Gruff and stoic, Boston shows its heart on bombing anniversary

The Boston Marathon bombings showed a different side of Boston. Not one for touchy-feely, Boston has found its own ways to grieve and remember on the one-year anniversary.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Running shoes are part of an exhibit called 'Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial' at the Boston Public Library.

On the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings Tuesday, the nation turned its attention back to Boston in memory of those who lost their lives, in recognition of those who ran toward danger to help each other, and in celebration of the resilience of a city that came together.

In a ceremony Tuesday, a list of high profile local, state, and federal officials including Vice President Joe Biden paid tribute to that spirit, which became known as Boston Strong in the days after the attack.

But for a town that has never been mistaken for the honey-sweet South or the laid-back West, the idea of public mourning and tear-jerking tributes has often seemed, in many ways, to strike an off-key note.

“I think that probably most Bostonians would not describe themselves as being terribly quick to wear their emotions on their sleeves,” says Boston historian Nathaniel Sheidley.

For a place where many small towns are still run by town meeting, opening wallets and doors to help each other – and coming together at religious gatherings and sporting events – was always going to be a familiar way to cope communally. But the enormity of the event – taking place on Patriot's Day during the Boston Marathon, New England's "national holiday" – may have also softened the often-gruff exterior, Mr. Sheidley suggests.

And away from the cameras, Boston has found other ways, touched with a twinge of New England asperity and industry, to mourn and remember.

Rainey Tisdale started thinking about how to create a public space for residents to heal while her Boston neighborhood was on lockdown as SWAT teams hunted for the bombing suspects in nearby Watertown, Mass., on April, 19, 2013. The result "Dear Boston," the tribute to the aftermath of the bombings on display at the Boston Public Library mere steps from where the first bomb went off on April 15.

Sitting in the library's courtyard, the museum curator recalls her first discussions she had with members of the city’s cultural institutions. The inspiration for  “Dear Boston” came from the makeshift memorial that sprouted up near the marathon finish line in the wake of the attacks, she says.

Hundreds of runners left their sneakers behind, many with scrawled messages of love and hope. Residents paid respects and left flowers, notes, and blessings. Those objects and messages became the core of the exhibit.

Ms. Tisdale saw those messages as the silent outpouring of a community's grieving.

“In their material form, they kind of have to be silent, nonetheless they speak very loudly metaphorically, and I do think there is this notion of a chorus there,” she says.

That chorus has echoed far beyond the city limits.

When the women of Old South Church, also near marathon the finish line, decided to knit blue and yellow scarves – the colors of the Boston Marathon – for this year’s runners, the entire nation caught wind and joined in. In just over two months, more than 6,800 scarves and handwritten notes poured in from every state in the union.

One volunteer, Anita (who didn't give her last name), says she had knit a few scarves at home and stopped by the church a few weeks ago intending to drop them off and head back home. When she saw the women knitting together, she felt she couldn’t leave. She told her husband to take the car home and that she would find her own way home. She says she’s been back every day since.

Knitting the scarves has been therapeutic for the participants, says Marilyn Jackson Adams, a Old South Church member and coorganizer of the project.

“These scarves have are a vehicle to spread love and to welcome the athletes,” Ms. Jackson Adams says.

Diane Gaucher, another project organizer, says the drive has “brought people together in ways that we never expected.”

While the majority of the scarves will be distributed during Old South Church senior minister Nancy Taylor's annual blessing of the runners, the women have already handed some out. Some of the runners have been able to connect with the knitters across the country via the church Facebook page.

Ms. Taylor says that she is proud of her members for fostering a welcoming community for residents and victims seeking comfort.

What's more, she is proud of the city "for not letting people who hate make us haters. I think Boston did so well in refusing to go there."

Boston's strength, Mr. Biden said Tuesday, has resonated throughout the country.

"You Bostonians don’t understand, [the anniversary] is an important day for the nation," he said. "You are Boston Strong, but America is strong. They're not unlike you. That's what makes us so proud of this city and this state.... We are America. We are strong. We endure. And we own the finish line."

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