Connecticut town wonders how to carry on

  • Article by: JIM DWYER , New York Times
  • Updated: December 15, 2012 - 11:24 PM

Residents wonder how and when to try to restore a sense of normalcy amid the holidays.

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Candles are lit at a memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School on Saturday, December 15, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, a day after a shooting rampage at the school.

Photo: Olivier Douliery, Mct - Mct

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The phone rang just after 10 Saturday morning in an old farmhouse along Walnut Tree Hill Road. Julia Wasserman had been undecided about even going to the farm, which she and her late husband bought decades ago, and where people still come to cut their own Christmas trees.

She answered. Yes, she said, the farm was open.

After she was finished, she shrugged. "I wasn't even going to come today," she said. "I didn't know what the right thing to do was. I still don't know. But the man said he wanted to come, to bring his kids out. That they needed it."

People everywhere in Newtown, Conn. -- a classic New England small town -- struggled with whether, and how, to go on with something that seemed like normal life.

As much as anyplace, Newtown digs into its public rituals, celebrating Fourth of July and Labor Day and Halloween with gatherings in the tiny downtown. Earlier this month, the lighting of the grand Christmas tree seemed to bring out nearly every person under age 12 for miles around.

On Saturday, on a pole beside the village Christmas tree were messages from before and after the horror. A season of celebration had halted, and there was no instruction book on how to handle that moment. Everyone and everything was raw to the touch, even the glance. "Our hearts are with you," read one sign, cut in the shape of a heart.

"Christmas is so big here and now people don't know what to do," said Birgitta Cole, walking her Yorkie. "Everyone decorates their house and puts up lights. Last night we were thinking, should we turn on the lights? Is that the right thing to do? Finally we decided to do it. Life is for the living. But it's so hard to know what to do."

It was not simply a question of rescheduling a ritual, party or a gathering; these celebrations, from all the faiths and from none, push back against the dominance of the long winter night. No one is more essential to them than humans between, say, ages 5 and 9, who are balanced between the world of reason and the world of magic.

"All of these babies," said Jennifer Zulli, mother of a 5-year-old girl. "We need to find peace for them, for the whole world."

Newtown, incorporated in 1711, takes its child-friendly, Norman Rockwell ambience seriously. The all-purpose landmark is the downtown flagpole, which dates to 1876. Fat and packed with small-town ephemera including weekly equestrian news, the Newtown Bee dates to 1877 and has been owned by the same family since 1881. Scrabble was developed here in 1948 by lawyer James Brunot, who adapted an earlier version.

Late Friday, the Colony Diner, just off Route 84, was still busy. It is a classic, with a menu the size of an encyclopedia and desserts sitting in a refrigerated display case. Heaped along the ceilings, like drifts of snow, were white Christmas lights, pushback against the dominance of the winter night. A Santa figure stood in a stack of bread, holding a chalked sign that read: "Challah Bread, $3.95."

"They've already started putting things on the door," the man behind the cash register said to the manager.

People had turned over place mats and made crayon drawings on the backs: a purple angel, hovering over words written in green, "RIP Children & Adults of Newtown."

"Leave them there," said the manager, his voice flat. "We have to leave them."

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