Newtown – Never has a first selectman been so happy to talk to a governor about her sidewalks, a simple ribbon of reddish concrete stamped to look like brick. They now wind through her town’s quaint village, a 19th century crossroads called Sandy Hook.
One can walk on Patricia Llodra’s walkway from the United Methodist Church, down the hill to a shop crammed with local art and on to The Toy Tree, a shop chock-a-block with childhood innocence and delights: rubber balls, toy soldiers, LEGO sets.
Getting sidewalks installed was Llodra’s passion over the past decade. She has her own verb for the process, “sidewalking.” And until Dec. 14, the sidewalks of Sandy Hook were going to be a big piece of Llodra’s legacy as a diligent and long-serving New England first selectman.
“You can’t come to Newtown without relating to Dec. 14,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Wednesday, standing close to Llodra in the shade of long-needled pines outside the church. Llodra nodded.
Dec. 14 made Llodra a national figure, the plainspoken local official who responded with grace to unspeakable horror, the murders of 20 first graders and six women at the school up the hill from the village. Malloy was with her that day. He came back for a vigil attended by President Obama and a numbing succession of funerals.
In May, Malloy returned for a party celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ordination of Monsignor Robert Weiss, the priest who sat with parents, blessed tiny coffins at St. Rose of Lima Church and delivered a benediction when the General Assembly convened. It was a little piece of civic normalcy.
Malloy came here Wednesday to tour the village businesses, to snack on mozzarella at the deli, to buy an iced tea at the Village Perk, to promise to return for dinner on the porch at the Foundry Kitchen and Tavern, overlooking a gurgling brook.
His administration had provided some of the businesses with $250,000 in emergency aid after the shooting, part of a discretionary $500,000 grant.
Llodra asked him to come, to see how the businesses were doing. It also was an opportunity for her director of economic and community development to have the governor’s ear for a half-hour or so, showing him Newtown’s progress and its plans. Llodra knows sidewalks don’t come cheap.
A television reporter asked Llodra if the visit was a step in getting past “the stigma” of Dec. 14.
“Well, I don’t particularly think of it as a stigma,” Llodra said, her voice even. “We define ourselves as a wonderful community. We were that on Dec. 13, and we’re that today. So we’re not defined by what happened on Dec. 14.”
It was Llodra who finally moved to stem the flood of condolences and good wishes and kind gestures that threatened to drown Sandy Hook. Politely, she said the town needed to begin to function as a town, not as a museum of grief. It was a nudge toward normalcy, whatever that eventually will mean for Sandy Hook and Newtown.
“I’m not sure we quite understand yet what that is,” Llodra said. “We have to integrate that experience of Dec. 14 into who we are. I think we are doing that successfully. My own personal belief is that one does that better when there is time to be quiet and reflective and kind of identify what is this new way of thinking and being.
“So that was really part of what was behind saying to the world, ‘Thank you, but we need to be alone a little bit now.’ ”
But on Wednesday, she was happy to welcome the governor and a dozen reporters and photographers, a tiny contingent compared with the vast national and international media encampment established here on Dec. 14. Many stayed for six weeks.
Neither Llodra, nor Sandy Hook, glosses over what happened here.
Reminders are everywhere.
In the vestibule of the United Methodist Church, there is the rack of pamphlets.
“What Everyone Should Know About Grief.” “If Only Someone Understood My Grief.” “Finding Strength to Survive a Crisis.” “How Prayer Can Help You in the Days After the Funeral.” “When a Death Comes Unexpectedly.”
Small, green signs greet shoppers throughout the village: “We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.”
Outside The Toy Tree, a chalkboard advertises a line of wares sold out of Tuscon, Ariz. “Ben’s Bells Be Kind Merchandise Sold Here.”
They are the products of a nonprofit organization founded by Jeannette Mare after the sudden death of her 2-year-old son, Ben. On the first anniversary of his death, residents hung bells in public places for strangers to find.
Across from the LEGO sets, The Toy Tree has a display with Ben’s Bells and colorful glazed clay chimes.
Malloy purchased a chime.
A reporter asked Malloy about a long-awaited State Police report on the shootings. The governor promised it was coming soon.
Llodra was asked about it later.
“Honestly, I have to tell you, I think there is local interest, but I don’t think it’s elevated, the way I hear it asked for by people who are not part of our community,” she said.
An exception, of course, are the families of the victims.
“It’s a little hurtful to them, so we want to get over that,” Llodra said. “That’s another mountain we are climbing, so we want to get over that.”
Llodra excused herself for a moment. The governor was headed to his car, and she wanted him to stop into another shop, meet another merchant. He complied.
The redevelopment of the village has been a positive process, something that has drawn people together. She wanted Malloy to see it all.
“One of the commitments that we made individually and collectively as a town was we’re going to tease out positive things from this horrible thing that happened to us,” Llodra said. “We’re making choices.”
Newtown can’t choose to forget, she said. It never would, even if it could.
“But we can choose how we react to it.”
On a sunny Wednesday on the last day of July, that meant showing a governor who still wears two wrist bands given to him in the days after Dec. 14 all the places one can walk on the sidewalks of Sandy Hook.