists of white markers with the names of soldiers killed in action, as well as members of the Post who are longer with us.
Over time, the Garden has grown to a few hundred markers. And in recent years, as members of the post grew older, the honor of erecting the Garden passed to the Junior ROTC of Franklin K. Lane High School.
Last year, due to COVID-19, the Garden of Remembrance was not erected, the first time in 70-plus years it was not on display for Memorial Day.
And it appeared that due to the cancellation of after-school programs over the past year, the Junior ROTC was not going to be available and the Garden would not see the light of day for the second year in a row.
It’s a quirky thing about the ending of traditions. They don’t end with any fanfare, there’s never any announcement. There’s never even any acknowledgement that something special is ending.
The people who were used to a tradition being a part of their lives quickly become used to the tradition going away. It just stops one year and then stops for another.
And then it fades away. Like Anniversary Day Parades. Like Rollback Days.
That’s why it was important for the Garden of Remembrance to be assembled this year, especially right now, coming out of a long dark year in which so many of us have lost so much. We couldn’t afford to lose this unique and beautiful tribute. We couldn’t take that chance.
And so this past Saturday, a group of local residents had the honor of taking part in this tradition, joining members of Post 118 to place the white markers in the front yard of their headquarters at 91st Street and 89th Avenue.
It was a very hot morning and there was a lot of work to be done. Using stakes and ropes to line up the markers, we started in one corner and slowly made our way across the yard.
Each marker has a name and a story of its own, and behind every marker is a family that grieved. Some of those families are no longer around, but many are. In fact, one of the volunteers had the honor of installing the marker dedicated to her great-grandfather.
Back in 2017, I received an email from a man whose uncle, Lieutenant Harry Schmitt, was killed in a plane crash in July 1958. He was stationed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware at the time. He was just 19 and looking forward to a trip back home to Woodhaven.
Harry Schmitt went to St. Thomas the Apostle and Franklin K. Lane and had a job delivering the Leader-Observer. In a tribute to this young man, the Leader wrote: “As a boy, Harry had become known to everyone in the office. From the first day when he took his papers out on his route, his spirit of affable friendliness endeared him to everyone.”
That Memorial Day, we looked in the Garden of Remembrance for a marker with Harry Schmitt’s name and we found one.
We sent pictures of it to the family and they were very touched. It meant a great deal to them that over the decades, Woodhaven remembered. Year after year since his death, American Legion Post 118 honored Harry Schmitt and all the other heroes that were no longer with us.
The following Memorial Day, 60 years after young Lieutenant Harry Schmitt perished, his family returned to Woodhaven for the Memorial Day ceremony. Post 118 added a nice new nameplate to Harry So it was important that the Garden of Remembrance returned this year. It was important to show that Woodhaven always remembers.
If you pass by the Garden, please take a moment to stop and look at all the markers. Try not to notice that some of the rows are slightly out of alignment or a bit askew, starting off closer together than they end up.
Take notice of the names and remember. Woodhaven always remembers.

Woodhaven poet to discuss her craft at showcase

Ever since Christine Barbour was a young girl, she knew she wanted to write. As an elementary student at St. Elizabeth’s she started off by writing prayers, which she would then read aloud at home to her parents.
“They’d look at me like I had two heads, wondering where I was getting this from,” she recalls, laughing. “It was definitely my beginning as a writer.”
Today, she still lives in the same Woodhaven house she grew up in and she’s still writing. Christine Barbour will be the next resident featured in the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society’s series of local artist showcases.
Barbour’s showcase will take place on Tuesday, May 11, at 8 p.m.,via Zoom and Facebook. If you would like to attend, please email us at woodhavenhistory@gmail.com for an invite to this free event.
Later on in her childhood, Barbour began collecting her writings in a series of diaries or journals.
“I kept everything in them,” she said. “I was writing poetry, but I didn’t know then that this is what I needed to do.”
It wasn’t until she went to Queens College that she realized poetry was her destiny. “I wanted to sign up for a Creative Writing course and I picked poetry and that was it,” she said. “I soon knew that this was what I had to do.”
After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree at Queens College, Barbour felt like she wasn’t finished. And so, she signed up for two years of poetry classes at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree.
After a stint teaching reading and math at the Adult Learning Center in the Elmhurst Library, Barbour founded Iron Horse Poetry (previously named the Woodhaven Poetry Society), a free two-hour workshop of poetry craft and writing.
She also sponsored a school-wide poetry contest for grades two through eight at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Academy.
These days, Barbour is turning her attention back to her writing, currently working on two books.
One is a 40-page chapbook titled “Frozen, Alive with Fire.” The other is a full-length book titled “The Sudden Shock of Lightning.” Both books will be self-published.
“Walt Whitman self-published because he couldn’t get published,” Barbour said. “This is an avenue to at least get your work out there.”
One of the poems that will be discussed in her showcase is called “The Shoemaker’s Glue,” a piece that is drawn from Barbour’s childhood memories of growing up in Woodhaven.
“It’s about two shoemakers in Woodhaven,” she explains. “And both of them had tattoos.”
As a child, Barbour had wondered what the tattoos were, and eventually found out that they came from their time in concentration camps during World War II. The piece is written in a child’s voice and Barbour considers it one of her favorite poems.
“I have a lot of favorite poems, but rarely poems in their entirety,” she explained. “Sometimes I love the ending or there’s a stanza in the middle that gets me charged up.
“To me, my poems are like cats,” she added. “You can have a lot of cats, but not all of them are 100 percent great. They have their own personalities, and some parts of their characters are awesome and some are downright bitchy. My poems are kind of like that!”
Another way of getting your work out there is though public readings or open mic events, but it takes time to get used to reading your work before a live audience. Barbour’s first public reading took place while in college, an experience she recalls as “horrible.”
“Thank God they had a podium because I was shaking everywhere,” she said.
But when she got to the end of the poem and heard the audience’s reaction, she knew she had something and never looked back. Since then, Barbour has won over 15 poetry writing contents and has read her work at poetry events throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island.
Come join us next week as this award-winning Woodhaven poet shares her talents with her community. And for any other artists out there in Woodhaven, if you’d like to take part in our showcase series, please reach out to us at woodhavenhistory@gmail.com. We would love to make your acquaintance.

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