J.K. Rowling wrote, “It is our choices that show who we really are.” This is true not only in what we choose to do, but also in how we choose to react to things over which we have no control. On May 15, 109 moms from Sandy Hook Elementary School came to Rye and brought with them a poignant lesson about the power of personal choice. Their motto was the theme of the day: We Are Sandy Hook, We Choose Love.
Like parents across the country, our town watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut in December. We were overcome by the pain and heartache that had swept over a town just like ours, a town that feels like it’s just up the street. Rye mom Cliona Cronin attended the Rye vigil last year and was moved to wonder what she could possibly offer this community to help them heal. A few days later, while walking along Rye Beach, she had an idea — she would offer them the beach.
Cliona gathered a small group of friends to vet her idea. She would invite the moms of Sandy Hook to Rye Beach to spend a restful day of pampering and friendship. It would serve as a much needed nurturing getaway, just after Mother’s Day. “Is this madness or genius?” she asked her friends. They all agreed that it was genius.
With their enthusiastic support, Cliona approached the PTO at Sandy Hook. She assured them that there would be no publicity, no press, no agenda. Just moms reaching out to one another, and a chance for the Sandy Hook moms to get away. The Sandy Hook community has received thousands of generous offers of support from all over the country, but this one happened to be the first mom-to-mom event. Cliona, her co-chair Jannine Moran, and their growing committee were honored when the invitation was accepted.
After months of planning, over 100 Rye moms clad in We Choose Love T-shirts waited for the Sandy Hook moms under an arch of green and white balloons. Many of us were a bit nervous as the buses pulled up. What would we say? What could we possibly say? But our nerves calmed as the Sandy Hook moms greeted us with hugs and thanks-yous. Some were excited to start a fun day; some were a little overwhelmed. Personally, I was both.
The fact that they came to this event at all is truly extraordinary. As the day unfolded, we learned that many of the mothers had struggled with whether they were comfortable being so far away from their children for the day. For some, it was the first time since December. One mother told me that she keeps the private cell phone number of the school security guard with her so that she can check in during the day if she feels anxious. After all they have faced, it was truly a leap of faith to come spend the day with strangers.
Fresh off the bus, the Sandy Hook moms were matched with Rye mom buddies. We ran off in pairs to sign up for massages, kayaking, and paddle boarding. Some opted for Pilates, yoga, boot camp, and Zumba classes along the beach, while others enjoyed knitting, sewing, art, and bulb planting. A relaxation station was set up on the beach, where those who just wanted to rest could read a magazine and gaze at the Sound. Gerber daisies were available at the shore for anyone who wanted to toss one in as a silent tribute.
What made the day feel intimate was that every last detail was attended to by Rye moms – from the massage therapists to the fitness instructors to those who served food and drinks. The committee even recruited a mom who is a public relations expert to handle any press that might have shown up. This idea of the day being strictly mom-to-mom was part of Cliona’s early vision and created a feeling of warmth and safety even in such a public place.
The two hundred-plus women broke for lunch at midday. Everyone had sweated their nerves away, and all that was left was easy banter and budding friendships. Luncheon and champagne were served at elegantly set tables under the Rye Town Park pavilion, where pink and green paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. Our voices all but drowned out the sound of a string quartet (again, directed by a Rye mom).
With the ice broken and the champagne popped, the conversations that we’d started on the beach continued. We all had so much in common, raising school aged children in the suburbs. We laughed about the mundane details, the dishwasher that always seemed to be full. But the conversation frequently returned to the tragedy, the ways in which the moms felt they were coping and the ways in which they felt they were not. Many said that the extra burden placed on them as mothers had squeezed out any time for self-care and exercise. Some shared details of what their child had experienced that day; others did not. There was a rhythm to the conversations, serious then light, serious then light. It was all welcome.
Lunch was followed by the dedication of a bench in honor of the Sandy Hook families. The dedication was officiated by Rye mom Rev. Andrea Raynor, who reminded us of all of the simple moments enjoyed in that park that we likely take for granted. She expressed hope that this Sandy Hook bench would remind us all to be better friends, better mothers and better human beings. She encouraged the Sandy Hook moms to return to the bench for a rest, reminding them that, “not only will we stand by you, we will sit with you.” It was hard to find a dry eye.
Everyone has a story to tell about the day. I was matched with a woman who is the mother of three, the youngest of whom is a first grader. As we walked to her waiting kayak, she told me that her son lost ten friends that day, including a beloved neighbor. I was uncharacteristically speechless, realizing that sometimes there is actually nothing to be said. Later in the day, she won the raffle and gave me her prize bottle of champagne. “Take it,” she said. “We’ll have this between us.” I thought, this champagne won’t last long at my house, but we are both parents of first graders, now friends, just trying to make sense of the world. We’ll have that between us, too.
The day ended too quickly. As the bus pulled away, we waved goodbye to our new friends with both arms — like little kids. We gathered for a few moments afterwards to debrief and take it all in. Some people shared stories, others cried, maybe just a bit overwhelmed by the grace that permeated the day. Looking out at the Sound behind Cliona, Jannine, and their committee, I had the sense that I was in a sacred place, and that we were at the beginning of something, much more so than at an end.
Since our day at the beach, many of us have been in touch via email and phone. One email from a Sandy Hook mom said, “I hope you know that the warmth and love we received yesterday will ripple out among our families – you have given to all our SHS kids too!” I think that was the idea from the start.
Our keepsake of the event is a quilt that was completed during the day. It will hang in the Rye Free Reading Room, wearing 26 hand-sewn stars and the words, “We Are Sandy Hook, We Choose Love.” Through this quilt, we are left with the gift of the Sandy Hook community’s resilience and wisdom and a reminder that in the face of anything, we have the opportunity to choose love.