Column: I Found My Camelot in the Upper Valley

  • A Valley News story from 1983 about the Baby Day celebration at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon. The hospital, which specialized in births from its start in 1932, recently announced that it will close its birthing center and merge its obstetrical service with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

For the Valley News
Saturday, February 24, 2018

I want to share my memories of three aspects of Vermont and New Hampshire that I had the privilege of experiencing firsthand after I moved from Oregon to the emerald mountains here in 1986.

The first is Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital’s birthing center, which the Lebanon hospital just this month announced it will close and merge with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s obstetrical service.

In 1988 I applied to volunteer at APD, and I was given several service options: the gift store, the birthing center or the reception desk.

I chose the birthing center because my mother had died recently and I wanted to spend time with those at the other extreme of life. It was the most adorable and cunning job in the world. I was taught to sit with and monitor a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, immediately after birth, as the mother and father bonded with their newborn.

I have never been closer to the very beginning of life, except when I was born myself.

And the amazing thing for me was how different the babies looked, even wrapped in the tight, tiny blanket used to reassure infants by imitating the secure, snug confines of their recently vacated home. About all I could see, except for lips, eyes and a nose, was hair. It is so different in infants — thick, thin, black, blond, brown, red, curly, straight — and amazingly prominent as it poked out from their white blanky-swaddles.

I would leave that volunteer work at the birthing center every week with a smile on my face and music in my heart.

APD did something for the parents on the first or second night after their baby’s birth that also required my baby-sitting: The hospital gave the mother and father a champagne-and-candlelight dinner in a private room at the birthing center, to help them re-establish and celebrate the bond of their marriage before it got swept up in the frenzy of their newborn’s needs.

In 1988, it was hard for me to believe that any hospital in America choreographed such a civilized and romantic evening for new parents.

Does this not sound like Camelot?

I have been told that APD’s candlelight ritual has long since gone the way of the world, but I wanted to honor its very existence here by recounting my experience with it three decades ago.

At that time I was living in South Royalton, where another very special activity was occurring: Every weekday morning, the asphalt roadway and parking spaces around the town green were swept clean — not by a machine, but by a man whose name, as I recall, was Howard, who kept his equipment under the gazebo on the green.

At around 8 a.m., this portly gentleman, who was probably 70 years old at the time, would unlock the wooden grating under the gazebo, take out his wheelbarrow, his broom and his shovel, and begin the daily ritual.

If a car was in one parking space, he would skip it and come back later. At lunchtime, he would accept a sandwich or a piece of pizza (and, of course, a beer), from one or another of the town’s merchants, often eating his snack while sitting on the steps of a local store. I never knew if this was his actual pay or just a tip. But I can see Howard’s face as clearly today as I did 30 years ago.

A romantic tale had grown up around Howard, that he lived in the local trailer park and had fallen on hard times after his wife died. Sweeping the street, it was said, was his salvation.

And it was mine.

Howard’s morning routine, along with APD’s birthing center, made me think that the New England I had moved to was a fairy-tale land of manners and customs from a charmed time gone by.

Then I got a job teaching English at Hartford High School, and the third emerald in this land of Camelot fell into my lap.

The new principal, Phil DuTremble, declared in his first speech to the faculty that he wanted to try to create a school that was “run by love.”

Fat chance, I thought in my jaded mind. And then I watched him do it.

He memorized the names and faces of every one of the 550 students at the school at the time, and between each class period, he stood in the hallway outside his office and greeted them personally.

Not only that, but for the next 15 years he sent a birthday card with the Hartford High School seal on it to the home address of every student every year. Each card included a handwritten personal note and his signature. He realized, as the father of seven children himself, that the most important day in a child’s life is his or her birthday.

When he retired, this birthday list had grown to 810 students. (Every faculty member received a birthday card as well, with the Hartford High emblem and a personal, handwritten greeting.)

While I was saddened to learn of the closing of APD’s birthing center, the announcement brought back memories of my experiences there — and of South Royalton’s street sweeper and Hartford High’s remarkable principal — and reminded me that, for one brief shining moment in my life three decades ago, there was indeed a Camelot in our emerald paradise.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford.