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Kevin Cullen

When grief rewrites your address book: How a Boston tradition got started

Oscar Borraro rode his chair through a field of thousands of American flags last year.
Oscar Borraro rode his chair through a field of thousands of American flags last year.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File)

On a September morning 11 years ago, a freshman named Meaghan Coombs walked into the student union building at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island and immediately noticed all the American flags.

There were 3,000 of them, in memory of the people who died in the 9/11 attacks seven years before. Meaghan Coombs’ father, Jeff Coombs, was on American Airlines Flight 11 out of Logan Airport, which was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

She had dreaded the first 9/11 anniversary she would spend away from her family, at college. But those flags were an unexpected comfort, like a warm embrace.

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A year later, members of the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund, a melding of families who lost loved ones on 9/11 and Gold Star families of the generation who volunteered to serve in the military after the 9/11 attacks, were kicking around ideas on what to do to mark their first Memorial Day as an organization. Christie Coombs told the story about her daughter and the flags, and it resonated.

They vowed to do something similar, but on a bigger scale, a wider canvas. They chose Boston Common, on the gentle slope that surrounds the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

That first year, it took 85 volunteers six hours to plant 20,000 flags to honor the Massachusetts residents who had died in service to their country since World War I. The following year, they added flags for those dating back to the Civil War, then the Revolutionary War.

On Wednesday, it will take an army of 700 volunteers about 90 minutes to plant 37,000 flags, a force annually augmented by passersby who spontaneously join in.

Alma Hart was all in from the get go. She and her husband Brian raised their kids in Bedford, and their son John joined the Army in 2002, a decision heavily influenced by what had happened on Sept. 11 the year before.

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John Hart was serving with the 173rd Airborne when they deployed to Iraq, at a time when our government was sending troops into combat with inferior equipment, not enough ammunition, and unarmored Humvees and trucks.

Dawn was just an aspiration when the doorbell rang 16 years ago. A police officer, a priest, and a woman in an Army uniform were standing at the Harts’ front door. Alma Hart thought that maybe if she didn’t open the door, they couldn’t tell her what she knew they were going to tell her. But she knew she had to open the door. Her son had been killed when his convoy of unarmored vehicles was ambushed. His brothers in arms later told her that John ran out of ammunition while fending off the insurgents who shot him.

John Hart, forever 20 years old, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, which he visited as a boy on an 8th grade field trip. Now, schoolchildren come to Boston Common every May and see flags that honor the sacrifice of John Hart and thousands like him.

At a support meeting for Gold Star families, Alma Hart was struck by the first lesson she learned. “Grief rewrites your address book,” she said.

Some people you thought you knew are afraid to talk to you, maybe even avoid you. You find support in former strangers, some who are sympathetic, others who simply understand, having gone through the same thing.

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From a distance, the flag garden looks like a cluster of purple flowers. Draw nearer and the red, white and blue comes into focus. For Gold Star parents like the Harts, there is a certain, ineffable comfort in knowing that the flag garden is now an established tradition that will outlive them, as they outlived their fallen children. The idea has spread to other places.

Given our popular culture, you would be forgiven for thinking Memorial Day is about cookouts and car sales and appliance discounts. Walk through the Common this week, and be reminded what it’s really about.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.