Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Community Strength

On a hot, sunny, beautiful day last week, the kids and I met friends in the early morning at a trailhead. Sunscreen and bug dope applied and backpacks strapped over shoulders, we headed into the woods, following a trail that meandered upwards to the summit of one of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers. It would have been the 24th 4,000-footer – the halfway point – for three of the five kids in our posse.
A hike and perspective from another day

We didn’t make it to the top.
 
A bit more than three miles into the White Mountain National Forest, we ran into an emergency on the trail. It wasn’t our emergency, and, so, much of the story is not mine to tell. The day took a turn none of us anticipated, nor would have chosen. As with many things, however, there was a positive take away – for me, it was the coming together of both strangers and familiar faces in a tough moment, and a reminder of the strength of community.

The short story, the part that belongs at least partly to me, is that this was the kind of emergency that included a call to 9-1-1, the administration of first aid none of us had ever had to do before, and a long wait for the search and rescue crew to arrive and take over. There was not a happy ending.

The friends I was hiking with are good ones. We’ve seen each other cry through terrible days, and we’ve laughed together countless times. We’ve vented about a vast array of annoyances, shared parenting advice, and watched as our kids have grown up together. But we’d never been thrown into a situation of literal life and death before this. I’m thankful we were there together – and that if I have to have this story as part of my history, it’s one I share with them.

There were others there with us, too. A solo hiker just behind us jumped in to help. His name is Ryan, and he spent a few harrowing hours with us, with no complaints and with as much good humor as any of us could muster. Two other groups – a trio of college students and a pair of young women – also stopped. Through it all, the 9-1-1 dispatcher was calm and encouraging.

Because we were hiking close to home, we know many of the members of the Pemi Valley Search and Rescue Team who dropped whatever they were doing when the call for help came and rushed toward the trail. We also knew it would take them close to two hours to reach us, no matter how fast they hiked.

One member of PVSART, who also happens to be our children’s elementary school principal, called to talk with me twice en route to the scene, to get information and give support. Another friend and PVSART member unable to respond that day also checked in by phone. When, already exhausted and emotionally drained, I said I wasn’t sure what we should do, she told me, “You just have to do what you think is right.” Clear enough advice for pretty much any situation, and exactly what I needed to hear at that moment.

Although I was not the one who needed rescuing that day, I’ve never been so thankful for the local search and rescue crew. These folks have a strong sense of doing what is right. They do not stumble across emergency situations, as we had, and react. Instead, they dedicate hours of training and effort to the volunteer work of coming to the rescue.

After the trained professionals – and the trained volunteers – arrived, the three of us headed back down the trail. It was a slow descent. Sometimes we talked about what we’d just seen and done, often we were quiet in our own processing of thoughts, occasionally one of us would steer the conversation toward something unrelated, something more cheerful, normal.

As we hiked out, we saw more bright yellow-shirted PVSART members hiking in, some familiar, others unknown. I’ve read a hundred stories about mountain rescue operations, even written a few. But seeing them in real time, sweating through a hot day and moving as quickly as they could to reach a stranger in need of help, was a welcome comfort amid a difficult day.

And then we were down, our statement written out for the Fish and Game officer at the trailhead we’d left hours ago, free to go. We each climbed into our individual cars and drove the short distance homeward solo. But we weren’t quite ready to let each other go. So we gathered the kids and spent another couple of hours together in my friends’ yard. The kids ate ice cream, then ran around chasing chickens and swinging and being kids. The grownups sat with adult beverages and rehashed the day again, from all perspectives, trying to sort it all out.

The principal came to sit with us awhile, to make sure we were ok, the kids were ok. Our phones buzzed with others checking in. It is a small community, after all, and word travels fast. A small community, but a strong one. A good one. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's June 26, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A Gardening Spring

One silver lining of the Spring of 2020 for my family has been the rediscovery of weekends at home. Normally, we’d have shifted gears straight from ski season into spring soccer season. This year, our ski season ended abruptly, like so many other things, in mid-March, and COVID-19 erased soccer season outright. This spring, our family time has shifted to the gardens.

When my husband (before he was my husband) and I moved into this house nearly 16 years ago, there was a large garden out front: a mishmash of perennials, varied and sprawling ground cover, and a few veggies growing in the midst of the flowers. Behind the garden was a wild rugosa hedge, a fragrant section of which continues to thrive in unordered beauty along the curved edge of our driveway. Beyond the rugosa was a field.

The spring after this became home, we dug out most of the rose hedge, turned the field into a lawn to hold the tent for our wedding reception, and redesigned much of the perennial garden out front. For several years after that, we managed to hold the weeds at bay, adding mulch to help in the fight every couple of years. But the weeds, as weeds are wont to do, gradually took over.

As the kids grew, so did our weekend (and weekday, after school, after work) obligations. Last spring, I barely got around to planting the vegetable gardens. One end of the big garden, left completely untended, grew the best crop of weeds I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, the perennial bed took on a decidedly jungle-like persona.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is rip something bare and rebuild from the roots up. This spring, we found ourselves with the time to start over. Instead of lacing up soccer cleats on weekend days, the kids grabbed shovels and rakes. Like kids everywhere, mine are not always thrilled to be tasked with chores, but this project – for whatever reason – they got behind.

We spent a few weeks, little by little, uprooting the perennials worth keeping. Some we stashed at the edge of the yard to replant in the revamped – and much smaller – garden. Others we gave away to friends, neighbors, and family members. The rest – the ones so infiltrated by weeds they seemed a lost cause – were hauled to the edge of the woods, where they’re now growing in a heaping hodgepodge.

The littlest among us proved to be the best shovel jumper, using mighty leaps to split sprawling perennials into moveable size. My son climbed into the role of tractor operator, maneuvering between garden wall and granite posts to gather and discard loads of muddy root balls and rocks, and later to drop piles of loam for spreading. My older daughter rescued a piece of baptisia – banned from the restored garden for its propensity to spread by way of thick, snaking roots – and rehomed it to the edge of the yard, where its purple blooms seem happy enough.

Together, the five of us dug and shoveled and raked. Once everything was out, we started reassembling the pieces we wanted to keep. Into the newly weed-less dirt we planted astilbes and day lilies, hostas and lady’s mantle, black-eyed Susan and flag iris and moonbeam coreopsis. We spread grass seed and straw mulch onto the unplanted area.

Our gardening efforts have not been restricted to flowers. The veggie beds, too, have had a small overhaul. On Memorial Day, when we would normally be at a soccer tournament far from home, the kids helped my dad fashion two long raised beds, upcycling the thick boards from our old, homemade swing set, which we took down years ago. These are placed into the big garden out back and have since been planted with carrots and beans, tomatoes, lettuce, and some zinnia seeds for good measure. Elsewhere, zucchini and cucumbers, peas and beets, celery, and a variety of peppers – from sweet to spicy – are tucked into the soil.

Planting vegetables when the memory of winter is still fresh always feels like hope to me – hope that the last bits of snow will melt and the days will grow warm again, hope that tiny seeds will transform into green stalks, and that the future will hold a plethora of colors and flavors.

As nice as it’s been this spring to turn our efforts to the gardens, to have time to sow seeds and consider the placement of perennials, there’s a different sense of hope now. Hope that next year, we’ll have a little less time for gardening – because we’ll be back to busy weekends – but that we’ll remember to slow down, pull a few weeds, plant a few seeds, and stop to smell the blooms of the old rosa rugosa.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's June 12, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

So long, (remote) school

Despite the likely prospect of a summer devoid of beach trips, overnight hiking adventures, and the annual visits with cousins, my kids have never so eagerly anticipated the end of the school year. Sure, EVERY spring there is a sense of celebration and anticipation. No more pencils, no more (Chrome)books, and all that jazz. Hot days of sleeping in and endless freedom stretching to time’s horizon.

Dreaming of summer sunsets and getting to the beach
But my kids like school. They like their teachers. They like learning new things. They like hanging out with their friends at lunch time and recess. What they – very vocally and consistently – do NOT like is remote learning.

Before I go on, let me be clear that my children’s teachers have been fabulous through this whole remote school experiment. If I had to guess, I’d say the teachers like remote teaching as little as my children like remote learning. Nobody – at least nobody I know – wanted school to look like this for the last several weeks of the school year. 

Normally, this month is chockful of end-of-the-year events – field trips and projects, concerts and celebrations. Normally, when I look at the calendar in May, I have to deep breathe my way through an anxiety attack – so many places to be in so short a time. This year, though, I am glad I wrote everything on our family calendar in pencil, because most of it has been erased.

The last day of school, formerly scheduled for the middle of June, has been moved up two and a half weeks to May 29. To add that new date to the calendar, I had to erase the previously scheduled event of that day: the annual 5th and 6th grade field trip to Boston. This is one of the most highly and happily anticipated days of the year for kids in those classes, including my own 5th grader. It’s a day in the nearest big city, with lessons in history and science (and how to cross several lanes of traffic safely), topped off by dinner at Quincy Market.

This year it’s one of many spring traditions my kids – and all the others – have had to give up and get over. I can hardly fathom how disappointed this year’s 6th graders are to be missing out on so many of the rite-of-passage events they’ve anticipated since they were wee kindergarteners. And I feel an extra big pang of disappointment for this year’s seniors, who, of course, are missing out on a whole lot of pomp and circumstance – and facing, like all of us, plenty of uncertainty in whatever comes next.

In our home, rather than giddy excitement over a summer of plans – quality cousin time, a week at the Cape, camping and hiking and paddling with friends, soccer camp and dips in the pool – there’s instead a reserved relief at nearing completion of a necessary task. So long, remote learning. Here’s hoping that after whatever this summer holds, fall’s return to school is up close and in person.   

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's May 7, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.