NEWTOWN, Conn. » At least five of the children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School played at a gymnastics center called the Tumble Jungle. So, soon after the shootings, a staff member brought a bedsheet from her house, painted the words "Our Angels, Never Forgotten" on it, and she and her co-workers draped it over the sign in the front window.
It was one of dozens of such heartfelt memorials that appeared here on roadsides, in yards and on storefronts in the days after the shootings. Today, the bedsheet is still there, rippling in the wind like a flag of mourning, which in every sense it is.
"We lost so many kids close to us," said Brandy Nezvesky, 18, the manager of Tumble Jungle. "It’s going to be a big decision for all of us to take it down."
Newtown remains a town suffocating in grief after the school massacre on Dec. 14 that killed 20 first-graders and six adult staff members. Now, it is wrestling with what to do with all those well-meaning memorials. The sheet in front of the Tumble Jungle remains; others have disappeared, some swept up by the town in the middle of the night. It is a daunting question: When do public displays of sorrow and sympathy become barriers to moving on, especially for the victims’ families who drive past them?
The town has been so inundated with these and other acts of sympathy that at one point officials implored other communitiesto stop sending gifts of toys and other goods and to give them to their own charities in the name of the Sandy Hook victims.
"That’s what happens in disasters like this, especially on a scale like this," said John Eastwood, the pastor of Calvary Chapel in nearby Southbury, who was a chaplain with the Red Cross at Ground Zero after 9/11. Church members have been operating a heated tent on a vacant lot down the road from the school where people can drop off tributes, talk to a chaplain or simply wander among the mounds of teddy bears, flowers, prayer cards and posters signed by schoolchildren and well-wishers from across the country and the world.
"That’s one of the primary needs of these temporary memorials," Eastwood said. "People need to release some of that grief, and it becomes a safe place instead of turning into a complicated grief."
The question of how long is too long to let these temporary memorials stand has become all too familiar in sites like Columbine, Virginia Tech and, more recently, Aurora, Colo., where gunmen have gone on deadly rampages.
Patricia Llodra, Newtown’s first selectwoman, made the painful decision for many herself when she ordered the Public Works Department two weeks after the shooting to remove many of the most elaborate memorials. To be removed were the vast gardens of grief — including rows of decorated Christmas trees topped with silken angels, green and white balloons (the school’s colors), sacrificial candles and deeply personal items like old dolls and sports trophies — that had accumulated outside the firehouse near the school and in the center of Sandy Hook.
Before doing so, Llodra alerted members of the entire community by phone, warning them of the pending removal. Organic material like flowers and trees, she told them, would be processed into "sacred soil" to use in the foundation of a future memorial. The teddy bears and all the other nonorganic items would be turned into bricks and other building materials for the tribute.
Llodra also wrote a letter to the victims’ families inviting them to spend private time at the sites and to take any items they wished for personal keepsakes.
On Dec. 28, the police closed the roads around the memorials for two hours as about 50 people from 15 families took her up on the offer.
That night, after most of the town had gone to bed, employees from the Public Works Department collected all the material, placed it in containers and took it to the department’s warehouse. Llodra has invited everyone to take their memorials to the department for inclusion in the permanent memorial.
"There’s no road map for this," Llodra said. "So I have to really make the decisions based on what my heart tells me is right and what my head says is possible."
Some have criticized the move as too soon, as well as the decision to turn the material into something unrecognizable like soil or bricks. But others have praised it.
Cathy Sullivan, a widow and longtime resident, broke the homeowners’ rules of her retirement community when she put up a white teddy bear, an American flag and green and white balloons on a tree in her front yard. She has yet to take it all down, but said that having a place to take it, and knowing it will be put into a permanent memorial, made the decision easier.
"I couldn’t put it in the trash any more than I could put the flag I received when my husband, who was a veteran, died," she said. "So I’m going to roll up the balloons and the ribbons and the teddy bear and the flag and take them all down to the town."
Some of the more elaborate memorials also clogged traffic as reporters, visitors and mourners visited them.
Llodra said she sought to deal with the memorials in "a firm way, but a fair way and a gentle way."
"We knew the memorials can’t stand forever," she said. "And after being weathered … I mean, we had bad rain, we had a storm, we had wind, we had snow. So I knew the time was going to come where we really had to move the memorials. Not only because the tributes themselves start to look unkempt and start to communicate a message that wasn’t part of the honoring that the donor intended; it also signifies a moving on, a readiness for the community to go to that next step."
On the Friday of the shooting, a family that has lived just blocks from the school for 60 years, spray-painted, "God Bless the Families" on two slabs of plywood and put them in its yard. The family, who did not want to be identified, had seven siblings, now all grown, who had attended kindergarten at the school. That weekend, they constructed a large green heart out of plywood ringed with Christmas lights and solemnly decked it with 26 crosses, the name of a victim on each. The family has not decided when to take it down, or what to do with it once it does.
"We were just talking about that the other day," said one of the brothers. "If one of the families came by and asked us to take it down, we’d take it down in a heartbeat, but otherwise it’s just something we’re going to have to think about."
A pair of professionally printed green and white posters outside the Pizza Palace display the number 26 with a halo overhead and an angel’s wings, underlined by a row of angels holding hands. Dila Dushku Fonda, who owns the restaurant with her brothers and a cousin, had a friend print them. She welcomed Llodra’s decision to remove the public memorials. But asked when she might take down her own, she said it was still too soon, the anguish still "too raw."
"Mourning is such a personal thing," she said, as she started to cry. "You don’t even have to have children to understand the pain, all you have to have is a heart."