NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — At the bar, everybody knew her name.
Nancy Lanza was the one who, if she heard you were short on cash, regularly offered to pick up the tab at My Place.
Two or three nights a week, Lanza — the mother of the gunman in Connecticut’s horrific school massacre — came in for carryout salads, but stayed for Chardonnay and good humor. The divorced mother of two — still smooth-skinned and ash blonde at 52 — clearly didn’t have to work, but was always glad to share talk of her beloved Red Sox, gardening and a growing enthusiasm for target shooting.
But while Lanza spoke proudly about her sons and brought them in for breakfast when they were younger, friends say she held one card very close: home life, especially its trials and setbacks, was off limits.
Now, the secrets Lanza kept are at the center of the questions that envelop this New England town, grieving over the slaughter unleashed by her 20-year-old son Adam, who investigators say killed his mother Friday with one of her own guns before murdering 26 children and teachers at a nearby school.
“Her family life was her family life when we were together. She kept it private. That was her own thing,” said Louise Tambascio, who runs the warmly lit pizzeria and bar with her own sons, and became a shopping and dining companion of Nancy Lanza’s.
Friends had met Lanza’s younger son, who stared down at the floor and didn’t speak when she brought him in. They knew he’d switched schools more than once and that she’d tried home schooling him. But while she occasionally expressed concern about his future during evenings at the bar, she never complained about anything at all.
“I heard her as a parent. I always said that I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes. But I thought, ‘Wow. She holds it well,’” said Tambascio’s son, John.
Despite those challenges, the trappings of Lanza’s life in Newtown were comfortable. When she and then-husband Peter Lanza moved to the central Connecticut community in 1998 from southern New Hampshire, they bought a brand new 3,100-square-foot colonial set on more than two acres in the Bennett’s Farm neighborhood. Nancy Lanza had previously worked as a stock broker at John Hancock in Boston and her husband was a successful executive.
When the couple divorced in 2009, he left their spacious home to Nancy Lanza and told her she would never have to work another day in her life, said Marsha Lanza of Crystal Lake, Il., the alleged gunman’s aunt. The split-up was not acrimonious and Adam spent time with both his mother and father, she said.
Those who knew Nancy Lanza recall her as very generous, often giving money to those she met and doing volunteer work.
When a mutual friend sought a loan from an acquaintance, Jim Leff, and Leff asked for collateral, Lanza intervened.
“Nancy overheard the discussion, and, unblinkingly, told him she’d just write him a check then and there,” Leff recalled on his blog in a post after Lanza’s death. “While I’m far from the most generous guy in the world, it’s not often that I feel stingy. But I learned something from that. I should have just written him the check. She was right.”
Mark Tambascio recalled the time Lanza invited him and his brother to attend a Boston Red Sox game, buying them tickets atop the outfield wall known as the Green Monster, and refusing any talk of repayment.
There were moments when she appeared carefree. Neighbors knew her from the monthly gathering of women who rotated between homes for games of the dice game bunko. Lanza enthused about gardening, while poking fun of the fact that few could see the result because her house was set back from the road on a low rise, partly cloaked by trees.
“She used to give me a hard time, you know, because I put out all these Christmas lights, and she said, ‘I put out mine, too, but you can’t even see them,’” said Rhonda Cullens, who lives one street over.
Lanza also began telling friends that she’d bought guns and had taken up target shooting, John Tambascio said.