On Christmas Eve In Newtown, Gifts From Afar

The Hartford Courant

– The venerable Edmond Town Hall, home of the $2 movie theater, anchors the northern stretch of Main Street, a few yards from another widely known landmark, the flagpole that sprouts from the middle of the intersection of Main and Church Hill Road.

Inside the old town hall, until two years ago the seat of local government and now a theater, conference center, banquet hall and overall hub of activity, Tom Mahoney was taking care of some last-minute business Monday afternoon before closing up early for Christmas Eve.

He's got "Hotel Transylvania" queued up to start a one-week run on Thursday.

"We always show family movies from Dec. 26 through the 31st. The kids enjoy them on their school break,'' said Mahoney, the building and theater manager who started there 30 years ago as a fill-in projectionist.

It is important, Mahoney, said to rely on these traditions and routines to help heal a community shattered by the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.

One mile away, down Church Hill Road, the spacious Blue Colony Diner was doing a booming business all day.

The waitresses managed to hold several conversations at once while plunking down orders of chocolate-chip pancakes and bagels with lox, and keeping coffee cups filled to the brim.

"I lost five pounds when I was off because I don't keep junk food in the house,'' a waitress announced. "I came back to work and gained it all back.'

"I have to,'' another server says to a colleague. "If my brother didn't come with us, he'd have no place to go for Christmas.''

A little farther down Church Hill Road, in the village of Sandy Hook, where the Pootatuck River flows past converted mill buildings, two young women emerged with white shopping bags from The Toy Tree, a trendy gift shop across the street from the Sandy Hook Diner, which has been there since 1935.

But there was a parallel scene playing out in town on this gray Christmas Eve, shadowing the images of normalcy. There is no more normal in Newtown. Gunman Adam Lanza stole it when he killed 20 children and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary.

When those two young women came out of the Toy Tree, they merged with a throng – a stream of pilgrims walking on each side of Church Hill Road, heading to the memorial that snaked around the corner onto Washington Avenue. Five police officers stopped cars so people could cross. The line of traffic was backed up Church Hill Road a couple of miles to the junction of I-84.

The memorial consisted of layer upon layer of stuffed teddy bears, flowers, wreaths, and notes and painted posters to the victims, from Ohio, Philadelphia and all over.

And there was a sobering moment in that homey scene at the Blue Colony. Amid the bustle, a middle-aged woman leaned toward the man seated next to her at the counter and said, "Poor Newtown, I say, poor Newtown.''

The man nodded and said, "Beyond words.''

The woman continued: "When I heard Newtown … Well, every year, I visit my niece for Christmas. I live in New Paltz, N.Y. She lives east of Hartford, toward Providence. This is my halfway point. I always look forward to stopping here. So, so sad.''

A few minutes later, when the woman was paying her tab at the cash register, she noticed a green sign with white letters tacked on the wall: "We are Sandy Hook. We choose love." She looked at the harried man behind the cash register, who was moving a mile a minute, and said: "So sorry for your losses.''

It seemed to catch the man by surprise. He looked for a moment at the woman, this traveler for whom Newtown was a comforting rest stop. "Thank you, ma'am,'' he said.

And over at Edmond Town Hall, Tom Mahoney's heart is broken

"We just need time to be by ourselves,'' said Mahoney, a friendly man with a quick smile that darkened when he spoke about the evil wrought on the town he loves.

"It's going to take time. It will be a sad Christmas for this community.''

Like so many in Newton, Mahoney has a personal connection to the tragedy.

"I volunteered at Sandy Hook Elementary,'' Mahoney said. "Nine years. Mondays. In the library. I know all of those people. I checked books out to those kids. I can't get them out of my mind.''

Outside the old town hall building, down the stone steps, another memorial was drawing still more pilgrims all day.

A young boy stared at one of the clusters of stuffed animals, handwritten notes and flickering candles.

His face creased. His father, a compact man in a North Face jacket, noticed his son's expression. He walked over, placed a hand on the boy's head, and gently guided him toward his mother. As the father walked, his older son came over and suddenly embraced the man. The father stopped and draped his arm over the older boy's shoulder.

At the Newtown post office, workers were rushing to keep up with the crush of letters, cards and packages from people all over the world who were showing their support and sympathy.

A special box was set up, and more than 200,000 items had been logged by Christmas Eve morning, said Christine Dugas, a spokeswoman for the postal service.

Dugas said the local postal workers and letter carriers also share a connection to the community.

One carrier's route includes families of five of the children who died in the school, she said.

"[The carrier] bought lemonade from them in the summer and she knew them since birth," Dugas said. "Their way of helping the families is to deliver the good wishes from around the world. They're part of the healing process."

Courant staff writer Shawn Beals contributed to this story.

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