Last Tuesday afternoon, the weather in Copley Square was as nice as weather can get in New England: sunny, dry, warm enough for shirtsleeves. So people filled the square: strolling, window-shopping, eating outdoors, sunning themselves on the grassy sward next to the impromptu memorial to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Many others visited the memorial. The sense of resumed normality in a space so recently filled with devastation could itself be seen as a kind of memorial — one looking to the present and future, as a traditional memorial looks to the past.
The nice weather wasn’t supposed to last, as anyone caught in Wednesday’s noontime downpour would learn. So that morning five city archivists had removed certain fragile items from the memorial to be preserved in the city’s archives in West Roxbury.
City workers assembled the memorial in late April, bringing together smaller memorials from sites around Boston. People have continued adding items to it.
As the site of the bombings, Copley Square was the obvious location for a consolidated memorial. Yet no urban planner or museum curator could have picked a better setting for this particular constellation of objects. Three of the most magnificent buildings on the continent define the square: the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, the John Hancock Tower, and Trinity Church. They are imposing in the best sense of the word. They command attention and reward it. Their monumentality makes all the more affecting the modesty of the memorial and the homeliness of the items that make it up.
Part of the wonder of the memorial is that “memorial” seems like far too grand a word for it. It’s small (roughly 60 feet square) and formed by nothing more exalted than three metal railings, the kind police normally use for crowd control. Here there’s no need for control. Visitors are respectful and engaged without being solemn.
Against the railings or hanging from them are shirts, running shoes, flags, pieces of paper, banners, stuffed animals, balloons, pinwheels, bouquets of flowers. Many of the objects bear handwritten messages. Within the space formed by the barriers, there are another dozen or so gatherings of items. On a tree, for example, hang rosary beads and origami figures.
In neither appearance nor scale could the memorial less resemble its mighty neighbors. It’s anything but imposing. The fact that so many passersby can ignore it is one indication of that. But that very fact suggests how quickly, and fittingly, it has braided itself into daily urban life.
To someone unaware of what happened last month, this assemblage would look like a cross between a yard sale and a florist’s. Which is kind of wonderful, and which the contrast with the lofty surroundings makes even more kind of wonderful. There’s such a sense of humanity and personality to the memorial. Like the Marathon, it’s deeply, almost defiantly, democratic.
At some future date, the city intends to take down the memorial. No decision has been made yet as to when. Items in it are likely to be included in a permanent replacement. Some people are eager for the memorial’s removal. The term “trash heap” has been used. Others see taking it down as disrespectful or even a desecration. Both views seem excessive.
The items may be naturally emphemeral, but that can make their presence all the more poignant. The fact that so many bouquets have started to dry out recalls the traditional commemorative practice of preserving flowers from momentous personal occasions: marriage, birth, a funeral. That said, flowers and shirts and scraps of paper aren’t meant to last. What is meant to last are the emotions attached to them. And for that to happen no memorial is necessary.
It’s least of all necessary in this particular city. In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, there was much talk along the lines of “They picked the wrong city when they picked Boston!” It was a kind of boast, and however unintentionally, it carried invidious implications. So there would be a right city? Fresno, perhaps? Atlanta (which had a sports-related bombing of its own)?
For all that it expresses a fine sentiment, “Boston Strong” is another boast. But there’s a specific sense in which Boston is more than strong, it’s indisputably strongest — at least among US cities. That’s as regards memory. It’s more than the city having such a long history. It’s the way in which remembering is embedded in its psyche. No city so notorious for grudge-holding could ever be accused of having a poor memory.
First came the Puritans, people in exile who prized the written word. Words are how we remember, and there is no goad to remembering like exile. They founded and defined a city. Then came the Irish, a people in exile who prized the spoken word. They took over the city and redefined it. Except that they didn’t — redefine it, that is. Irish Catholicism is Jansenist — Catholic Puritanism — and the close resemblance in values between the two groups contributed no small amount to the friction between them. Brick churches succeeded wooden ones. Vowels in surnames started appearing in unexpected places. The imperative to remember didn’t change. If anything, it strengthened. Boston has many failings. Forgetting has never been one of them.
For all that the Copley Square memorial comprises so many ephemeral items, there’s nothing ephemeral about the motivation behind it, the refusal to forget. The memorial will come down, as it should, though there’s no hurry. The memory of it will remain strong.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.