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Resting Places / Chapter Five: Bundles of sympathy

Sherry Morton and her son Cedric are featured in a photograph on a program to the 20-year graveside service held for family and friends in Spring Grove Cemetery in Florence on Friday. 
SARAH CROSBY

Sherry Morton and her son Cedric are featured in a photograph on a program to the 20-year graveside service held for family and friends in Spring Grove Cemetery in Florence on Friday. SARAH CROSBY

NORTHAMPTON - Every day the mailman delivered bundles of letters to Yoko’s dressmaking shop, each installment bound in a rubber band. The first week brought hundreds. The owner of a lingerie shop a few blocks away sent a card saying she and her partner were praying Yoko could find strength to live one day at a time, aware of the love around her. On the front of the card: “Memories are like stars in the dark night of sorrow.”

Other cards bore similarly earnest messages: “Today and Always,” “In Sympathy and Friendship,” “May God Comfort You. In This Time of Sorrow,” “With Deepest Sympathy,” “They Are Not Gone Who Live in the Hearts of Those They Leave Behind.” It amazed Yoko, the things people thought to say, and she felt guilty she had never sent sympathy cards. She came to appreciate the cards and letters, even from strangers, far more than phone calls. She read each one, then zipped it into a plastic bag.

A man Yoko had never met, Daniel Finn, wrote: “Hopefully, this type of violence will soon become a thing of the past.” He underlined the word “soon” twice and added a postscript: “Even though I don’t know you, I felt moved to send this to you. Peace.” Another card was from John Robert Shaw, who once rented an apartment above Yoko’s shop. He wrote that Sherry had seemed to him “a vibrant butterfly ... beautiful, delicate and free, who like both of you simply touches people by being the way she is.”

Carole, a friend from Longmeadow who had come for the dinner of buffalo burgers with Yoko and Rad on the night of the killings, reminded Yoko how she was looking forward to being with her grandson on the King holiday. “Your face sparkled when you told us how you love caring for Cedric.” A friend who remembered Jeannie and Sherry modeling at one of Yoko’s bridal fashion shows wrote that she believed Yoko was showing enormous courage. “To face the community, to be able to grieve & respond to hundreds of people while your heart is breaking takes more guts than I can imagine. I do hope you can be spared any more suffering on this Earth.”

In early February, a letter arrived from Mary Peltier, another friend, who had decided it would be an injustice for Yoko not to know how often Sherry had spoken to her of Yoko’s generosity. She listed the times Sherry had praised her mother, spoken of their close relationship and expressed admiration for Yoko’s success in business.

People at Cedric’s daycare program sent a thick envelope of sympathy cards and letters from staff members and parents of other children. Yoko put on her reading glasses and picked up a metal letter opener, its handle shaped like a treble clef, to cut it open.

One parent wrote that she was grateful for the friendship that Cedric developed with her daughter, Naomi. She described how Cedric had arrived at the center just beginning to walk. Naomi liked to crawl behind him and try to stand. “He was the inspiration for her learning to walk & soon they were running all over the place together, laughing, chasing each other, jumping and dancing & most recently actually saying words to each other.”

Another parent recalled how much she liked seeing Cedric standing by the gate outside each morning in the city’s industrial park, “with his welcoming smile and those great big teddy bear hugs. And Sherry with her beautiful smile, never letting on that her life wasn’t perfect.” In a seven-page letter, one of the center’s employees described Cedric’s last day.

“For quite a while that morning, we had only one other child besides Cedric. It was a 7-month-old baby who loved watching Cedric and all the things he was doing — jumping on the mattress, playing with the toys and dancing to music. So Cedric got a lot of individualized attention with one baby and two teachers admiring and commenting on all the wonderful things he could do. The next person to arrive was Cedric’s good buddy, Naomi. They were always so cute playing together, both about the same age and developmental level. I remember sitting on the floor with the two of them that morning reading a big ABC book. Cedric’s favorite letter was B because of the picture of the ball. We never got very far in the book because that ball was the most interesting part, as far as Cedric was concerned.

“I remember bundling Cedric up in his snowsuit. He looked like a little butterball, or the Pillsbury doughboy. Cedric loved ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ and other songs that combined music and action. That day on the playground, his favorite was ‘I’m Going to Jump, Jump, Jump My Sillies Out.’ Everytime I finished the song Cedric would say, ‘Again.’ We must have done it half a dozen times. Cedric was so clearly enjoying using his new words as well as the song.

“The last thing I did for Cedric that day, before I left at noon, was change a diaper for him. It was just after he’d had his lunch — hamburg, roll and French fries — and he was indulging in one of his favorite activities: chewing on a wet washcloth. The last I saw of Cedric, before I walked out the door, he was being rocked to sleep for his nap by Sophia.”

A friend of Sherry’s now living in New York City wrote to tell Yoko that the killings had convinced her to focus on addressing domestic violence after she graduated from law school.

A woman from Hadley wrote that if an entire valley of people could reach out and hug her, it would. Writing in a small, round and friendly script, the woman said she was pleased Yoko had asked Joseph DeFazio to speak about domestic violence at the funeral. “Times have turned this Happy Valley into something quite different,” she wrote. She noted that she lived near the shopping mall where a young woman, a student at the University of Massachusetts, had been stabbed to death a few years before. “I live a mile from the Hampshire Mall and have traveled differently since the murder there. Women friends and I often speak of the violence we hear about around us, and wonder where it will end. In your time of loss, it took a lot to put your own losses aside and remind us all of other options.”

One letter came from a Marine stationed on a tank-landing ship off the coast of Greece. He’d known Sherry in high school and was angry that he hadn’t been around to protect her. His words were handwritten on thin sheets of paper. “I just want you to know that on the other side of the world, there is someone who cares.”

Some of the people who wrote to Yoko after the killings wanted to mention people that they too had lost. One woman wrote Yoko the week after the memorial service at the First Churches. She said she liked the point someone had made that day about memories belonging to those who hold them. “I speak from experience, Yoko. I lost a 4-year-old son in an automobile accident in 1970. Here it is, all these years later, and I think of him several times a day. As the years continue to pass, I remember only the joy of having had him in my life for that short time.”

Another mother wrote that she feared for her own daughter. “For we as mothers are powerless in our daughters’ decisions regarding friends and lovers. There is nothing you could have done to have prevented such a horrible outcome.”

The letters kept coming for weeks, from people who saw the continuing stories in the newspapers. “Dear Yoko,” they’d begin. After expressing their sympathies, many folded in evidence of their own unfinished grief, and said where it was that they also hurt.

A childhood friend of Sherry’s wrote to say Yoko probably wouldn’t recognize her name, Dawn. “You may remember me going to your shop with Sherry to see the replica of the dress you made of Princess Di’s wedding. I also went to the shop on my own a few times. I have been married a little over a year to a man who’s an alcoholic. I can’t help but wonder if Sean is an alcoholic.” She mentioned her two young children, the first born 10 days after her marriage. “I am a 2nd grade teacher,” she wrote, “and deal on a daily basis with children from violent homes who are violent. ... Though nothing can replace your loss, I want you to know that happy memories of the times spent with Sherry will always remain with me! If something good can be seen thru all this tragedy, Sherry’s horrible murder made my husband and I seek counseling due to his behavior caused by his drinking. It got pretty scary at times; though he never hurt me, it could lead to that if he wasn’t in treatment.”

A neighbor of Sherry’s at Meadowbrook sent a card with a raccoon on the front, peering out from the limb of a leafless tree. “Even though I didn’t know Sherry personally and I wish I had, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of her and her beautiful little boy. I will always remember her as a loving and kind mother. I picture her coming home from work, pulling in the parking lot, taking Cedric out of his car seat, carrying him on her hip while trying to juggle his lunch box, her purse and whatever else she had with her. As a mother myself of two small girls I know how much stuff you have to take with you each and every day to make sure your child has everything he needs. I would open the door for her, say hello and ask if she needed any help. She would decline help, showing her strong sense of independence. I feel fortunate to have known her the short time that I did. I wish we could have been friends. I had a dream about her and in the dream she looked very beautiful and told me that she didn’t feel any pain and that she was all right now.”

A couple from Yoko’s hometown of Westhampton wrote to say that though they didn’t know her, they wanted her to hear that townspeople were thinking of her. “Please don’t hesitate to call — even if it’s a cup of coffee & a ‘chit chat.’”

Not long after the killings, a Japanese woman from Amherst, an acquaintance, wrote to scold Yoko. You should have protected Sherry, she said. “This is my opinion, and I am mad at you about that.” It was the same reaction Yoko knew she’d be getting in Japan, though her sisters were telling very few people about the killings to protect the family’s name. As a girl, Yoko had been taught that when children make mistakes, blame lies with the parent who didn’t teach them well enough.

Her letter seemed to change gears. In the weeks since Sherry and Cedric died, the woman wrote, she had been wrestling with her feelings about what had happened. She wrote that she’d been upset at Yoko for seeming to fail her daughter, then upset at herself for having these thoughts.

In the last few days, she said, she had begun to feel Yoko’s pain. Then she went on to describe the last time she’d seen Sherry, on a sidewalk in downtown Northampton. Even then, something about the way Sherry looked made her feel protective. She closed her letter by asking for Yoko’s forgiveness.

TOMORROW: Yoko faces the reality of earlier violence in her daughter’s life.

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