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The Boston Globe

Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Witness to a city’s grief

For more than a month, Kevin Brown tended to the sprawling memorial to the Marathon bombing victims.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

For more than a month, Kevin Brown tended to the sprawling memorial to the Marathon bombing victims.

BROCKTON — At first, he needed the place. Then the place needed him.

If you visited the sprawling memorial in Copley Square in the weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, you probably saw him: tall, gray handlebar moustache, big cowboy belt-buckle, American flag shirt.

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Kevin Brown was always there. He’d brought his daughter and grandchildren from Brockton for a church service in the days after the attack last year, and he felt drawn to stay. A friend asked him to help out at the makeshift memorial that had formed at the end of Boylston Street, and was later moved a few yards to Copley Square. As it grew, so did Brown’s devotion to it.

People were there day and night, looking for somewhere to reflect and mourn. They laid down tributes to console victims they’d never met, each other, themselves: handwritten notes scrawled on scraps of paper, statues of kneeling angels, teddy bears, balloons, Marathon medals, and the running shoes right off their feet.

“They needed a place to heal, and this was the spot,” he says.

It all needed keeping up. And so, every day for the first month after the bombings, and many days after that, Brown, 59, took the No. 230 bus to the Red Line to the Green Line to Copley and stood watch from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. He was curator, caretaker, docent. He helped visitors place their offerings, keeping hats with hats and shoes with shoes. He cleared out wilted flowers and watered plants. He lighted the candles at dusk, and listened as people gathered and sang.

“You had to be there all the time to see how people felt,” Brown said. “They’d stand in front of the crosses for 15, 20 minutes at a time.”

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That the memorial was so informal — in shambles, really — made it all the more powerful. It was like a giant version of those tributes that appear by roadsides after somebody dies in an accident — intimate, and humble, made of modest offerings — worn stuffed animals, hand-scrawled signs. They mark the deaths not of giant historic figures, but of perfectly ordinary people like us. Driving by, we think, that might have been me, or my child.

And so it was here: The victims at the Marathon died or were gravely injured simply because they chose to stand in front of this restaurant and not that one, to stay a little longer instead of leaving. It was personal, not just because it happened here, but because it could have happened to any one of us.

Brown took in the full measure of that grief. If you watched as long as he did, you would have seen the same people coming back, over and over. You would have seen runners who mustered the courage to visit only weeks after the bombing. You would have seen the countless strangers who brought coffee, hot meals, new markers, and candle lighters, who knelt beside him to pull plastic over the treasures when it began to rain. You would have seen the father of slain MIT police Officer Sean Collier, who didn’t want anybody to know he was there, but didn’t know where else to go. He helped Brown paint the heart on his son’s cross red.

Every night, Brown made the almost two-hour journey home, put a heating pad on his aching back, and fell into bed. And each morning he got back on that bus, because he needed to, because he was drawing as much comfort from the memorial as anybody.

Life had been tough even before the bombing. His second marriage had ended, and the carpenter was living in a tent by a house he was working on. A few months earlier, he lost his beloved mother, the woman who worked to support her 11 children after his father broke his back, and still managed to make their pajamas and bake bread.

The memorial gave him strength, and solace. A year later, it still does.

Brown doesn’t have much. It all fits in his small attic room. On the wall above his bed are two crosses and a bald eagle sculpture, rosary beads hanging from its neck. His collection of hand-carved canes rests against the wall. A half-dozen shirts and jackets — all red, white, and blue — rest on hooks.

It’s a simple existence, and, you might think, a narrow one. But tending to the memorial has enlarged Brown’s world, far beyond his garret’s four blue walls. He feels connected to people in a way he never had before.

“My heart is bigger,” he says.

Kevin Brown’s heart was plenty big last April. And how the city needed it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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