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In Newtown, some say memorials delay return to normalcy

Updated 10:13 am, Thursday, December 27, 2012

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  • Georgia Hendren, left, Reilly Hendren, along with their mother, Jennifer Hendren, and father Jim Hendren, place prayer flags from Nepal on angels at a memorial site Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, honoring the 26 who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday, December 14. The school was evacuated after Adam Lanza opened fire killing 26 individuals, 20 whom were children. ( Cody Duty / Hearst Newspapers ) Photo: Cody Duty, Cody Duty/Hearst Newspapers / The News-Times

    Georgia Hendren, left, Reilly Hendren, along with their mother, Jennifer Hendren, and father Jim Hendren, place prayer flags from Nepal on angels at a memorial site Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, honoring the 26 who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday, December 14. The school was evacuated after Adam Lanza opened fire killing 26 individuals, 20 whom were children. ( Cody Duty / Hearst Newspapers )

    Photo: Cody Duty, Cody Duty/Hearst Newspapers

 

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NEWTOWN -- For thousands of visitors, the massive makeshift memorials that line streets and pack sidewalks in this picturesque town have become a place for public grief.

But to some who live here, endless traffic and expanding piles of trinkets, toys, candles and flowers are delaying Newtown's return to normalcy.

Board of Education member Bill Hart said the best way to help the town now is to stop sending any more material goods: It simply is running out of space to store it all.

"The truth is we're incredibly overwhelmed,'' said Hart.

Twice a day since the grisly Dec. 14 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Audrey Petschek has visited Newtown's now-numerous memorials to photograph their ever-changing contents.

Petschek, a Newtown resident for more than 20 years, wants to make sure the memorials are not forgotten after the streets of Sandy Hook resume business as usual.

"There's such an outpouring of love and affection here," she said. "I want to document it before it all disappears."

Though confusion abounded in recent days about when the memorials to the 26 victims would be taken down, town officials said the date would be sometime after Jan. 1.

Petschek has dotingly documented everything from stuffed unicorns to handcrafted Christmas ornaments. Her favorite token was a handmade poster by a young girl, depicting every young victim rendered in shaky crayon, placed early at the memorial at The Pleasance, a park off Main Street.

Still, she said, it is nearing time for the memorials to go.

"The town needs to get back to normal as soon as possible," she said, citing the stress on the town's infrastructure, police and businesses, as well as the weather's wear on the memorials.

Newtown's dozens of memorials come in a range of scales -- from small stacks of teddy bears to the massive memorial that encompasses all four corners of the intersection at Church Hill and Glen roads.

Nearly two weeks after the tragedy, traffic still grinds to a standstill headed west of exit 10 off Interstate 84 as mourners from neighboring towns and even states make the pilgrimage to Sandy Hook. Some even arrive on tour buses.

The village streets have become a place for open grieving for an entire nation's wounds.

On Wednesday, nine cheerleaders from North Plainfield, N.J., handed out roses to dozens of people visiting the memorial at Church Hill and Glen roads. They had come here specifically "to honor those who died," said one 17-year-old cheerleader, Joanne Vega.

At the memorials, items ranged from mounds of stuffed animals, roses, candles and Christmas ornaments, to more personal items, like a bicycle tire from a bicycling club in New Hampshire and a pair of cowboy boots left for 6-year-old Avielle Richman, whose style staple was a pair of pink cowboy boots. Items have arrived from states as far away as Alaska, countries as distant as Kyrgyzstan.

Petschek, the ad hoc documentarian, said she has seen the village's central memorial grow from just one cluster of 20 teddy bears and a Mickey Mouse blow-up ball with condolences taped on, to the complex layers of trinkets and tokens there now.

Kathy Worth, who works at The Taunton Press in Newtown, agrees the memorials have become impractical.

"For those of us that get around town every day," she said, "something permanent could become a place to remember."

At this stage, Hart, the Board of Education member, said the message needs to get out to "stop sending us things.''

"We're just hugely oversaturated,'' said Hart, who has been helping man phone lines and find ways to direct goods and monetary donations so that they are appropriately accounted for and distributed in the proper fashion.

"We appreciate the donations," he said, "but our warehouses are filling up and we aren't capable of handing it all.''

Ed Benjermino, 67, had come from nearby Fairfield with his college-age daughter. The memorials, he said, are part of a necessary grieving process for those both near to and far from the tragedy.

"There have to stay here as long as possible," he said. "People need to come here."

Pauline Boss, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota who specializes in grief therapy, said memorials are an important part of helping communities grieve after tragedies.

"They do it so they don't feel so alone. People are frightened. When something meaningless happens, it means it's random and it could happen again," Boss said. But, she said, "there comes a time when you have to pull back."

The Rev. John Inserra at St. Mary Parish in Greenwich, who attended funerals for eight of the victims, said people likely come to the memorials because they want to share with the families and in a small way show them they're not alone.

"People grieve in their own way," Inserra said. "At different times, they may go from wanting to be with others to wanting to be alone."

Boss said visitors should think about whether they're coming to Newtown for the community's benefit or their own. Residents should feel comfortable asking visitors to let them grieve privately, she added.

"It's not a terrible thing to let others know that now is the time for some privacy," she said.

At least until the new year, Newtown residents will likely continue to watch strangers trickle in and memorials pile up before the materials are picked up and transformed into soil or blocks.

"There's really just too many people that still want to go, which is fine," said Newtown Public Works Director Fred Hurley. "There's still a huge traffic issue. With the holiday over, things will calm down a little bit and it will be easier to save these things (and) to move them. It's a practical decision."

The city plans to compost biodegradable materials left at the memorials and lease equipment to grind items, such as those made of metal and wood, and mix them into a cement slurry for a permanent memorial. Volunteers may be needed to help sort and possibly tear apart certain items.

Kevin Yacko, 48, has become the de facto guardian of a tented memorial beneath a giant flag across from the Blue Colony Diner on Church Hill Road. Some items, like stuffed animals, he will save to erect an anniversary memorial on Dec. 14, 2013.

Other items, such as individual trees for each surviving family, he will deliver to the families himself. None of it will be demolished like other town memorials.

The memorialization process, he said, will never truly end. Still, his Church Hill Road memorial will come down Jan. 1.

"Let's move on," he said. "Let's start a new year."

News-Times staff writer Nanci G. Hutson contributed to this report.