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Essayist Carol Ann Davis On Seven Autumns In Newtown

Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public Radio

Saturday, Dec. 14, marks the seventh anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that took the lives of 20 first graders and six educators. 

Carol Ann Davis, who is a professor of English at Fairfield University, a poet, an essayist and an author lives in Newtown. She moved to the village of Sandy Hook with her husband and two sons a few months before the shooting. 

Davis recently wrote a piece featured in The Atlantic titled  “Seven Autumns of Mourning in Newtown.” She joined Connecticut Public Radio’s Lori Mack on Morning Edition to talk about the essay and her experiences. What follows are edited highlights of their conversation.

On why she wrote the piece

Since this happened, I have occasionally written poems or essays, and I even have a collection of essays about raising my sons in Newtown that’s going to come out next year. I wrote [it] as a way of mothering my sons, not necessarily thinking it would lead to any kind of publication, but eventually it did.

So, I woke up one Halloween and it was raining, and I remember the first draft of this essay was something like, ‘I woke up to a rainy Halloween seven years ago. Halloween was canceled.’ And from there it sort of presented itself. And I believe these pieces come almost out of whole cloth. Because they are the remnant of a lived experience that’s been marinating.

On her experience of the town before Dec. 14, 2012

We had been living in Charleston, South Carolina, but before that we had lived in New England. And so it was a fantasy to move back to New England. It was a hill town like the Western Massachusetts hill towns where we’d met, and it was sort of the culmination of a dream of ours to raise our kids in a little New England town like Sandy Hook. It was amazing. It was just full of trees, and we could drive to the grocery store in five minutes, which never happened in Charleston. Really, everything that I learned about the town in the first few months is true to this day. It’s full of amazing people.

On her two sons’ experience of moving to Sandy Hook

I thought it would be really difficult for my older son, who was in the fourth grade, to make friends. Because my younger son was in kindergarten so he was going to have a cohesive experience K through 12 in Newtown. But my older son was coming in in the fourth grade. And I remember he stood for student council in the first few weeks, and he was elected. And I thought, ‘What an amazing place. A new boy comes in, makes a speech, gets voted onto student council.’ That sort of said it all.

On the distances that remain among those who lost loved ones, survivors, and others in town

I think a huge piece of it is acknowledging those differences are going to stay and they’re sacred in some ways, because they are those experiences that changed the lives of those persons in those very different ways. So I think actually the bridge is about saying, ‘I see that. I know that. I know that I can’t be there with you, but I’m over here.’

An extract from “Seven Autumns of Mourning in Newtown”:

“Sometime in the first fall following the shooting, during those brisk weeks after Halloween, I was at a small house party. It was a leaf-raking and campfire party, the kind of party you can have in a town full of blazing maples and elms. I ended up alone in the living room with a friend of mine who had lost a child in the shooting. It was dark, our children were outside, and we were waiting for the host to return with party pizza—a specially sized two-foot rectangle of pizza from a local restaurant that is the modern equivalent of loaves and fishes. My friend was asking about Luke, now a first grader. Who was Luke’s teacher? What was he into? Out the window, some of the heartiest leaves still clung to their branches. I saw my friend’s surviving child, older and taller than Luke, walk up to him to point out a constellation as we stood in the picture window watching them. I saw Luke trace the trajectory and then find the constellation. For a second I feared my knees would give out under the crushing pain and beauty of the moment. But then I thought, if my friend can stand here, then I damn well better figure out how to stand too.”

Reflecting on that experience

It was really a gift from my friend, who had made all the decisions ahead of the conversation. My friend was being intentional about their outward-turned concern for my son. And sometimes I think, even though one thinks one is the consoler, I don’t think of myself as consoling my friend there. Sometimes the job is sort of more civic in nature. It’s simply like accepting my friend’s gift to me of asking about my son. It was like saying, ‘I am going to continue to be concerned with children,’ broadly speaking. And then I felt like my friend’s child was doing the same thing out in the yard. So that was really moving to me.

On Newtown, in the years since

It’s still so present. I remember -- not all the way fast-forwarding to right now, but just in the years after when I would meet someone who had moved to town afterwards. I used to say, we got a better brand of good. People who moved there seemed to ... I mean they’re knowingly doing that. They want to somehow be in community. It’s a really intentional choice. Again, that’s another distance now that develops. People who weren’t in the town but are now. I think that there’s a real sense of grace about how people treat each other. One thing I wanted to do with this piece is just show the beauty of the place. 

On her favorite thing about living in Newtown

I’d say it’s the same thing that it was when we got there, which is those kids in that fourth-grade class kind of choosing my son as one of their student council members. The welcoming, kind of openhearted way in which the children lead the way, kind of morally, almost. He’s now in the marching band and it’s the same kind of thing. And he has some of those same fourth grade friends.

The essay titled “Seven Autumns of Mourning in Newtown” appears in The Atlantic.

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