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Workers use backhoes to dig through the rubble as the demolition of Sandy Hook Elementary School continues, Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, in Newtown, Conn. Workers have begun demolishing the building where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults. The project will take several weeks. Newtown has accepted a $50 million state grant to raze the building and build a new school, expected to open by December 2016.

Jessica Hill, Associated Press - Ap

In Newtown, a year of wrenching reminders

  • Article by: MICHAEL WILSON
  • New York Times
  • December 14, 2013 - 7:00 AM

– The woman rose from her corner table at the Sandy Hook Diner one morning last week, the old restaurant nearly empty after the breakfast rush. Before she made it to the door, a man stood up from his own table and smiled.

The woman, Scarlett Lewis, met the man a year ago, last Dec. 14. It was the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and when her son was missing in the chaos, she ran to the man’s house nearby to look for him, not yet knowing that he was one of the 20 children killed.

She would see the man in the weeks that followed, unsure of where to place him at first, her memories a jumble from that day. But the two have become acquaintances, and in the diner, they hugged.

Lewis pulled a rubber bracelet off her wrist that bore her son’s name, Jesse, and gave it to the man, who took it and thanked her, even though he already has so many bracelets like it, memorializing Jesse and the other children, that he has lost count.

Another brief but wrenching encounter that has become a part of daily life here.

“People do know who you are,” Lewis said later. “They’ll just say, ‘Can I just give you a hug?’”

The people of Newtown and its neighborhood of Sandy Hook have made it explicitly clear: We are not holding a public anniversary ceremony. Please stay away.

“If we build it, they will come,” said E. Patricia Llodra, Newtown’s first selectman. “So we have to not build it.”

But to spend time in Newtown is to see, a year later, a sort of building process well underway, one with no end in sight. Someone who never heard of Sandy Hook Elementary School or what happened there, when 20 children and six staff members were shot to death by Adam Lanza, could pass through the town a year later and immediately sense that this place is different from the outside world. The wound remains too raw to tell how the scar will turn out.

The school has been razed, the memorials concluded. But reminders of what Newtown has become known for, to the dismay of everyone in it, remain everywhere.

Those reminders are perhaps most strikingly apparent in the way the people interact with the mothers and fathers of those slain first graders.

“People come up and get nervous,” Lewis said. “They start talking a mile a minute,” almost babbling to fill the air, even talking about their own problems. Or they try to ignore her: “You see them glance furtively at you and not want to engage, which is totally fine, too.”

Another parent, David Wheeler, wrote about life after his son Ben’s death that day in an essay published recently in the magazine The Newtowner.

“I’ve heard it called ‘The Newtown Handshake,’” he wrote. “After a moment it becomes clear that shaking hands is not nearly enough and a hug is inevitable. Women, men, people I’ve never met, it doesn’t seem to matter.”

A new local vocabulary has grown around the day. No one refers to the shooting by that word, but rather, as 12/14, the way one might say 9/11. The phrase, “She’s a mom,” is understood to mean the mother of a victim. Two women once entered the diner, strangers to the owner, and when 12/14 came up, one of them said quietly, “We’re moms.” The six women killed in the school that day are often called “the guardians.”

One woman recently complimented another on a pin she was wearing, and the wearer explained it was for her daughter, a teacher killed at Sandy Hook. The first woman told a friend later that she went off and cried.

“There’s a deference,” said one resident who, like others, asked not to be quoted by name, describing the atmosphere when a parent enters the room. “There’s a little bit of a hush, a sad, electric charge that just happens. Maybe voices will lower. Then things continue.”

Another resident described life in Newtown this way: “It’s in the back of everybody’s mind all the time. It’s like a gray day in November, always.”

Gray, and also green. Green, one of the school’s colors, became the color of that day, with green ribbons tied to trees and magnets stuck to cars, and signs taped in store windows. An orthodontist’s office replaced its annual display of hay bales in the front yard with a big hay teddy bear holding a green ribbon. The office tied green and white balloons out front on the birthdays of each of the 20 children.

“My kids now associate anything green with Sandy Hook,” said Stephanie Cinque, executive director of the Newtown Resiliency Center, which offers counseling and other services in the wake of the shooting, and a mother of children who attend a different school. One of the children, with a birthday approaching, announced, “I want a Sandy Hook cake.” Cinque gently suggested a princess cake instead.

Lewis, Jesse’s mother, begins every day by pulling on three or four or five of her Jesse bracelets before heading out. The bracelets read, “Nurturing, Healing, Love” - three words her son had written on their kitchen chalkboard shortly before 12/14.

The phrase became the title of her book about her son and the aftermath of the shooting, published in October.

“Anyone who needs a pick-me-up or seems nice, I always offer a bracelet,” she said.

Of course, outside Newtown, no one hands you a bracelet or says “12/14.” It is just “Newtown.” The word immediately changes the tenor of business-travel small talk, brings halting condolences to mundane transactions, like when a clerk asks for a ZIP code and the computer spits out the name of the place.

Monsignor Robert Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, said he had known people to lie when asked where they were from, just to skip the obligatory next phase of the conversation. Or to at least try to “be creative” in answering, hoping the subject will change.

“You know, ‘I’m from New England,’” he said. “‘Where in New England?’ ‘Well, Connecticut.’”

And so on.

“It becomes an ‘Aha’ moment when you say, ‘I’m from Newtown or Sandy Hook,’” Weiss said. “There’s a pause and then a question: ‘Well, how’s everyone doing? We’re still thinking about you.’”

Cinque recalled a family trip to Florida in April.

“We were at a farmer’s market,” she said. “We put down our ZIP code, Sandy Hook, and they asked, ‘Oh, do you really live there?’ Then they gave my son a bunch of free stuff.”

Sarah Ferris, a student at George Washington University in Washington, grew up in Newtown, but sometimes she keeps that to herself when meeting people.

“I’ve never said it and had anyone not say anything,” she said. “You get the sympathetic looks. You can see them kind of wrestling with, ‘Should I ask them how they are?’” This was even the case with a barroom bouncer who checked her driver’s license and noticed the address.

“The guy tried to start this conversation, asked me if I knew anyone,” she said. “It’s, like, 11 p.m. and all loud.”

In Newtown, there is no lie to tell.

John M. Ruffe Jr., a retired businessman, said he, like others, did not know how to proceed after the shooting.

“The first few weeks were terrible, because you couldn’t smile,” Ruffe said. “You didn’t know if the guy selling you salami lost a child.”

He had no idea what to say in that situation, so he wrote a poem and printed copies and carries them around with him in his car in case he meets a parent.

“Now’s the time to swear and curse, about the world to think the worst,” the poem reads. It ends imagining the dead children whispering to the living: “Promise me this if you can/ That you will feel the dew beneath your feet/ And watch the sun as it lifts its head and hope/ For better things.”

Months passed. He recently sat down with his lawyer to review his will. She mentioned that one of the girls killed on 12/14 was her granddaughter. He went out to the car and got a poem and brought it to her and told her to read it later.

“It’s a good town,” he said. “It’s a hurt town.”

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