By Ken MacLeod

GRAFTON (CBS) – The people of Grafton will tell you nobody beats the spectacular Christmas display that Mike Labbe normally sets up in his yard for the holiday season. But these days, the yard has another use. “We just ordered another 6,000 flags,” says the 54-year-old business owner.

He’s hoping he won’t have to use them, because his yard is already home to more than 17,000 small American flags. They fill his mulch beds, and he just built a 120-foot-long wall to display more — one for each COVID-claimed life in Massachusetts.

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“Every flag is a soul lost,” Labbe says. “Every flag has a thousand stories.”

With the help of his employees — and his family — this former cop and firefighter started planting flags last March — just days after the state’s first death. They’re a tribute to those who perished — often alone.

Now, he’s inviting their solace-seeking loved ones to his red, white, and blue landscape on Keith Hill Road in South Grafton. “This is for them,” he says. “This is for their families. That’s what it’s all about.”

For much of the pandemic, visitors were limited to the end of the driveway. But now, the family invites visitors to walk the lawn — often lending a socially-distanced ear to their stories.

“It’s kind of depressing to see them up here crying,” says Labbe’s daughter Melissa. “But I can see it’s also a sense of relief for them.”

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“I’m blessed I get to come home to my wife and daughters every day — healthy and safe,” says her dad. “But 17,000 plus have lost the chance to do that.”

The warm weather has brought more visitors — dozens over the last few weekends — some offering donations that Labbe won’t accept.

And sometimes, simply listening just doesn’t cut it. “If I could I’d hug every one of them,” says Labbe. “They deserve it. But selfishly I’ll say I need it.”

Mike Labbe says he won’t stop, because today’s victims are no less important than last year’s.

Some neighbors have even offered more turf for flags, which Labbe hopes can be sold when Covid is beaten, to raise money for charity.

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“There’s no turning back,” he says.

Ken MacLeod