NEWTOWN, Conn. — 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. She kept it private, when we were together. 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.
Friends told NBC’s “Today” show on Monday that Lanza was a devoted mother, especially to her son Adam, and that shooting guns was simply a hobby for her.
Russell Hanoman said Adam Lanza was “clearly a troubled child.”
Hanoman said Nancy Lanza told him she introduced guns to Adam as a way to teach him responsibility.
“Guns require a lot of respect, and she really tried to instill that responsibility within him, and he took to it. He loved being careful with them. He made it a source of pride,” he said.
California resident Ryan Kraft told KCAL-TV in Los Angeles that when he was a teenager he lived a few doors down from the Lanza family and used to babysit Adam Lanza, then nine or 10 years old. He said the boy “struck me as an introverted kid.”
“His mom Nancy had always instructed me to keep an eye on him at all times, never turn my back or even go to the bathroom or anything like that. Which I found odd but I really didn’t ask; it wasn’t any of my business,” said Kraft, who lives in Hermosa Beach. “But looking back at it now, I guess there was something else going on.”
Despite the 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, Ill., Lanza’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. Inside My Place on Sunday, friends passed around a book of photos from a 2008 sailing trip off Newport, R.I., including one showing Lanza, her eyes gently closed and head tilted back as the sea breeze blew through her hair. “Dreamer!” read the caption.
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.
All three of the guns that Adam Lanza carried into Sandy Hook Elementary were owned and registered by his mother — a pair of handguns and a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, his primary weapon.
Investigators said Sunday that Nancy Lanza visited shooting ranges several times and that her son also visited an area range.
Ginger Colbrun, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said it’s still not clear whether Nancy Lanza brought her son to the range or whether he ever fired a weapon there.
Marsha Lanza told the Chicago Sun-Times that Nancy Lanza wanted guns for protection. “She prepared for the worst,” Marsha Lanza told the newspaper. “I didn’t know that they (the guns) would be used on her.”
Guns were her hobby,” Dan Holmes, who got to know Lanza while doing landscaping work for her, told The Washington Post. “She told me she liked the single-mindedness of shooting.”
But while trips to shooting ranges gave Lanza an outlet, she returned home to the ever-present challenges of raising a son with intractable problems.
At Newtown High School, Adam Lanza was often having crises that only his mother could defuse.
“He would have an episode, and she’d have to return or come to the high school and deal with it,” said Richard Novia, the school district’s head of security until 2008, who got to know the family because both Lanza sons joined the school technology club he chartered.
Novia said Adam Lanza would sometimes withdraw completely “from whatever he was supposed to be doing,” whether it was sitting in class or reading a book.
Adam Lanza “could take flight, which I think was the big issue, and it wasn’t a rebellious or defiant thing,” Novia said. “It was withdrawal.”
The club gave the boy a place where he could be more at ease and indulge his interest in computers. His anxieties appeared to ease somewhat, but they never disappeared. When people approached him in the hallways, he would press himself against the wall or walk in a different direction, clutching tight to his black briefcase.
Marsha Lanza described Nancy Lanza as a good mother.
“If he had needed consulting, she would have gotten it,” Marsha Lanza said. “Nancy wasn’t one to deny reality.”
But friends and neighbors said Lanza never spoke about the difficulties of raising her son. Mostly she noted how smart he was and that she hoped, even with his problems, that he’d find a way to succeed.
“We never talked about the family,” John Tambascio said. “She just came in to have a great time.”