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When tragedy strikes your hometown: Remembering the real Newtown

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Mourners gather at a memorial in front of the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn. Worshippers filled Sunday services to honor the victims of a gunman's elementary school rampage.

“So where are you from?” my freshman year roommate at Villanova University asked me.

“Newtown!” I answered promptly as I started to unpack.

After a few seconds of silence, I turned to look at her confused face and added, “You know, in Connecticut?”

Still silence. I was shocked. My new roommate had just told me she lives less than an hour away from me in Westchester, N.Y.

“It’s right next to Bethel? Near Danbury? … OK, well, it’s about 90 minutes outside of New York City.  You’ve heard of that haven’t you?”

I learned quickly in college that unless you are from Connecticut there is no chance that you’ve heard of Newtown. I suppose it’s not surprising. My childhood in Newtown was everything a childhood should be. I grew up going to $2 movies at The Edmund Town Hall and playing tennis at Dickinson Park. It's not unusual for the police blotter of the town newspaper, The Newtown Bee, to feature a car hitting a deer. One of the biggest news stories of my childhood was when Starbucks was allowed to open in town.

Some of my best memories of Newtown are trick-or-treating on Main Street (I’m still convinced that blue house on the corner of Main Street is haunted) and marching in the annual Labor Day parade. I remember walking across the street from St. Rose School with my fifth-grade class to The Ice Cream Shop and getting sandwiches at The General Store. During my half-mile walk home from the school bus every day, I was always more worried about running into a coyote than anything else (so much so that I often convinced Mrs. Wheeler to drive me to the end of my driveway).

Sunday mornings for my family were always the same. We would all pile into the minivan and head to St. Rose Church for Mass. We’d always rush in the back door a few minutes late, hoping nobody would notice. And we’d always stay late, as it’s impossible to walk 10 feet in the parking lot without seeing someone you know and stopping to chat.

Since moving out in August, I’ve come home several times to visit my family in Newtown. But this Sunday, everything was different. There was no gossiping in the St. Rose parking lot, no excited sharing of holiday plans. Instead, we all hugged each other while trying to hold back tears. There were flowers and teddy bears surrounding the statue of Mary. There were tissue boxes in every pew. Candles lined the altar. And our normally charismatic pastor’s voice broke as he asked us to pray.

Working at NBC, I see a lot of bad news every day. But nothing could have prepared me for seeing satellite trucks on Church Hill Road or watching our family friends I grew up with being interviewed on TV. The fact that 20 children in my town have been robbed of the same happy childhood that I had is unthinkable. Everyone is connected in some way to at least one name on that seemingly endless list. Parents are missing their children. Students are missing their teachers. My brother’s summer tennis clinic will have one less player. The Christmas pageant at St. Rose this year will have one less angel.  And we will all struggle to live life in this new Newtown.

Growing up in Newtown was beautiful and simple. But this new Newtown is complicated. How do you answer the simple question, “How are you doing?” How do you attend the funeral of a six year old? How do you explain to people that this is not the real Newtown?  

So if you had never heard of Newtown before Dec. 14, I hope that you will not remember it for the violent act of one person. Instead, please think of the real Newtown. Think of the tight-knit community of people who look out for each other. Think of people lingering after church to catch up with friends. Think of the view from the top of Castle Hill Road, looking down at the giant flagpole in the middle of Main Street. But most of all, think of how we came together to honor Newtown’s new angels.

Tricia Culligan is an assignment editor for NBC News.

Julio Cortez / AP

A nation mourns after the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history at Sandy Hook Elementary, which left 20 children and six staff members dead.

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