One September day, when I was still a child but thought I was not, off I flew to Boston. My checked bags included a shiny trunk in a retro black and white pattern and a sky blue Skyway suitcase. I wore a new plaid blouse, brown corduroys and a brown hooded sweater. I was 17 and I didn’t look a day older.
Boston received me the way Boston does: with a bit of a yawn. Oh, here she comes; yet another wide-eyed rube from the Wild West come east to get some schooling. Sorry, sweetheart, but you’re a dime a dozen in this town. Never mind: have some chowder. Have a corn muffin. You want your coffee regular? Which in Boston, of course, means with cream and sugar.
I didn’t care, because I knew my real life was beginning.
In the mayhem of this past week, in our global obsession with Boston, with the bombs at the marathon finish line and who put them there and why; in our grief for the dead and injured, one of President Obama’s finest moments slipped under the news radar. On Thursday, hours before the terror and drama of the manhunt began, before we knew anything about two brothers with roots in Chechnya, the people of Boston gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to mourn. It was an interfaith service featuring many eloquent speakers. I happened to catch most of it on the radio. But it was our president who made me cry, because he reminded me what Boston means to me and to so very many others, including Michelle, including him.
“There’s a piece of Boston in me,” the President said, and I knew exactly what he meant. He recalled how the city welcomed him as a young law student. He talked about how he and Michelle knew its streets and squares.
“For millions of us,” the president said, “what happened on Monday is personal. It’s personal.” Yes it is.
When I went off to college, my destination was Wellesley, way out in the suburbs. After graduating from public high school in pre-Microsoft, pre-Nirvana Seattle, Wellesley—with its foreign princesses, New York sophisticates, New England bluebloods—was the first great culture shock of my life. When the hothouse atmosphere got to be too much for me, Boston was where I went for relief.
I didn’t mind the long trip on the bus or the T. I craved the cobbled streets of Back Bay and Beacon Hill. I needed the cacophony of Park Street Station, the expanse of Copley Square. I reveled in the anonymity of cafes where even a greenhorn girl from out west could blend in. Boston wasn’t New York, but it was urban in ways that Seattle was not. It was historic, but it felt familiar: all my life, I’d heard of Harvard Yard, Old North Church, Boston Harbor, but I’d never seen them. And now here they were, like long-lost relatives who had been waiting to meet me.
In his speech, Obama quoted a poem by E.B. White, in which White calls Boston not a capital or a place, but a perfect “state of grace.” I suspect White, a New Yorker, meant it more playfully than ponderously. But Obama lifted the phrase up a few notches, and I don’t think White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, would have minded. He would have understood our post-marathon need for grace, the way Charlotte the spider-who-saved-a-pig understood, the way Boston understands when it welcomes naïve students and runners from around the world who have dreamed of this place, who need it, who will make it a part of the new selves they are creating. For whom this city and what happens to it will always be personal.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.