Boston, Marathons, Memorials

  • by Mikaela Blowing

In the last few weeks of my year abroad I left Canada for a last sweeping tour of as much of America as I could possibly see. Boston seemed an ideal first port of call for my friend Leo and I as we headed south from Montreal. Like many of us who had been to the city this year I was excited to explore the Freedom Trail, sample clam chowder, snoop around Cambridge and try to hear a snippet of the famous accent.

In no way was I disappointed – Boston and all of its attractions were wonderful and we were sad to leave. Making the most of our last day, chattering and strolling happily on our way to the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, some bright bunting in the trees and accumulated crowd at the far side of the square we were crossing caught our attention. Both unable to resist after a year of being conditioned into the mould of two good artsy minded Montrealers we decided to detour and investigate what we presumed to be some of sort of street art or local market. Initially it was the excessive, and I must stress unusually so, presence of the stars and stripes that something about what we had stumbled upon seemed amiss. We squinted into the sunshine trying to establish and make sense of the drapey displays of patriotism that filled the trees we were approaching. Of course, realisation dawned as we drew closer to the hundreds of running shoes and scraps of t-shirt woven into the railings of this small cordoned area in Copley Square.

A little more than a month before our visit while still maple side of the border, the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15 2013 had filled me with a personal sense of dread. For many years of my childhood, my family and I would travel to Blackfriars Bridge in London to watch my father triumphantly staggering past mile 20 of the London Marathon. Events like these fuel an amazing atmosphere that keeps thousands of runners soldiering through the 26 miles of pain to raise money for fantastic causes and keep other less athletically inclined people rooted to the spot for sometimes over 4 hours, just to watch a loved one pass by. When I heard the news on CBC I knew that for many Americans the bombings were a national or even international affront. However for myself, and I believe for others, the deaths of three spectators and dismemberment and wounding of hundreds of others that day momentarily resonated around the world in a way that seemed to move beyond the boundaries of domestic or international terrorism directed at one country.

Unlike the 9/11 Memorial for a short while we were allowed to see that people had laid out their grief for everyone to see, and it was heartbreakingly sad.

Incidentally I also do not doubt that it affected people who might be reading this article, albeit from a different frame of interest. Aside from my reaction as a previous marathon spectator, immediately the memorial in Copley Square entered into dialogue with what I had studied in Birmingham during my second year as an American and Canadian Studies student.  As part of our 20th Century Literature and Culture course we looked at memorial and national suffering, and discussed the intricate hand-made AIDS Memorial Quilt, and other expressions of human suffering such as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC.  Similarly, and always proving the relevance of our degree, over Christmas an ACS friend and I had taken the chance to visit the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. The inset pits cascading with torrents of water pouring down into the bottomless foundation of where the twin towers had stood was a bleak sight on a winter’s day. But for me the marble of the stone and engraved names created a sense of tomb rather than memorial. There was also a palpable sense of wanting to convey strength.

As with the Vietnam Memorial there is no softness, detail or messy human emotion that interferes with the way America has chosen to commemorate those deaths in New York. Indeed, perhaps I am being unfair in my critique because for a tragedy of such magnitude it would be an overwhelmingly emotional experience if it were anything more than the solemn and very simple place that it is. Nevertheless, as a group of tourists ready to pay our respects we left in agreement that we were invited there to look at, but certainly not to engage with, a tragedy that was not our own.  In contrast, then, and to describe it as best I can, The Copley Square Memorial, perhaps in the similar way to the homemade and very detailed nature of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, was extraordinarily moving. Certainly it was the spontaneity and intricacy of the tribute that kept us there so long and moved us in a way we had not expected.

Hundreds had donated little snippets of their own loss, regardless of their own connection to the tragedy as Americans, Bostonians, runners or just as people. Tiny notes of prayer, teddy bears, flowers, candles, running shoes, flags, gaudy proclamations of “Boston Strong!,” scribbled pictures, photos, paper chains. People were adding to it as we wandered, and the memory of those killed or maimed seemed to be growing as we watched. Unlike the 9/11 Memorial, for a short while we were allowed to see that people had laid out their grief for everyone to see, and it was heartbreakingly sad. As we were confronted with the lovingly left fragments of national, local and personal tragedy, the most recent history of Boston and America shut us up into a silence that lasted well over a long hour and spilled into our day. It will be that hour or so that I recall most about that trip to Boston and the Bostonians as they allowed us to remember with them.

To my regret, on June 25th the memorial at Copley Square was removedto the Boston City archives although it can be viewed at 201 Rivermoor Street in West Roxbury.

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