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 — 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 her own gun 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 pizzeria and bar 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.
“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’d never have to work another day in her life, said Marsha Lanza of Crystal Lake, Ill., the purported 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.
Lanza 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.
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.”