Friday, January 13, 2017

Dog Tales

Last week I was interviewing a guy for a story I’m writing and realized we were neighbors once, nearly two decades ago and more than 2,000 miles from here. The first hint was when he said he’s lived in Crested Butte, Colorado, for the better part of the last 40 years. But it was his mention of having golden retrievers – a long line of them, now in the 12th generation – that ultimately tipped me off.

Hey, neighbor, wanna play?
It’s safe to say I’m a dog person, the kind who crouches down to greet canines at just about every opportunity – at holiday parades, during walks through the neighborhood, along hiking trails. I will often ask strangers the name, age, and breed of their dog without seeking a bit of intel about themselves. Dogs make good conversation starters – and great company.

I knew three of my interviewee’s dogs, from the seventh and eighth generations of the ongoing line, back in my ski town days, when I was living in a basement-level apartment across the street. Chipeta, Moki, and Dillon – a mother and two siblings – would often amble across the traffic-less road and sit at the top of my front steps, dropping a tennis ball down the stairs until I either came out to play or let them in to hang out.

They were mellow and sweet and – most importantly – provided a doggy fix to a dog-loving girl who was without a dog.

After I made the connection last week, I pulled out an old photo album to look for pictures of the golden trio. Stuck amid images of a 20-years-younger me, I found a few shots of the neighborhood dogs – including one of the three of them lined up at the top of my stairs, an old tennis ball at their feet – along with other pups who filled the void during my dogless years, that time between when I left my childhood home and the dogs I grew up with and when I got my own first dog.

Otis and Boone – a golden retriever and a black lab/golden mix – accompanied me on countless hikes and backpacking outings. They belonged to friends, and I sometimes dog-sat for them when their people were away. Ike, an age-hobbled, perpetually smiling yellow lab, was another of my dog-sitting charges. Chelsea was the next-door-neighbors’ mutt, who ran alongside her people on long mountain bike rides well into her old age.

The ski shop where I worked in Crested Butte had a host of shop dogs. Bella was a slightly gawky Bernese Mountain dog who belonged to one of the shop owners. Ruby, a yellow lab who went with the other owner, was Bella’s older, more distinguished counterpart. Rounding out the mix was Honey, a sweet golden who tagged along to work with the office manager.

Around the corner from the house where I lived for four years, there was a huge malamute named Ullr, after the Norse god of winter. Ullr howled daily with the noontime whistle and was always up for a belly rub. I was happy to oblige as I passed the inn where Ullr kept watch, finding contentment in his general doggy happiness and the feel of fur on fingers.

Then there was Ben, a smiling, slightly shaggy, black dog who lived with the family I worked for when I left Colorado and overshot New England by a few thousand miles to land, briefly, in the west of Ireland. Ben loved to play soccer and would join me and the family’s two boys in our evening games in the barnyard. That combination of a dog to pat and a soccer ball at my feet lent a sense of the familiar in a place far from home.

I haven’t thought about this cast of dogs for a long while, but that random blast from the past brought them all back to me. Like good dogs everywhere, this canine crew offered unconditional friendship at times when I was without my own doggy sidekick, easy company during skiing and hiking explorations, and simple stress relief through belly rubs and ear scratches.

It’s been more than 15 years since I moved back East, which means all those dogs are now long gone. But I still can picture them in the old, familiar places, can still see in my mind’s eye their dog-smiling faces and happy anticipation about everything from hikes to biscuits to the noontime whistle.

They weren’t my dogs, but they’re all locked into my heart’s memory just the same, friends from other times and other places.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the January 13, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Crazies

The kids are wild with excitement this week. They’ve come home from school bouncing around from couch to window seat and room to room until finally – five minutes after walking through the door – I send them outside. They are entwined in an ongoing, animated conversation about Christmas and presents and Santa. They giggle hysterically through dinner and into bedtime. What they dream of when they finally sleep, I don’t know, but my guess would be it’s some version of maniacally-twirling sugar plums.

Yes, the Christmas crazies are running rampant in my house.

I remember when the kids were preschoolers – not that long ago – and this holiday-frenzied excitement manifested itself, often, in bad behavior. As Christmas got closer, the kids’ naughtiness seemed to escalate. Shouldn’t it get better, I thought, with the looming threat of Santa passing them by on Christmas Eve?

Back then, I think the acting out was a combination of overwhelming excitement they had no idea how to handle and tiredness from the extra festivities, late nights, and too many sugar cookies.

Maneuvering through Christmas has become both easier and more complicated as my children have grown. Bedtimes are looser these days, and the kids are relatively self-sufficient, which makes many things simpler. But presents have to be more discreetly and expertly hidden. There are additional family and work obligations. And long gone is the era of wrapping gifts during the children’s naptime.

The holidays come at a time already busy for me and for my family. And sometimes, like most everybody, I am enveloped by my own version of the Christmas crazies. Sometimes I lose my patience. Sometimes I feel an acute sadness for the people in places far beyond the peace and happiness we treasure during this season, people where the world around them is, quite literally, crashing down. Then I feel guilty for being stressed out about whether I have enough stocking stuffers to fill an inordinately large sock.

Amid the frenzied sending of cards and wrapping of presents, of holiday parties mingling with work deadlines, I remind myself that behind the chaos of the season, the underlying purpose is joy and kindness and love. I remind myself to pause and focus on the important things, to savor these moments of Christmas craziness.

The craziness, after all, comes from a combination of stress and joy. The trick is focusing on the latter – on the giggling and wonder, the events that offer an opportunity to reconnect with friends and community, to reflect on both the passing of time and the spirit of the season.

Last week, during the school concert, I remembered when my kids were the littlest ones, the kindergarteners doing the Penguin Polka as the audience smiled and clapped and laughed delightedly at the sky-high cuteness factor. This year, mine were among the bigger kids, excited to take the stage after weeks of rehearsing. They were in the band, playing Tchaikovsky and Pachelbel, and in the chorus, singing Hava Nagila – which, if you’re wondering, translates to “Let us rejoice!”

My children are in that space between. No longer little kids, but not yet grown up. Aware of much of the reality around them, but still innocent in their hold on magic and wonder. Hoping hard that Santa will deliver the things they’ve asked for, but also excited to give the gifts they carefully selected at the school’s annual Recycle Sale – and others they were inspired to find or create at home after the sale.

There will come a time, likely very soon, when Christmas is not quite as magical as it is in these days of Santa and reindeer and resident elves. So I savor the joyfulness of my children – despite the Christmas crazies. I watch the lights twinkling on the tree, like stars in the cold winter sky. I delight in the sweetness of sugar cookies, kid-decorated with far too many sprinkles. I breathe in the kids’ excitement and happy innocence during this busy, but magical, time.

Tomorrow night, as we have done every year since they were babies, my children and I will snuggle together to read The Night Before Christmas. My mind will likely swirl with all there is to do after they are in bed, all there is to do the next day. But I will push those thoughts aside and tuck the kids in tight, watch the joy dancing in their eyes as I leave them to their Christmas Eve visions of presents and sparkling snow and magic.

Let us rejoice, indeed; Hava Nagila. And Merry Christmas to all.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the December 23, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Holding on to the Magic of Christmas

I wrote this last year for an online publication. Yesterday my older daughter asked me how old I was when Santa stopped bringing me presents. And my son wondered why Santa hadn't emailed the kids' video messages yet. Seems the magic is still alive...

It all started with a loose tooth. Well, maybe that wasn’t the only factor in my efforts to make this Christmas the most magical one yet for my children, but it was the deciding one.

A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter, on the tail end of six years old, had a wiggly tooth. This led to a discussion of the Tooth Fairy, during which my nearly nine-year-old girl said, quite matter-of-factly, “I don’t know about the Tooth Fairy. What does she do with all those teeth, anyway? And the Easter Bunny. Bunnies are wild forest animals. Why would they leave eggs for kids? I think it’s really people. I think the parents do it.”

This came not half an hour after she’d happily been drafting her annual letter to Santa Claus, filled with questions about the well-being of his reindeer and polite requests for items on her wish list. I tried not to panic.

“Please just give me one more year of magic at Christmastime,” I wished silently. “One more year of full-fledged, whole-hearted belief in flying reindeer and a busy North Pole workshop staffed by pointy-eared elves and a jolly, bearded, present-bearing man who eats the cookies we leave out on Christmas Eve.”

I know my children won’t believe forever. And I know that when they stop believing, some of the enduring enchantment of the season will disappear like a poof of smoke in a magic show. So I’m walking that line of building up the magic as much as I can and trying to keep it real enough that they don’t start doubting. Finding that line is tough. If Santa can get around the globe in one night in a flying sleigh that holds presents for all the world’s children and is powered by reindeer—well, what isn’t believable?

I find myself second-guessing many things. If Santa brings one child something slightly different from what she requested, will it be good enough? Are the individualized Portable North Pole videos still plausible to kids who are developing a more mature sense of reasoning? And if they watch those videos too many times, will they notice subtle similarities and differences between each that make them wonder? How am I supposed to answer the question, “Is that the real Santa?” when we go to the town Christmas party? And will the children recognize that Santa is a local high school teacher we often see around town? If I forget to move the Elf, does it mean the magic gig is up?

Ah, yes, the Elf. I was an Elf on the Shelf holdout for a long time. The thought of having to remember and plan one more thing during the frenzied holiday season did not appeal to me in the least. For years, I have resisted the Elf trend. But the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny discussion inspired a panicked Elf purchase. Even as I placed him in his first hiding spot, I wondered if the kids would question the timing of the Elf’s arrival, well past December 1st, when the one at their Grandmother’s house had appeared. Or if they’d think it strange that an Elf showed up even though they hadn’t asked Santa to send one.

“Santa must have read my mind!” my son exclaimed, when the Elf was discovered. The girls jumped excitedly around the living room, eyes fixed on the red-and-white, unblinking, perpetually smiling Elf perched precariously on a stocking holder. “He knew I wanted one even though I didn’t say so in my letter!”

They named him Jingle, and every morning since his magical arrival the children have hurried downstairs, still bleary-eyed, heads pivoting from side to side, looking in the tree, on the mantle, at the dining room shelves, searching until Jingle is gleefully spotted. They have written him letters, drawn him pictures, composed Elf-y haikus for this strange little toy. Jingle, it seems, has injected a bit more magic into this most magical time.

I know my children will still love Christmas even when they learn the truth about Santa (will they think me a great liar then?) and discover that Jingle is moved by the same humans who hide treasure-filled plastic eggs on Easter. But some of the sparkle will be gone then, no matter how twinkly the Christmas tree lights, how glittery the snow outside, how tantalizing the promise of presents.

We fill the holidays with magic that is, supposedly, for the children. But along the way, we grown-ups get swept up in the magic, too. In the memories of our own childhoods, the happy anticipation of a loved one opening a special gift, the comfort of a season of kindness and cookies and gathering with family and friends. As with so many things, it’s the children’s enthusiasm that inspires the level of joy.

I’m holding on to this abundance of Christmas magic for as long as I can. Jingle the Elf is helping, I think. “Mama, I love Jingle,” my littlest one tells me. And all three, daily, say, “I’m so happy we have an Elf.”

On Christmas Eve—our last day with Jingle until next December—we’ll hang our stockings by the fireplace and leave a few cookies on a plate by the tree for Santa. Then, as we do every year, we’ll snuggle up to read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” And my children will drift off to sleep with visions of sugar plums, Santa Claus and flying reindeer dancing through their minds. Like magic.