What makes the community of Norwich, Vermont, so special? Peter Hanaway isn’t sure he can put his finger on it exactly, but as someone who has lived in Louisiana, Oregon, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, and Europe, he can say for certain that the sense of community here sets it apart from many other places.
It’s been a peripatetic few years for Peter and his family. After decades in Portland, OR, where he and his spouse, Annie, had established careers and started a family, the end-of-life illness of Annie’s father brought them back east to Philadelphia. When he passed, their intention was to take Annie’s mother with them back to Oregon, but her own failing health made that untenable. So, Philadelphia it was, for two years.
Annie, a psychotherapist, kept working, shouldering the responsibility of financially supporting the family solo, while Peter took on much of the work caring for his mother-in-law. When she passed, Peter and Annie came to the realization that they were now untethered to any geographical location.
Annie and Peter always loved this part of the country. Annie’s parents had summered in Lyman, New Hampshire for many years, and Annie and Peter had spent much time there and elsewhere in New England. After much research, they settled on Norwich and began the search for a home. Anyone with even passing familiarity of the housing market in Vermont will have a sense of what that search was like. Suffice it to say, it has taken some time.
In the meantime, they have moved from rental to rental, while their two children, Will and Robin, have been attending Richmond Middle School and Marion Cross Elementary School, respectively.
The sense of welcome Peter felt in Norwich has been profound. He notices it in moments both casual and significant: how people wave to each other on the street, or the conversations held while watching a kids’ soccer game. And he is blown away by the generosity of a couple who allowed his family into their home as renters, knowing nothing about them.
Peter has given the phenomenon a lot of thought, trying to nail down what makes Norwich so special. It’s not that people in Portland or Philadelphia or Lyman don’t wave, but there’s something deeper at play here. Connections are more meaningful. “It’s a self-fulfilling emotional comportment that starts as, ‘we trust and expect that you are a good person,’ and is then rewarded by honorable behavior,” Peter said.
At this point in his life, Peter has found himself at a transition point. He’d left a vibrant career as a systems engineer doing consulting work in electronics, optics, and acoustics in Oregon. When his mother-in-law required around-the-clock attention, he had immersed himself in her care. “It was a hard transition to go from being at the pinnacle of my career to, boom, career is gone, you’re getting up two to three times at night.”
It got him questioning the things that really matter in life and what remains of a person when they are gone. Is it professional achievements like patents and promotions, or is it the relationships with other people and the connections between them? “To escort someone through the last stage of their life, to care for them, I received more than I gave,” Peter said. “It’s an honor to be there for somebody in that way. My mother-in-law was so gracious in the face of losing her faculties and watching her life end. It realigned for me what matters.”
All of this brought Peter to a place of having the desire, time, and space in his life to give back to the community that had welcomed him and his family so fully. Right about that time, Dan Fraser, owner of Dan & Whit’s, sent a message to the Norwich Listserv revealing the possibility that the store could close if they couldn’t find workers.
The notification spurred Annie to take on some hours at the store and coalesced things in Peter’s mind. He sent his own message to the Listserv, offering his volunteer services to the community. And the list of tasks Peter can perform is long: general home and fix-it services, computer services, and tutoring in grammar and writing, math, science, French, German, and music. Oh, and he’s done considerable caretaking of the elderly and would be happy to help in a pinch. “And for basic things like raking leaves and shoveling snow, my wife and kids are happy to pitch in, too,” he posted.
The response has been enthusiastic. Peter received over a dozen inquiries in the first week since he sent his message. He’s already finished two projects, is waiting on parts for a third, and has several customers lined up to assess their project needs. “I have enough to keep me busy for at least seven to eight weeks, working one day a week.” Peter is even considering taking on a high-school-age apprentice.
Peter will need to go back to professional life, perhaps as a consultant or by starting his own business. “But” Peter noted, “I’ve always been someone who likes to help out.”