One of the things that makes writing for MousePlanet so special to me is the fact that I typically fill my articles with happy thoughts and memories. I'm not a complainer like so many others out there on the Internet. Let's face it, collecting Disney stuff and running down the Top 5 lists of all the wonderful things about a place like Walt Disney World are pretty happy things to write about. I realize that and I fully embrace it. However, this past week, despite it being the "most wonderful time of the year," I found myself in the midst of a profoundly sad experience. I was able to vocalize it to my wife and to members of my family, but vocalization wasn't quite enough. I needed an outlet. I needed to be able to sit at the desk in front of the computer, as I usually do, and write my thoughts. It's late at night, the kids are asleep, something mindless is on the television just for background noise and I'm now able to really get my thoughts out. If you'll allow me, I need to use this article for a slightly different purpose this week.
Newtown, Connecticut, is now tragically and unfortunately not just another quiet New England town. We all know of the unspeakable tragedy that just occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School. When a co-worker called and said the words "Newtown" and "Sandy Hook," it didn't register immediately. He knew my wife's family was from Connecticut, just not exactly where. After a few moments I said to myself, "Wait a minute… Newtown?" In fact, my wife's family is not from Newtown proper, but they are less than a mile from the Newtown line. When I logged onto CNN's website and began to see the pictures, the town came into complete focus to me. We are in Newtown all the time. It's the closest place to go when we are visiting my wife's family. We're always in the supermarket there. Our favorite ice cream place is there. My favorite nursery and Christmas shop is there. My wife Diane bought her wedding dress in Newtown. She used to make appointments at a salon there and we'd make the two-hour trip up there from Long Island just to get her hair done because she liked the place so much. I'd drop her off and inevitably tool around in the car with the kids stopping in shops or just taking in the scenery. I know the town all too well. And now, a place that I've grown so accustomed to… is a place where something so horrible has happened.
When you see these types of tragic events on the television screen or in the pages of a newspaper, it hits you. It makes you sad. It makes you wonder how such an atrocity could possibly occur. But the average person experiences it from a distance. It's "another place." For the first time in my life, it wasn't "another place." Granted, it wasn't my hometown. We are really just passersby in Newtown—but it was a place that for almost two decades now I had developed a strong connection with. You start to wonder; were my kids sitting next to any of these kids in the Holy Cow Ice Cream shop this past summer? How about when Diane and I had lunch at the Newtown General Store that quiet afternoon in the fall? What about the folks at the hair salon that Diane used to sit with? It's a small town and everyone that we even remotely encountered in that area was, more than likely, touched by this in some shape or form. For the first time, it all hit a little closer to home than ever before. I can't imagine it actually happening in my own backyard and I pray that I will never have to experience it. This was too close as it was.
With all this in mind, and knowing that we would be up there several times during the holidays, we decided that we had to go to Newtown and see the memorials, pay our respects, and try to get some sort of sense of what has happened to this community that we've become so fond of. So, this past Saturday, we did just that. We left the 10-year-old twins at my in-laws, and my wife, our 13-year-old daughter and I went to Newtown.
We had seen the images of the memorials all week long on television, but nothing could have prepared us for the sheer enormity of what was there. Flowers by the thousands lay on the sidewalk and underneath the village Christmas tree. Signs, posters and cards from everywhere around the country and the world are side by side with thousands and thousands of stuffed animals. There were toys. There were lunchboxes. There were candles burning. There were trees and wreaths. There were stockings hanging on the bridge over the picturesque creek that runs through town. Everywhere you looked there were pictures of the 26 people that were lost. It was overwhelming. It's like nothing I've ever seen before and quite honestly I hope to never see again. In some places the pile of flowers and stuffed animals was a few feet high. It's impossible to appreciate just how much is there without standing in front of it and feeling it's presence. It was incredibly moving and incredibly powerful.
As you make your way out of the town center over a small rise you come across the access road to the elementary school. Along that road are 26 Christmas trees, one for each person lost. It was there that I spotted this little fellow peering out at me from underneath one of the trees.
It was a little stuffed Mickey Mouse dressed as Santa. He was nestled in next to a little stuffed dog, a delicate macrame angel, and a letter that someone had left. In front of him were about a dozen or so candles, some still burning, others long since burned down. For some reason, this is one of the images that stayed with me. There was such a disparity in the visual. Here was Mickey Mouse, an icon of happiness and innocence, dressed up as Santa Claus—yet another icon of giving and kindness. And in front of him… the candles lit by mourners remembering those taken away so tragically. There were lots of Mickeys and Minnies and teddy bears placed carefully throughout the memorial, but it was this little Santa Mickey that stayed with me.
Every child at one time or another has probably held a little stuffed Mickey like this one. It's a classic symbol of childhood. What could be more innocent or universal than a child clutching their stuffed Mickey? And yet here he was surrounded by such sadness; a reminder that these 20 children will never get to have that simple moment of childhood innocence again. For that matter, neither will the six adults.
In regards to my own children, Disney has come to symbolize that innocence for me. I never want them to lose that. As they grow older each day, I want them to hold on to that feeling of simplicity and pureness. I want to know that, no matter how old they are, when the insanity of life attempts to solidify its presence—that spark of innocence that a little stuffed Mickey represents will be with them somewhere in their hearts and minds.
We went back to Newtown on Christmas Eve. My daughter and her friend had made a sign that they wanted to place at the memorial. As we walked away from the school and quietly made our way back to town, I passed this little Mickey once again. I paused and took a photograph to keep as a reminder to myself that life is precious, and the innocence that Mickey stands for should never be left behind no matter how old you are—because, as anyone in that town will tell you, you never know what tomorrow will bring. My heart was broken for the families and their unspeakable loss, but despite the inherent sadness of the memorial, the outpouring of love and support from all over the world left me with some hope.
My daughter, Samantha, joined in that support and hung her sign. I put my arm around my little girl and praised her for her thoughtfulness. As I left the village, my wife's hand tight in mine, I couldn't wait to get back to my boys to hug them and begin our Christmas Eve. I also couldn't wait for them to open up the little stuffed Disney guys I knew "Santa" was bringing them. I guess "he" had to make sure that some of that innocence was still going to be with them.
It's funny what sticks with you when you experience something as powerful as the memorial in Sandy Hook. I'll never forget the faces of the children and teachers that were made into ornaments and placed so gently on that little tree in the center of the enormous pile of flowers and tributes. I can't possibly forget the moment we realized that the bag of potato chips, and little snack size cereal boxes laid on the ground in front of the school's sign were probably laid there by someone who knew these children closely enough to leave their favorite snacks as a tribute. But for me, the little stuffed Santa Mickey with the candles in front of him will always symbolize both the enormous loss of innocence that occurred that day and the hope that we can get past this as a society and keep that innocence alive in our own lives—and maybe… hopefully… this will never happen again.
Thanks for letting me share my thoughts. Don't forget to hug your loved ones and be sure to put a little stuffed Mickey in your child's hands no matter what their age. Have a peaceful New Year and please let me hear what you have to say by clicking on the link below.
(Send an email to Chris Barry)
Chris Barry lives on Long Island in New York with his wife and three kids. He has had a lifelong love of cartoons, comics and animation. Those who know him well say he has truly, "earned his Disney PhD." Chris has been involved with Television Production for 20 years and began his career working with The Muppets at Jim Henson Productions in NYC. Currently teaching TV Production to high school students, Chris has been writing about many different facets of The Walt Disney Company for several years now.