NEWTOWN, Conn. — Children laugh and play outside the rebuilt Sandy Hook School, only a quarter-mile from a network of interconnected paths that lead to a new granite basin, where water flows counter-clockwise around a sycamore tree in a planter.
Twenty-six names are etched into the stone, reminders of the horror, and the loss, that occurred nearby a decade ago. Visitors to the site, enveloped in profound silence, pause before the names to read them and reflect.
This is the newly opened memorial to the 20 first-graders and six educators who were gunned down Dec. 14, 2012, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
There was no official ceremony when the memorial opened to the public on Nov. 13. There will be no official observance in Newtown on the 10th anniversary of the shooting. But searing memories of that terrible day remain embedded in this bucolic town in western Connecticut.
“Before the tragedy, no one really knew where Newtown was, a sleepy little town that unfortunately has been defined by it,” said Po Murray, whose 20-year-old neighbor, Adam Lanza, killed his mother before bursting into the school with three semi-automatic firearms.
“Now, most Americans know where Newtown is,” said Murray, chair of Newtown Action Alliance, a gun-violence prevention group. “And if it can happen in Sandy Hook, it can happen anywhere, and it has, unfortunately.”
The memorial, nine years in the making, is intentionally understated. Its five acres of woodland, ponds, and meadows are designed to encourage visitors to reach the water basin in their own way and at their own pace. Some place flowers or floating candles in the water, whose motion carries the offerings toward the tree, a young planting meant to symbolize the 6- and 7-year-olds who died in their classrooms.
Cecilia Krayeski, 88, slowly wheeled her walker down a sloping path to the memorial, past a welcome sign that characterized the site as “a special place of quiet and reverence.”
“I came to pay my respects,” Krayeski said later, leaning on her walker as she climbed back up the slope. “It’s beautiful.”
JoAnn Bacon, whose daughter Charlotte was among the victims, also visited the memorial on this recent day but declined to comment.
Several other visitors were retired elementary school teachers. Most of them had taught elsewhere, but the tragedy hit home with a visceral, lingering pain.
“They could not have picked a better setting,” said Stephanie Musleh, a retired first-grade teacher who moved to Newtown a year after the tragedy. “I just thought this could have happened to any school, anywhere, my classroom, anybody’s classroom.”
The site is not visible to traffic, and only a few, muffled sounds from the road penetrate the silence. The school where the nearby shootings occurred has been razed, and its replacement stands in a different footprint on the former building’s property.
That symbolism — at the new memorial and the elementary school — is both subtle and unavoidable. Newtown does not dwell on its past, but it cannot forget the horror, either.
Memories of the tragedy resurfaced recently in court. Far-right radio host Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who called the shootings a hoax, has been ordered to pay nearly $1.5 billion in damages to Sandy Hook families who said they had been threatened and harassed because of his lies.
Daniel Krauss, chairman of the town’s memorial commission, said the scars from the shooting are indelible. His daughter was a second-grade student at the time. And although she was not harmed that day, the shootings changed the family’s life.
“December 14 was very hard for us. We became very insular afterward,” Krauss recalled. “It’s not that people go about their lives differently now, but there’s a sense that there was a tragic loss here. It’s subtle.”
There also is a strong sense of resilience, townspeople said. They cite the activism of the Newtown Action Alliance, which advocates for gun-control legislation, and a nonprofit animal sanctuary that honors Catherine Violet Hubbard, a 6-year-old who died in the shootings. Her mother, Jennifer, is its executive director.
“In losing Catherine in such a public manner, I’ve been given a gift to honor her life,” Hubbard said, overlooking a meadow at the sanctuary. “It afforded opportunities that I otherwise might not have had.”
Catherine was an animal lover, her mother said, and the sanctuary seeks to promote the bond among people, animals, and the environment in a way that reflects the compassion and care that her daughter embodied.
“I’ve been surrounded by goodness, and by people who have supported me with time and talent and their knowledge,” Hubbard said. “The expectation is there’s not a path forward, but there really is. There is a purpose.”
Using 34 acres of state-donated farmland, the sanctuary provides shelter and migration space for pollinators such as butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees. Free community workshops in animal care and environmental protection are held, and aid is provided for seniors to keep and care for their pets.
Future plans, Hubbard said, include veterinary and educational facilities to be located near a pavilion built with red terracotta tiles, reflecting the color of Catherine’s hair.
Hubbard said she will accent the positive on the tragedy’s upcoming milestone, even though “the more we experience these school shootings, the more they become normalized.”
“Each anniversary has brought with it different emotions,” Hubbard said. “This anniversary, I find myself looking at how much has been accomplished through the sanctuary. There is no room for grumbling in my life.”
Murray, of Newtown Action Alliance, echoed the need to press forward.
“We’ve proven to Americans that there is resilience, and that we are a community that has transformed the tragedy into something meaningful,” Murray said.
The alliance connects families and survivors from other mass shootings and also lobbies Congress on gun-control legislation. Recent successes, Murray said, include bipartisan approval for the Safer Communities Act, whose gun-safety measures include the expansion of background checks for buyers under 21.
“We are willing to do what it takes to save other communities and families from going through the tragedy that we went through here,” Murray said.
Gazing down at the memorial, Krauss recalled the painstaking process that led to the opening.
“Our first question was, should there be a memorial? In our hearts, we knew there should be one, but we didn’t want to jump to that conclusion,” he said.
After making the decision, Krauss added, “one of the lessons we learned was that you really only have one chance to do this. Take your time; there’s no rush.”
And so they didn’t, gaining voter approval for a $3.7 million project to which the state contributed $2.5 million. Krauss said he is pleased with the result, as were other visitors to the memorial this cold November morning.
“I really think we got it right,” he said. “I see the tree in the center as life. It continues to grow and sprout. There is a sense of remembrance here, and a sense of hope for the future.”
New England also is represented well, he added, noting the memorial’s rolling landscape, winding paths, stone, and water.
“Life is a journey, and everybody has different journeys,” Krauss said, nodding at the different approaches to the basin. “This fits really perfectly in our town.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.