Friday, November 27, 2015

Daddy's Girl

My father turned 80 this week, which has meant celebrating with friends and family, lots of funny stories and old fart jokes, and perusing eight decades of photographs. These snapshots are moments and memories preserved through the years: a curly-haired little boy in knee socks and pressed white shorts, a teenaged hockey player, a collegiate soccer athlete, a young professional dressed neatly in a suit for a formal portrait, a happy-go-lucky 20-something laughing with friends in a convertible, a dapper groom, a fun-loving dad, a beloved grandfather.
Dad and me, circa 1980.

Known as Red, Billy, Uncle Bill, Coach, Mr. M, and Poppy, my father has been many things to many people. To me he is, simply and perfectly, Dad. He is the first man I ever looked up to and the first one I ever loved. He’s been one of my favorite people for all the time I’ve been alive. I am, and have always been, a Daddy’s girl.

Dad has always seemed sort of timeless to me. He’s been a responsible adult for a long time, but he’s also maintained a youthfulness and joie de vivre you don’t always find in responsible adults. He is a teller of stories, an athlete, a funny-face maker, a handyman, an exuberant dancer – the kind of guy everyone loves. He is one of the most patient people I’ve ever known and has both the mischievous humor and sensitivity of an Irishman, the mind of an engineer and the heart of a poet.

My dad grew up in a series of tenements in Springfield, Massachusetts, where his grandparents had settled when they arrived from the old country of County Cork. I doubt life in the city was easy in the years spanning the Great Depression and World War II, but to hear Dad tell it his childhood was nothing but happy. He played stick ball and kick the can and pond hockey with neighborhood kids and once got lost wandering Forest Park, causing his sainted mother a fair amount of angst before the local cop brought little Billy home.

This lost-and-found tale is one of the stories I loved as a kid, one my children have now heard many times. Another favorite is the time Dad and his fraternity brothers in the 1950s were told they needed to class up mealtimes in the dining room. They showed up the next evening in suit jackets and ties – but no pants. Poor Flora, the fraternity cook, got quite a shock.

Dad was the first in his family to graduate college, paying tuition by working his way through the summers for his father, a highway foreman for the city. Those days of wrestling a clattering jackhammer may have contributed to Dad’s less-than-stellar hearing, although this sometimes makes for really funny conversations. Like when my 8-year-old son announced he’d like to be a zoologist, and his Poppy made a funny face and said, “Why would you want to be a urologist?” Once the adults around the table recovered from the ensuing bout of laughter, we had to explain to the children what a urologist does. It is not a career path any of them care to pursue.

During Dad’s career of 30-plus years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he left the house each morning at 5:30 to beat the traffic en route to his office in a Boston suburb, starting his day early so he could be home in time for dinner with the family. He and Mom took my brothers and me skiing and hiking from the time we were babies, and on an epic road trip one summer to explore national parks and cool landmarks from New England to the Rockies. He (and Mom) coached my sports teams when I was a kid. He taught me to play cribbage and tried to help me with my math homework by showing me the “easy” way to figure the answers.

When I went to college, Dad often drove me out to school, six hours away, and he was my copilot when I moved to Colorado after graduation, driving cross-country in an old Bronco II laden with the possessions of a 22-year-old. During these long drives I heard more stories, gleaned bits of sage Dad advice, and realized my father had a full life that preceded his parenthood.

We all inherit something from our parents: the shape of our eyes or color of our hair, interests and life goals, sometimes the way we look at the world. From Dad I have gained a penchant for pancakes and a love of mountains, the habit of singing made up songs about random things and of tapping my fingers on the steering wheel as I drive, a sensitivity that causes my eyes to grow watery at anything mildly emotive, but also a quickness to laugh. His influence is why I endeavor to stay fit and active (even if I don’t listen to the advice he continues to share on the chairlift regarding my ski technique) and why I look for an elephant in the full moon. I have never once seen the illusive elephant, but Dad swears it’s there, so I still look.

As fun-loving as he is, Dad also has a strong sentimental side. The morning of my wedding he was visibly, and adorably, nervous. When my husband and I announced my first pregnancy, Mom literally jumped for joy, while Dad smiled through watery eyes. He tears up at the first note of “Danny Boy.” For 45 years he has written a poem, sweet and sometimes silly, in every birthday, anniversary, and Valentine’s Day card he gives my mother.

When my older daughter was a baby and wanted to always be in motion, Dad spent hours carrying her around the house singing a little ditty he made up just for her. When my youngest was born he sang Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (an Irish-American lullaby) to her, even if she wasn’t fussy.

My kids adore my dad as much as I do. They love his stories and his silliness and the way he sometimes laughs so hard he cries. For this momentous birthday, the kids wrote poems as gifts. One is an acrostic poem of POPPY, ending in “Youthful,” the other a haiku whose middle line is “You can always make me laugh.”

Here’s to laughter and love, family and playfulness, stories shared and memories made, and an everlasting youthfulness. Happy birthday, Dad, from your little girl.
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 November 27, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Separation Anxiety

Last year I bought alarm clocks for my children. The idea was that the clocks, set with a chirping bird alarm tone, would rouse the kids on school days, allowing me to evade the sleepy protests of, “I don’t want to get up yet. It’s too early.” That plan worked, most days. The other days I was calling upstairs to urge children from the covers, or going there myself to nudge them out of cozy beds and into school day routines.

Once upon a time... they all fit on my lap.
This fall, after a summer of lazy mornings, we left the alarm clocks idle and returned to the practice of me waking the kids, opening window shades to the weak morning light, bending down for quick kisses on slumber-drowsy heads. In the frenzied early morning rush, I breathe in the sleepy aura of my children before they fully emerge from their blanketed enclaves and feel my heart twinge a bit at how big they are becoming, how far away from the pillows their feet seem to be now.

How long will they let me do this, I wonder? Tuck them in at nighttime and wake them in the morning with a kiss? How many more years? How many more days?

My son, the tallest of my children, has grown higher than my shoulder. The littlest one is now up to my armpit. Two of my children will turn 9 years old in a couple of months, reaching that half-way point to 18, when they will likely fly the coop of home. I am becoming acutely aware that this magical time of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and easy innocent beliefs will not, actually, last forever. I find myself lately clinging for dear life to the fading smallness of my children.

They are at a point now where they are apart from me more than they’re with me. They are at school or with friends, exploring on their own or together, or simply holed up in their rooms with a good book and a hearty dose of imagination. They do not need to know, as they once did, where I am at all times. More and more, the stories they tell are accounts I am hearing for the first time, not things we have experienced together. I am thankful they still share these what-happened-today tales with me.

I remember, not so long ago, feeling a vague sense of relief as the children reached early milestones. When they first slept through the night. When they were potty trained and we, finally, no longer needed to order diapers by the case. When they figured out how to make their own toast in the morning or slap peanut butter and jelly between two slices of bread and call it lunch. When they could ski on their own, without me holding them, and ride their bikes without training wheels. When they learned to communicate in words spoken and write notes in perfectly imperfect child’s handwriting and read words from a page all on their own.

Those were all liberating – for me and for the children. That is, after all, a main objective of parenting: to encourage independence in thought and action and to help children, gradually, achieve their ownness – their own voice, own path, own happiness. Even as my heart aches at how much and how quickly my children are growing, it fills, too, as they continue to discover and embrace their own personas, always reaching toward the next milestone.

The truth is that at some point my children’s paths and their happiness will be far less wrapped up in mine. Someday, if I do this right (and probably even if I don’t), my children will go out into the world without me. They will, essentially, no longer need me. But for now, they still do, even if it is not as complete a need as it used to be.

We have progressed through many changes, including bedtime routines. First there was rocking to sleep with the nighttime feeding. Then reading bedtime stories with three children nestled, somehow, together on my lap. For a while the children wanted lullabies and happy things to think about and exactly five Mama kisses before they drifted off to sleep. The littlest one still requires a spider check before she is tucked in, to ensure there are no creepy-crawlies lurking in the corners of her bedroom, and she often requests extra hugs and kisses and invents reasons to prolong the tucking-in process.

Most evenings, we all still read together, although the children sit around me now; they are too big to occupy my lap anymore. Then off they go to their own rooms and their own books to read. The older two are often so engrossed in whatever they’re reading that they are reluctant to pause for a bedtime hug. But I sneak in there anyway, maneuvering between child and book, pilfering all the hugs I can, for as long as they’ll let me do it. 

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 November 13, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Dance of the Seasons

A mid-October snow storm laid a thick layer of white across the Presidentials and left Lafayette rimmed in frost while I was away last weekend. What little snow fell in the yard was gone by the time I returned home Sunday afternoon, receding in sunshine barely warm enough to nudge the temps above freezing.

Sunday’s snowy painting of the peaks was the third time this fall they’ve turned white. It’s likely the snow there will fade again, at least for a while, before it settles in for the long months of winter. This is the dance between the seasons: Winter takes one step forward, then two steps back as Fall makes another pirouette. I find myself caught up in the dance, back in that familiar place between eager anticipation of Winter and a wistfulness for fading Fall.

I drove north Sunday along the back roads of Vermont and New Hampshire through a golden shower of wind-born birch and sugar maple leaves, which rose up from the road as I passed and swirled around the truck before falling again, tumbling along the pavement in the wake of my passage, then settling to await the next car and take flight once more.

Most of the leaves have fallen now, although there’s one big sugar maple between my desk and the mountains still clinging to its yellow foliage, and the oaks and beech trees will hold their russet leaves a little longer. Once the leaves have gone completely and left the trees irregular skeletons of trunk, branches, tapering twigs, I am ready for snow. There seems little point to me in cold, leafless days without snow, and am anxious for Fall to give in, finally and completely, to Winter.

Still, there are things left to do as the seasons twirl around each other. We accomplish the work of shifting seasons in fits and starts – clearing the garden of its withered remains, stacking firewood, pulling hats and mittens and warmer coats from the closet only when we finally need them – moving more frantically when the weather turns toward Winter, and unhurriedly on those still-warm, brighter days.

Last week, between the fall’s second whitening of the peaks and the weekend’s snow, I made a pre-winter outing to the top of Mount Lafayette. The last time I made that hike, I think, was during high school, and I’d been wanting to get back to the summit for several years. Thursday was too good a day, too late in the season, to pass it up.

The summit showed white as I drove toward the trailhead, and the temperature hovered right around freezing as I set out, but the upward trek soon warmed me. As I climbed above treeline, a stiff wind with mingled with the October sunshine, the chill of one cutting into the warmth of the other. The white I’d seen from below turned out to be only rime ice, clinging in stubborn, frosty feathers to the high alpine vegetation and boulders, but already melting from the sunny side.

From the summit, bundled up in winter gear, I could see pockets of fall color lingering in the valley. By the time I returned to the relative warmth of the valley floor and looked back toward the summit, the white had receded from the peaks of the Franconia Range. One step forward, two steps back. At least until Winter finds its beat and dances on past Fall.

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 October 23, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.