6:54 PM EST, December 20, 2012
NEWTOWN — Flowers and wreaths. They are the living, fragrant markers that hold together a community in mourning, in public and sacred spaces, at funerals, in houses all over Newtown and beyond. Wherever there is grieving, there are carefully arranged flowers and wreaths.
And the engines of these tributes are scattered in a few places near Sandy Hook, staffed by local merchants and sometimes volunteers who are touched by the tragedy. In back rooms and downstairs work areas, they toil with love and heavy hearts, assembling the tributes that will shortly symbolize rebirth, love and hope amid sorrow.
Long after closing time at Newtown Florist, behind four large, steamy windows, owner Judy Grabarz and her staff of four are joined by volunteers organized by the Connecticut Florists Association, working around a large, square table. The sales floor is covered with floral arrangements waiting for one of three delivery trucks.
In a side alcove, an employee behind a desk takes an order from a woman whose head is bowed. Outside the low brick building, next to a NAPA auto parts store, long, empty flower boxes remain. Many have simply arrived without Grabarz's having to place orders.
"The nation's and the world's floral community have had this incredible outpouring of flowers for us to use," said Bob Heffernan, executive director of the Connecticut Florists Association, whose office is just up the road in Monroe. "South American growers, distributors in Miami, New York wholesalers, Connecticut wholesalers."
Orders come in for family members, churches, local police, first-responders and more. "I've seen orders addressed simply to, 'The people of Newtown,'" Heffernan said. Those are filled, too, and placed in public spaces.
As with funeral directors who responded to the crisis with a flood of volunteers, the florist association's call for help Saturday morning drew a deluge. "I was literally swamped by designers," Heffernan said. Among more than 75 who answered the call, two dozen are working in shifts to help Newtown get the orders out in this unimaginable week of funerals.
It is also Christmas season, one of the three busiest times of the year in this business. Banners on each window reading "gifts, gifts, gifts," serve as an even further reminder, as if it's needed, that this is their moment to serve the community.
A few miles away on the Newtown-Bethel line, Gary Ober, the nursery manager at Hollandia Nursery, Garden and Patio, looks over 20 evergreen grave blankets — each fully decorated with hand-tied ribbons, 12 pink, eight blue. One for each child murdered. Ober speaks in low tones, standing with fellow employee Debbie Natale.
"Said a prayer over each one."
Hollandia, like all of the nearby nurseries and florists, is close to the tragedy. Ober and his wife, and all three of their daughters, went through the Newtown schools not long after Bruce Jenner was there. It was one of Ober's daughters who asked him to say those prayers over the burial blankets.
Some employees are related to survivors. Owner Eugene Reelick, who decided that the business would make and donate the wreaths, has close friends who lost children. This isn't unusual in a small town suffering a monumental loss, and for the people in these shops, the personal links seem to travel through their hands, into the floral arrangements and wreaths, silently out to the mourning world.
The phone rings constantly at midafternoon at Irene's Flower Shop in Monroe, where manager Bob Sabia and two other people work around a basement table strewn with greens and loose flowers. A white lily arrangement in a square, cream-colored vase is beautiful, with a silver cross. A large graveside wreath is heart-shaped, covered with white roses.
Sabia, like Grabarz at Newtown Florist, doesn't want to talk about this week's efforts, doesn't want media attention, doesn't want to steer the focus away from the healing, the grieving. The florists don't want their focus distracted from the hard work at hand.
"They've been pretty much under control the whole time," Heffernan said, speaking about the workload, not necessarily the emotions. "They've been able to keep up with each order."
As they have throughout history, the flowers will color the sacred rituals of mourning, and the shops will remain behind the scenes — except when a bereaved family comes in to place an order. That has happened these past few horrible days, Heffernan said.
"It's a very somber moment."
Courant staff photographer Stephen Dunn contributed to this column.
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