FREEPORT, Maine — After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush encouraged a reeling nation to light candles in honor of the victims.
Elaine Greene and two friends joined the hordes in a candlelight vigil, but not before she stopped to grab an old flag that was behind her Maine home’s front door.
With tears in her eyes, she raised the flag tentatively.
Motorists honked their approval.
The simple act has played out weekly ever since, through snow and ice, sickness and health, over 18 years. Several hundred people with flags of all sizes joined them Wednesday as the scene played out for a final time.
Dubbed the “Freeport flag ladies,” the trio is reluctantly giving in to age and ending the Main Street tradition. Greene is the youngest at 74 and battles Crohn’s disease. Carmen Footer, 77, recently recovered from open heart surgery. JoAnn Miller, 83, has foot problems.
“It was up to me to call it, and I called it,” Greene said.
Greene described their calling as a mission of love, gratitude and patriotism, and it went far beyond waving their flags on a street corner near L.L. Bean. They mailed care packages to military personnel deployed overseas in the war on terrorism. They greeted military personnel at airports. They visited the wounded. And they attended funerals.
They saw people at their worst while dealing with loss. And they witnessed how tragedy can also bring out the best in many people, Greene said.
Over the years, their work became their lives. They appeared alongside presidents. They spoke to schoolchildren. The home that the three share is full of patriotic memorabilia and letters from military personnel. It’s been years since they dressed in anything other than red, white and blue.
Greene, whose glasses are red, white and blue, said she wouldn’t change a thing. After all, she said, the flag waving was the answer to a prayer.
After 9/11, she knew the nation had come under an attack unlike anything since Pearl Harbor. She said she wanted to do something to help, and something told her to grab that flag behind the door.
She remains in awe that a simple gesture grew into something big.
“You can either bring a light into the room, or walk into a room that’s dark and keep it dark,” she said. “I prefer to bring a light into the room. It takes only but a little match to do that. You don’t have to have a great big idea. You just have to be sincere.”
On Wednesday, the crowd included Eric Sylvain, who lost a firefighter friend in 9/11. Sylvain, who wore a New York City Fire Department shirt, said he was sorry to see the tradition come to an end.
“I’ve been here on the job for 28 years, and for the last 18 they’ve been out supporting us,” said Sylvain, a deputy fire chief.
Paul Loveless, a 77-year-old Navy veteran, drove down from Brunswick to pay his respects. “They’ve been out here in rain, snow, sleet, freezing cold. If they can do that, then I can come down and honor them.”