Two pumpkins

Thanksgiving Day is one of the few times you can say that downtown Boston has ample free parking. On a typical weekend, it’s easier to take the T than to drive into the city from the suburbs, but today J and I chose to drive down Beacon Street from Newton into the Back Bay, where we knew we’d easily find a (free) metered parking space.

Albania soccer scarf

On Thanksgiving, downtown residents tend to head elsewhere for the holiday, so it’s a rare opportunity to wander the usual sites without having to face throngs of traffic, pedestrian or otherwise. On the Commonwealth Mall, only a few locals were walking dogs; at the Public Garden, only a few tourists posed on the bridge for pictures. On Boston Common, one woman encouraged a squirrel to climb onto her lap while her friend snapped pictures; nearby, a mother photographed her daughter feeding a writhing throng of pigeons, including two that landed directly on her hand.

Central Burying Ground

“This is the emptiest you’ll ever see Newbury Street,” I remarked as J and I crossed an almost-empty street, only a handful of people strolling down the typically packed sidewalks. Only at the Central Burying Ground, a historic cemetery at one corner of Boston Common, did the deserted vibe seem natural, not atypical. Whereas I’m used to Boston being bustling, things are always quiet at the Central Burying Ground, regardless of whether it’s Thanksgiving or any other day.

This is my Day Twenty-Seven contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Commonwealth Mall

When I heard yesterday afternoon that there was a nine-alarm fire in a brownstone on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, there were two things that immediately came to mind: a long-ago Halloween party, and the Hotel Vendome fire.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Years ago, my ex and I went to a Halloween party in a hip Back Bay penthouse overlooking the Charles River: a building on the same street as yesterday’s fire. The host was an engineer who worked at MIT’s Media Lab, so the party was attended by brilliant young people who designed computers and built robots. My ex went to the party as a dressed-to-kill vampire in a black suit, white face paint, and bloody vampire teeth, and I went as a sexy witch in a black dress and fishnet stockings, a witch’s hat, and two bite marks on my neck. The guest who took the cake at that long-ago party overlooking the Charles, however, was dressed as a (literal) flasher, clad in swim trunks, sneakers, and a trench coat wired to set off flashbulbs whenever he opened it.

Vendome Fire Memorial

The second and more serious thing that came to mind when I heard about yesterday’s Back Bay fire, however, was the Hotel Vendome fire. In June, 1972, nine firefighters died when the Hotel Vendome, which was undergoing renovations, collapsed after a four-alarm fire. The Hotel Vendome tragedy was the deadliest day ever for Boston firefighters, leaving eight women widowed and 25 children fatherless. The Hotel Vendome fire happened more than 40 years ago–long before I moved to New England–so I have no personal recollection of the tragedy, but there is a memorial to the fallen firefighters on the Commonwealth Mall, mere blocks from yesterday’s fire. Because of that memorial, when I heard about yesterday’s fire, I immediately thought of the Vendome tragedy and quietly prayed, “No more fallen firefighters, please.”

Vendome Fire Memorial

Despite everyone’s prayers and a valiant rescue effort, yesterday two firefighters died: Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy. Firefighter Kennedy was 33 years old and unmarried; Lieutenant Walsh was 43 years old and leaves a widow and three small children. The Hotel Vendome fire happened the day before Father’s Day, ruining that holiday for the children it left bereft, and I wonder how all those Easter stories about chocolate bunnies and rebirth will feel a month from now, as three children grapple with the fact that daddy, unlike Jesus, isn’t coming back from the dead this year.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Time is both treacherous and tenacious. It’s been years—a lifetime, it seems—since I wore fishnet stockings and sexy dresses, and these days the MIT Media Lab is designing prosthetic legs for Marathon bombing survivors. I never knew the nine men killed in the Hotel Vendome fire, just as I don’t know the two men killed yesterday, but I know their memories will linger long. Time slips away as fast as a building goes up in smoke—one veteran firefighter said he’d never in twenty years seen anything like yesterday’s fire, which was whipped to a frenzy by high winds. And yet for the families who lost fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers in the Hotel Vendome fire, does that fateful day before Father’s Day, 1972 feel like yesterday, not an entire generation ago?

Vendome Fire Memorial

The purpose of a memorial, of course, is to commemorate, but a good memorial can also educate, capturing the stories of people we never knew long enough to mourn. Forty years from now, will a memorial mark the site where two heroes perished on a day like any other? Forty years from now, will a writer who never knew Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy nevertheless remember them, touched by the tragedy of their sacrifice, finding theirs to be a story that must never be forgotten?

I took the photos illustrating today’s post on Thanksgiving Day, 2012: a brilliant fall day whose golden light seemed to exist outside time. If you want to donate to the fund set up for the families of Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy, you can do so here.

Public Garden

I spent most of today inside, either teaching classes or grading papers between classes. Tonight as I tried to decide what to blog today, I started browsing my Flickr archive to see what I photographed this time last year.

Public Garden

Last November 22 was Thanksgiving Day, and J and I took a walk around Boston’s Back Bay. It was a brilliantly sunny day: the kind of day when nearly everything looks lovely.

Public Garden

I took (and posted) over 60 photos last Thanksgiving Day, but I ended up blogging only a few of them: it was one of those semesters when I didn’t have much time to write.

Vendome Fire Memorial

One of the things I photographed during last year’s Thanksgiving Day walk was the Vendome Fire Memorial on the Commonwealth Mall, not far from the site of the Hotel Vendome Fire, which killed nine firefighters in 1972.

Vendome Fire Memorial

At the time, I planned to blog the memorial, but I never got around to it, which seems a bit ironic now. What is sadder than not finding the time to remember nine men taken in the prime of life?

Vendome Fire Memorial

As much as I would have liked to have spent more time outside today, I’m almost grateful to have been reminded of last year’s Thanksgiving Day walk and the pictures I took then. It’s never too late to remember something you never meant to forget.

This is my Day 21 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.