Richard and Margarita Rosiak's two little girls woke up Tuesday with an unusual request for how the family from Downey, Calif., should spend their last day of vacation in New York City: They wanted to go to Newtown, Conn., to pay tribute to the 20 children killed in last week's elementary school rampage.
"They got up really really early and said, 'Let's go up there and write something and say a prayer,'" said Richard Rosiak, an attorney, as he stood outside St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in central Newtown, about a 90-minute drive from the family's hotel in midtown Manhattan.
As he spoke, 9-year-old Charlotte and 5-year-old Katie stood nearby, waiting to be taken to a store where they would buy drawing paper and other supplies to craft a personal card for the first-graders they never met but who have become so familiar to the world.
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Inside St. Rose, hundreds of mourners were attending a funeral for one of last Friday's victims, 6-year-old James Mattioli, a round-faced little boy whose online obituary described his love of swimming, arm-wrestling, and meals cooked up by his parents.
A silver hearse carrying James' casket drove slowly down the hill toward the church, trailed by a procession of more than 50 vehicles. A woman sat sobbing in the back of the limousine directly behind the hearse. Other mourners walked toward the church, stopping often on street corners to hug each other and wipe away tears.
A couple of hundred feet up the road, school buses were dropping off children at an elementary school, underscoring the challenges Newtown faces as it tries to recapture a trace of normality for the sake of children too young to grasp what has happened and caught up in the excitement of the approaching holiday.
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Classes resumed for children across the town Tuesday, yet hearses carrying tiny coffins draped in flowers drove up and down streets in full view of the tiny faces peering curiously out of the bus windows.
"When you start talking about little caskets, it really just hits you," said Rosiak. Margarita Rosiak, a psychologist, said even she was flummoxed as to how to wrap her head around what had happened in this seemingly idyllic town. "I don't have any words, to be honest," she said. "This is off the scale."
The Rosiaks had just pulled into town when the family saw the funeral procession -- one of several that will be passing through central Newtown in the coming days. Rosiak said his daughters, who attend a Catholic school in Bellflower, had been "really broken up" by the news of the massacre, which they first heard last Friday when they arrived in New York City for a few days' vacation. As the death toll became clear -- 20 children and six adults from Sandy Hook Elementary School -- he said Charlotte and Katie became more determined to do something to honor the victims.
"They've been talking about coming here since last night," said Rosiak, who planned to take them to one of the countless shrines set up around Newtown so they would have a place to lay their card before heading back to New York and catching their flighthome.
Before the family left the area, though, Rosiak, who grew up in New Britain, Conn., also planned to do something he had not done in awhile: stop and visit his parents' graves in his hometown cemetery.
As Newtown pushed to gets its children back into classes, some parents brought their own children from afar to visit the town.
Angela Bergen drove up from Elizabeth, N.J., with her 13-year-old son, Jack, and stood outside St. Rose as the mourning for James Mattioli went on inside. Bergen has four children, ages 4, 6, 11, and 13. All but Jack arehome-schooled.
When the family first moved to Elizabeth, an urban area, Bergen wanted tohome-school all the children, but Jack insisted on going to school with other children. At the entrance to his school is a metal detector and a security guard, a system that Bergen initially found disturbing but which she now appreciates.
"I wanted my son to come here. I wanted him to understand the gravity of the situation," she said, explaining her decision to have Jack skip classes for the day.
As for herself, Bergen said she hoped to go inside St. Rose and "just sit quietly in the back. I want to pray. I want to cry."
But she would have to wait to get inside. No sooner had the service for James Mattioli ended at St. Rose, and the long procession filed out of the parking lot, then another hearse headed down the hill toward the church, carrying the body of 6-year-old Jessica Adrienne Rekos.
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