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NEW YORK TIMES


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In a town of traditions, grief engulfs holiday joy

By JIM DWYER and EMILY S. RUEB

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:43 a.m. HST, Dec 16, 2012



NEWTOWN, Conn. » 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, Wasserman shrugged her shoulders. "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. Even as Wasserman tended to the tree farm, state police gathered at a park across town to brief reporters from around the world on the latest grim details of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.

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 the age of 12 for miles around. The roads were lined with lit candles in paper bags.

"With Christmas tree shapes cut into the bags," Lenie Urbina, 9, noted.

On Saturday, on a pole beside the village Christmas tree, there were messages from before and after the horror. A season of celebration had halted, almost instantly, 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 and pasted at the structure's base.

Birgitta Cole, in a white ski jacket, walked her Yorkie.

"Christmas is so big here and now people don't know what to do," Cole said. "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, a 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."

Zulli runs a meditation and healing space in Sound Center for Arts, the old Hawleyville Chapel that she and her husband restored. The grand opening, with family songs, had been scheduled for Saturday morning. The signs announcing the opening lay on the floor in the vestibule.

"I canceled, of course, but I can't not open the doors," she said. "We want to be a place for healing."

A friend arrived and fell, weeping, into Zulli's arms.

"It's never going to be the same," the friend said.

The Toy Tree, a shop on Church Hill Road, opened as usual Saturday morning. Pink Santa ornaments were on display, along with a "Star Wars" Lego set, a stuffed penguin and polyester bootees — "kids sizes 9-10."

Behind the counter, the computer screen carried a live feed of the shooting coverage, with images of cameramen huddled a short distance from the shop's doors. Around 9:45 a.m., a woman entered, asking if the shop carried snow globes. No, she was told, as the shopkeeper knelt distractedly near a small chalkboard. Sorry.

Moments later, the proprietor etched a message on the board, in neat handwriting and yellow chalk. "Our love, thoughts and prayers are with our community," she wrote. She nodded, and the sign was placed outside.

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. Scrabble was developed in Newtown by a local lawyer, James Brunot, in 1948, who adapted an earlier version and changed its name from "Criss-Crosswords."

Late Friday evening, the Blue Colony Diner, just off Route 84, was still busy. It is a classic, with a menu the size of an encyclopedia and desserts lit in a refrigerated display case. Heaped along the ceilings, like drifts of snow, were white Christmas lights. A fat 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. They were taped to the entryway window.

The manager stepped out to look at them.

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."

The manager came back inside. "Leave them there," he said.

"Oh yeah," the cashier said.

The manager spoke again, his voice flat: "We have to leave them."

A decade ago, Wasserman gave 100 of her trees to the Sandy Hook Fire Department, propelling an annual fundraiser.

Now the Fire Department runs one of the largest tree-selling operations in the vicinity. Last week, Zulli and her family drove home from the firehouse with their tree.

On Friday, beneath a big wreath hung from its cupola, the firehouse became a refuge and gathering point for evacuated children; for parents, it was a vestibule between reunion or loss.

By Saturday, the remainder of this year's trees were heaped in their ranks, 6-foot balsams, 7-foot firs, the piles untouched, all promise of celebration vanished. Escorted by the police, a car rolled past the trees in the brilliant afternoon sunshine. On the door was the decal of a funeral home chain.






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