HOLLY SPRINGS — She never met Benjamin Wheeler, the 6-year-old boy who played piano, joined the Tiger Scouts and wanted to be both an architect and a paleontologist when he grew up.
She only knew his mother from their faraway childhood: her friend Francine, partner in sleepovers and Girl Scouts.
But when she heard that Benjamin had died, shot and killed with 19 other children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., Michelle McElroy built a humble tribute.
She rolled 26 sheets of vinyl flashing into cylinders, one for each of the Sandy Hook victims. Into each one, she drilled holes to spell out a first name. Noah. Dylan. Charlotte. Grace.
Then she placed a candle inside each cylinder and laid them across her front yard in the shape of a heart, Benjamins in the center, and lit them on Christmas Eve.
For a while, they were spread out over my whole house, said McElroy, a Holly Springs artist. Thats when it hit me. So many people, you know?
McElroy lives on what locals in Holly Springs refer to as a Christmas Cul-de-Sac, a street so decked out for the holidays that people file past in cars to gawk at their decorations. Her neighbor has a drive-through mistletoe arch for stopping and kissing. When McElroys family bought their house, the previous owners gave them all their Christmas lights, making participation a mandatory condition for moving in.
But this holiday, the people cruising past saw the names of 20 children twinkling on the McElroy lawn, along with six teachers and Sandy Hook staff, lit every night from 6 to 10 p.m. The candles burned each night, even after the wicks were wet with rain.
Tributes poured out nationwide after the December shootings, from football helmets in bowl games to the Saturday Night Live cast opening their show with Silent Night. McElroy was among the many non-famous people who found a creative outlet for their emotions.
She and Francine Wheeler grew up together incredibly, McElroy thinks now in Newtown, Pa., just across the Delaware River from New Jersey.
Wheeler became an actress and music teacher; McElroy became an artist whose murals and sculptures appear around the Triangle including a piece in the Holly Springs Chik-fil-A. But the two hadnt seen each other in years, perhaps not since their 2005 high school reunion, McElroy thought.
It took a while for the news to spread before McElroy even knew she had a connection to the shooting. It didnt seem right to call the family, crossing so much time and distance in the middle of a crisis. She posted a note on the funeral homes webpage, but that didnt seem enough.
So she found a font she liked and wrote all the names on sheets of paper, then transferred them to the vinyl. She tried making the holes with a hammer and nails, but the noise so disrupted her own children that she had to stop.
So she started drilling, one hole, one letter, one name at a time until shed finished. The job took 12 hours the whole Saturday before Christmas.
Once she had all 26, she arranged them on the grass in the order she learned about the victims lives. First came Benjamin. Then Grace McDonell, 7, who loved to paint, and whose family drew ice cream cones, seagulls and lighthouses on her coffin with a Sharpie marker.
She tried to put friends next to friends.
McElroys neighbors are used to her outdoor projects. She teaches art to children from her home studio, so theres always a canvas dangling from a tree branch, or a Jackson Pollock-style splatter experiment going on in the garage.
But this one takes on many more meanings: a letter to an old friend, a kiss blown north, 26 lights in the darkness.