Friday, September 12, 2014

Wood Work

A brief, but wild, storm tore two large branches from the main trunk of an old red maple in our front yard last weekend. The dismantled maple is one of three in a row along one border of our yard, offering shade in summer, beautiful color in fall, and a host of perches for the birds that flit through the fields year round. The tree is lopsided now, leaning away from the woods and toward the mountains, and since it’s in the middle of the group, that whole edge of the yard seems out of balance.

Regardless, the downed tree left us with a job to do, and Sunday morning was devoted to cutting, splitting, and hauling the wreckage away. While my husband used the chainsaw to cut log lengths from the large limbs, the kids and I filled the garden cart and lugged heavy loads of logs to the firewood pile.

It was a good day to be outside working: one of those perfect late-summer days that starts out crisp and warms to just right, puffy white clouds dotting a cerulean sky. As we worked, the neighborhood hawks screeched overhead wheeling on the breeze, and grasshoppers leapt out of our way at nearly every step. The kids grew bored soon enough and wandered off to play, but I reveled in a short morning of manual labor in the sunshine.

Funny how things change over time. When I was girl, about the same age my oldest children are now, I would disappear up the road to a friend’s house at the first sign that firewood work was coming. I dreaded the long hours of splitting and moving wood, the droning of the diesel-powered wood splitter, chucking the split logs down the plywood chute to the basement, stacking them into long rows there to await the persistent cold of winter, when the work would be mostly forgotten and we’d welcome the warmth provided by the wood.

We don’t heat primarily with wood now (although every time I get an oil bill, I wonder if we should), so have no need to stack cords of wood each year, which is probably why I enjoy small doses of firewood work. On Sunday, as my husband revved up the tractor to drag the remaining scraggly branch ends to the burn pile in the back field, I eagerly hauled the splitting maul and wedges out of the garage and set to work hacking the thickest logs into smaller pieces to burn in the fireplace some fall or winter day, when the morning chill lingers for months rather than hours.

There’s something satisfying in the thwack of the maul as it finds its solid target, the crackle of wood as a log starts to split, the agreeably aching muscles that come with working outside. I thought I’d get through a few logs and leave the rest for another day, but the splitting was a nice combination of work, exercise, and rumination. Heft, swing, slice. Thud, crackle, split. There were only a dozen or so logs to split, and once I found the rhythm, I wanted to finish the job.

In the ten years that we’ve lived in this house our woodpile has maintained a relatively healthy level, replenished occasionally with birch logs and apple wood from trees that have fallen in our fields and along wooded edges. Sunday we added maple to one end of the wood pile. The firewood we split and stack as it becomes available is used, eventually, in our fireplace.

It’s a good fireplace and throws a lot of heat into our living room, rather than sucking the warmth out of the house and up the chimney as some fireplaces do. On long winter days, when we’ve been outside in the biting cold, there’s little more welcoming than coming in to a blaze in the fireplace, gathering in its warm glow, where fingers and toes thaw and snow-wet mittens and hats are spread on the hearth to sizzle and dry.

It was an odd juxtaposition to be thinking of winter’s chill in the healthy warmth of an early September day. With the logs split and stacked, I headed inside to make lunch and plan an afternoon of more playful activities with the kids. My back was sore, my arms tired, and my hands stiff from gripping the maul. But the wood pile looked well stocked again. The front yard was cleared of branch rubble, the leaves of the remaining hunk of maple already dappled with red. And there was plenty of that perfect late-summer day left to enjoy.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the September 12, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sorting Memories

Over the past few months, I have been picking away at the colossal project of organizing my office. As I’ve taken to working on my laptop in more convenient (and less messy) locations, this third-floor room has lately become a dumping ground for various stuff. Old camping gear and mismatched picture frames were chucked haphazardly into one of the small closets. Files and writing clips and photographs for unassembled albums were stacked in every corner. To hide the clutter, I would simple close the door and pretend it didn’t exist.

But this summer I have finally taken it on. I’ve cleaned out many years’ worth of junk from the closets. I’ve sorted my children’s art work and other keepsakes neatly by year into individual storage containers. I’ve recycled hundreds of gift boxes, which I’m not sure why I saved in the first place, since I’m a lazy present wrapper who generally skips the box and goes straight for the paper.

Amid the muddled mess were several boxes of personal items returned to me when my parents moved into a smaller house. For four years, these have been sitting in a disheveled heap in the corner of the office farthest from my desk. Occasionally I’ve peaked into a box to find an old journal or photograph. Inevitably, I’d end up sitting on the floor, flipping pages and digging through memories until one of the kids called for me or I remembered there was something on the stove or an appointment to keep.

The boxes contained my high school and college diplomas, VHS tapes of school performances, college reports, old ski passes, and faded sepia photographs of my great-grandparents (which will someday be hung in the hallway, if I ever get around to painting it). Some of these relics from the past have been easily sorted into the throw away pile, others reorganized and packed away more neatly.

Then there are the letters.

Over the past several days I have sorted through thousands of letters filed into shoeboxes and Christmas cards bundled by brittle rubber bands. The correspondence stretches back a bit longer than 20 years – before e-mail, certainly before abbreviated text messages. Some of the letters came from friends, a few from people I don’t now remember, and many from my parents, who were loyal correspondents of the news from home during the decade I spent elsewhere.

There are graduation cards and wedding cards, 20 years of Christmas greetings and birthday wishes, dozens of congratulatory notes from when my children were born, thank yous from kids I coached or people whose stories I shared in newspaper articles. The majority of these letters and notes have found their way to the recycling bin. But before I toss them away, I’m reading each one, gaining glimpses into different periods of my life, difficult to recall as I make my way through the now.

The biggest collection of letters arrived in my college mailbox during my first year away from home. These letters from my childhood friends are filled with all the insecurities and anxiety of being away from home – and from each other – for the first time in our lives. Amid hastily scrawled lines of uncertainty are stories from college, of classes and parties, new classmates and potential romances.

Most of the news contained within these letters is irrelevant now, more than two decades later. But I have enjoyed reading them, trying to remember the girl I was then – one who had great friends, was crazy about soccer, and had some kind of cow fetish. (So many soccer books and magazines. So many cards featuring cows!) One hockey-crazed friend wrote the names of Boston Bruins players in the return address instead of his own. Another sent me 15 handmade birthday cards one year. Many called me by nicknames I’d long ago forgotten.

As we all grew more comfortable in our worlds away from home, the letters evolved from college angst to news of new friends, anticipation of graduation, then the beyond-college adventures of 20-somethings moving to cities or out west, tackling grad school or med school or new jobs.

By then, e-mail was becoming prevalent, and long letters became increasingly rare. (One exception was the blue air mail envelopes containing pages-long letters filled with the left-handed-slanting scrawl of my former soccer coach in England and all the news of what was happening across the ocean, along with newspaper clippings with the scores and standings of English soccer leagues.) But occasional brief notes and stacks of Christmas cards each December still arrived in the mailbox. Eventually the notes and cards contained word of impending weddings, professional achievements, the arrival of children.

In my parents’ letters, their excitement and joy at my accomplishments and adventures is practically palpable, as is their shared disappointment and worry during challenging or indecisive times. My mother caught me up on what my brothers were doing, which friends of mine she’d run into recently around town, and other day-to-day happenings. My dad’s letters are a bit shorter and generally a little goofy. These contained soccer advice, notes on my finances, and reminders to get the oil changed in the truck.

I’m nearly through the boxes now. The journals will be filed by date and tucked into one of the cleaned-out closets along with a few photographs I’ll save. The school reports have, for the most part, been discarded. Most of the letters that filled three good-sized boxes have been recycled, and those saved now fit into one much smaller box.

Sorting through so many memories has made me feel a bit older, sometimes melancholy, often contently nostalgic, and relatively stationary. For a decade after leaving the only town I’d ever called home, I moved – beyond the region, across the country, abroad. The items contained in those boxes documented each new phase: the college freshman thrilled at making the soccer team, the graduate heading to the mountains of Colorado, the traveler moving to the west of Ireland, and – eventually – the New England girl coming home, getting married, starting a family.

Now, I’ve lived in the same house for nearly 10 years – longer than I’ve lived anywhere other than my childhood home. My parents are around the corner. New friends have come into my life and others faded away, although I’m still in touch with many of those who wrote me letters a long time ago, before we turned to shorter e-mail messages, fleeting texts, and notes passed through Facebook.  

I’m not sure what compelled me to save all those cards and letters, or why I am content now to let most of them go. Perhaps I was afraid of losing track of where I’d been or who I was. Probably it was just easier to move the boxes than to unpack them. Either way, it’s been good to sort through the memories while cleaning house – to hold on and let go all at once.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. A version of this essay also appears in the August 22, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Picking Berries

"Can I eat them all?” my 5-year-old asked, staring at a large bowl of wild blueberries we’d plucked from low bushes along the side of a local road. When it comes to berries, this little girl is insatiable, and I
can’t blame her. After all, wild berries picked fresh from the vine or the bush are one of the great joys of summer.

Over the past few years, my family has a built a respectable list of secret and not-so-secret berry stashes: a thick patch of blueberries hidden amid the tangled brush of the southeast field, swaths of thorny blackberry bushes growing through the old apple orchard, and clusters of wild raspberries woven along the tumbledown, fern-ensconced stone wall at the far edge of the front yard.

If one berry spot is lacking, we move on hopefully to the next – the roadside pick where we found the blueberries my youngest was ready to devour last week, or the patch of raspberry bushes at the corner of our road, or the blackberry brambles at the edge of the woods in the front field. So far, our best crop this summer has been the raspberries growing through the thick hedge of rosa rugosa along the curve of our driveway.

“Berries!” called the littlest one (again) as we drove out one morning. I brushed off her claim at first, figuring she must have seen the rusty swell of rosehips within the prickly foliage. But she was persistent (as she often is), so I threw the minivan into reverse to check it out. Sure enough, the first pinky-red raspberries of the summer hung there amid the thorny rosebushes like tiny treasures. I picked the few I could reach and divvied them up between us.

That was weeks ago, and my daughter continues to visit that spot several times each day, reaching through the double thorns of  rose bushes and raspberry canes for each sweet prize, and beseeching the taller members of the family to pluck the berries that hang tantalizingly just beyond her reach.

I spent many a girlhood afternoon myself, once upon a time, scrambling through brambles to reach the berries that grew along the road near home. The scratches along bare arms and legs were a small price for the simple pleasure of wild berries eaten on the spot or saved for breakfast the next morning.

During college, I spent a summer in Ireland, studying history and literature and traveling around. While musing and wandering one day along a quiet lane just outside the village that had been home to my great-grandparents, I made the happy discovery of big, juicy blackberries growing in the roadside hedge. Their sun-warmed sweetness and the casual waves of passing strangers reminded me of home.

This summer, too, we have managed to find wild berries in our travels. During a visit with friends in Maine, we picked our way through some of that state’s famous wild blueberry bushes, located conveniently off the back porch. What the littlest one did not eat by the handful, we saved for breakfast the next morning. On our annual trek to Cape Cod, we discovered a small patch of blackberries just down the road from where we were staying. My children exclaimed at the find and spent 10 happy minutes plucking a colander full of plump berries, enough to last the week.

Closer to home, my children and husband and I keep watch on the berries each summer, looking first for the blossoms, then the bumpy green of unripe berries, and finally the succulence of the tiny, tasty treasures we’ve waited for. Then we set to picking.

While the kids prefer to grab blackberries and raspberries on the fly, before moving on to one of summer’s other distractions, my favorite to pick are the blueberries, tiny and low to the ground – and thornless. It is something like meditative therapy to crouch down in a quiet field and mindlessly plop small berries into a pail until it is full.

Each summer we bake our cache of wild berries into crumbles and muffins, blend them into smoothies, condense them into jam, pour them over pancakes, and package the leftovers neatly into the freezer for later. By far the best way to eat a wild berry, though, is fresh off the bush or the vine, juicy with sunshine, brimming with the sweetness of summer and good memories of past berry picking adventures.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears in the August 8, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.