Thursday, February 7, 2019

Winter Woods Road

Just outside our front door, there’s an obscure labyrinth of paths that leads through the field and into the woods behind our house. These passageways are never so clearly traveled as during the winter months, when markings in the snow reveal the passings-by of critters large and small, human and non-human, often furred but sometimes feathered.

A happy pup on the Woods Road
As often as I can, when there is snow covering the ground, I head into the woods with the dog, who wiggles in full-bodied, happy anticipation of the smells she will sniff and the squirrels she might chase. Usually I travel by ski, but if the snow is deep and untracked, I wear my snowshoes. I may enter the woods from the edge of the road or the front yard, on the path just below our springhouse or at the back corner of the field.

However I get there, my main route is along what we call the Woods Road, a traverse built years ago through the forest by my husband’s grandfather. Because I have traveled this road in all seasons for many years – including when my children were tiny and, therefore, moved at a dawdling pace that allowed for more careful observation – I am familiar with the places where game trails intersect the old road, where the squirrels sometimes stash their winter cache of food, which trees the pileated woodpeckers favor in their search for tasty insects.

During the snowy season, the Woods Road becomes an open canvas, one shared by many travelers. Here and there, other paths enter the road from neighbors’ yards, and for a stretch, the road will be leveled by wide snowshoe treads, or marked for a ways by slender ski tracks. Sometimes I am the first one there after snowfall, leaving a trail for others to follow if they’d like, although the Woods Road is broad enough to accommodate more than one track.

Perhaps it’s because I can see more clearly what’s been sharing the road – if only in space, not time – but it seems there is more condensed travel along this route in winter. I like to think we human woods wanderers are helping the creatures who live in the wilder part of the neighborhood, packing out a trail so they may travel more easily during the hard winter months, finding food, evading would-be predators.

Once, a few winters ago, I was startled by a snowshoe hair who leapt across the trail in front of me. More often, I find the hares’ distinctive footprints hopscotched across the Woods Road. Also there are the split-heart-shaped tracks of deer, as well as prints from foxes (often), bobcats (more rare) and wild turkeys (by the flock).   
 
Game cam snap of resident porcupine
The porcupine trails are easy to spot; the needle-spiked critters seem to feel no need to hide their travels. If the snow is deep, a trough forms through it where the porcupines shuffle from den to
hemlock grove and back. If it is shallow, their pigeon-toed footprints show the way they have gone. They also leave the nipped tips of hemlock boughs along the ground and yellow birch trees with large patches of gnawed bark.

Where the wild ones go on either end of their Woods Road travels, I have little idea. Often, I look for tree hollows that may house barred owls or sleeping raccoons. I wonder where the deer bed down during the short winter days, until they come to our field in search of old, frozen apples. I imagine there are bears denned up somewhere not too far from our home.

The Woods Road leads down from our house to an old bridge over Bowen Brook, where in summer the thirsty dog pauses to drink, and children have been known to dip toes into cool water. From there, the dog and I follow the road around the bend toward the idle sugar house, up through a boggy area only easily passable when it is frozen and hard, and back toward home.

We come to the woods in all seasons, soaking in the quiet there. In spring, we revel in the unfurling of new leaves. In summer, we welcome the coolness of the shade. In autumn we find wonder at the vast colors of the trees. And in winter we look for glimpses of the forest’s secrets revealed along the Woods Road. 

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 February, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Cake

I think it was the unicorn cake that did me in. Or maybe the one fashioned to look something like our cat Feargus. Really, it was most likely the sheer number of celebratory confections I made each year in a short window of time during those preschool and early elementary years. Cupcakes for classmates at school, more cupcakes for parties with friends, cakes for family celebrations.

We barely make it through the winter holidays before we dive headlong into birthday season here. All
five of us – just the McPhauls living under this one roof – have birthdays within the span of 34 days. Add birthdays for a grandmother, an aunt, an uncle, and a cousin – all living locally – within a couple weeks of that timeframe, and it makes for a lot of birthdays. And a lot of cake.

In those early kid birthday years, I carefully crafted pretty cakes. At least as pretty as I could make them. Everything was from scratch. The frosting was piped to perfection. Hours were spent on each creation. This morning-person mama sometimes stayed up far too late to make sure the cakes were ready for the next day – because who has time during the daylight hours to decorate cakes with toddlers running around needing attention all the time?!?

There was the train cake, carefully assembled from an array of specially shaped mini cakes. There was the simpler pond cake – round and blue-frosted with green lily pads and rubber ducky candles. There was a rabbit cake for my bunny-loving girl and a tractor cake for my John Deere-obsessed boy. There were snowman and soccer ball and pink puppy cakes. There were dinosaur cupcakes and butterfly cupcakes and panda bear cupcakes with Junior Mint noses and chocolate chip eyes.

And then there was the unicorn. That cake involved a rocking horse-shaped cake pan, a meticulously frosted ice cream cone horn adhered to the cake with icing and covered in glittery sprinkles, and different-colored strands of frosting comprising the mane and tail. That unicorn was my pièce de résistance, my crowning glory in cake making.

It certainly wouldn’t have won any prizes on Cake Wars, but my four-year-old loved it.

Since that creation, I’ve knocked my cake-making endeavors down several notches. One year we even had a no-cake birthday season. We spent the day of two birthdays (my twins’) in Boston and had gelato for dessert at Quincy Market. We were in Disney World – a whole different sort of chaos – for the littlest’s birthday.

Mostly, though, we just keep the cakes simple.

The birthday kids get to choose the flavor (box mix) and the color of frosting (always homemade) and select a traditional-shaped cake pan. The number of candles lit corresponds to the birthday year. “Happy Birthday” is sung with gusto by people who love them. Their happy faces still glow in the light of those little candles as they make birthday wishes before blowing out the flames.

Simple is still delicious. And with so many of us turning another year older this month, there is always plenty of cake to go around. 

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 25, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Anatomy of a Snow Day

There was little better as a kid during winter than waking up on a snowy day and learning school would be cancelled. Of course, during my school years, that meant rising at the regular early hour and turning the T.V. to the local station to stare at the list of delays and cancellations scrolling up the screen, hoping to see my school there.

If it was, the day unfolded happily in my mind. Extra time in PJs. Reading by the fire. Sledding with friends. Wet mittens, hot cocoa, rosy cheeks.

My kids feel the same sort of snow day joy, although they don’t have to stare at the television to find out if school is off. Now, we receive the message in multiple ways – by text, email, phone call. And a snow day often means a powder day at the mountain, which makes all of us happy.

Here’s what a snow day looks like from this snow-loving mom’s perspective.

4:45 a.m.: Wake up and turn phone on to see if school has been delayed. No text. Lie in the dark, partly trying to go back to sleep, but mostly wondering when the text will come in.

5:16 a.m.: Phone buzzes with two-hour school delay message from superintendent, followed one minute later by house phone ringing with two-hour delay message, then cell phone call with same message.

5:18 a.m.: Check WMUR website to see what other schools are delayed. Notice some have already called a full snow day. Wonder about the likelihood of that happening here.

5:30 a.m.: Give up trying to sleep. Get up, turn coffee maker on, head to office and attempt to meet the day’s deadlines before the kids wake up. Continue to be distracted by the chance that school will be canceled.

6:47 a.m.: Check online snow report for the mountain to see if it’s worth calling a family snow day, despite what school is – or is not – doing. Report not updated. Resume attempts to work.

6:55 a.m.: Check snow report again. No dice. Repeat above attempt to work.

6:56 a.m.: Receive email from school regarding breakfast for students. Assume this is a sign that school will not be cancelled. Feel a little sad.

6:59 a.m.: Bedroom door squeaks as first kid emerges and creeps up to the office to confirm school is delayed. Check snow report again. No dice. Back to work.

7:02 a.m.: Repeat above step with second kid to wake up. Both go downstairs to enjoy the no-rush morning.

7:08 a.m.: Look up from keyboard and notice it’s finally light enough to see outside. It’s dumping. Heart is happy. Seriously dumping. Check snow report again. Still not updated. What the heck?!?

7:13 a.m.: Phone buzzes with text that school is cancelled (and house phone rings, and cell phone rings). Hooray! Feel kind of like a kid. Also, happy that now I don’t have to make the call about a family powder day.

7:14 a.m.: Kid number three emerges from her room and finds me. We celebrate the snow day with a happy hug. Check snow report. Still nothing. Doesn’t matter, I bet we’ll ski.

7:35 a.m.: Give up trying to work – for now. Time to make breakfast, and a plan.

8:45 a.m.: Breakfast done. Dishes done. Ski boots on. Skis in car. Kids in car. Head to the mountain.

9:02 a.m.: Pull into ski area, a few minutes late for first chair.

9:14 a.m.: Slide off chair at the top. Goggles down, hood up. Push down the hill, slide through powder, yee-haw as snow poofs up with each turn, watch the kids weave down the trail, laughing all the way. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. 

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 11, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.