Friday, April 24, 2015

Sibling Story Time

A beautiful sound stopped me in my tiptoed tracks as I crept down the hallway early Sunday morning. It was the voice of my older daughter reading to her brother and sister from the depths of her bedroom. There was no sibling squabbling, no maniacal laughter of wild children bouncing around, no pleas for me to make breakfast. They didn’t even know I was there, listening at the door, as they sat reading together, still snuggled up in jammies.

Most days, I am the first one awake in our household. This has been the case nearly since the children were born, when I began to cherish each peaceful moment I could sneak into the increasingly chaotic and unpredictable life of being Mom. The first hour after my alarm goes off – when it is just me, a cup of coffee, and my work – is often my most productive and focused time of the day.

On weekends, though, I often stay in bed until the children find me. (This is generally somewhere between the crack of dawn and when most people without kids arise. But probably closer to the crack of dawn.) Despite repeated past experience, I continue to think that I will enjoy a quiet cup of coffee and some reading with three children milling about in close proximity. Normally I am half reading while also answering endless questions about seemingly unrelated and irrelevant things.

Last Saturday morning, though, there was a breakthrough. It was so astounding, so peacefully unprompted, that I tried not to dwell on it, lest it all dissolved into noise and madness, which is normally what happens when I take note of these harmonious moments. Two of my children reclined on opposite ends of the same couch, quietly reading books they’d brought home from school. The littlest one sat at the table in the big window, contentedly drawing with her well-used crayons.  

I sipped my coffee and read a magazine undisturbed. Surely this is a fluke, I thought. Then came Sunday morning’s story hour, and a repeat performance Monday (the first day of school vacation), then Tuesday, then Wednesday. And I dared to dream this is the new morning normal.

Just because the children begin the day reading together does not, of course, mean our house is a peaceful oasis of constant accord. These days that start with sibling story time still include arguments about toys and drama surrounding who will sit where and complaints about how unfair the rules are. But there’s a different tone to a day that starts off with quiet togetherness, and this emerging routine has been a happy surprise.

There have been shelves full of books in our house since before there were children here, and we are constantly adding to the kids’ book collection and weeding out no-longer-needed stories to make room for newer models. Board books have given way to picture books with more words, and these are gradually evolving to books with chapters and very few images. We have always read together, but increasingly the children are reading on their own, to themselves and each other.

They read tales about fairies and goblins, time travel to mystical lands, the adventures of orphaned children and dragons and rescued dogs. They pore over nonfiction books, soaking up new information and relishing true stories of animal heroes and people who lived in other times and places.

Many nights, well after I’ve tucked the children in, I’ve had to remind them to turn off the reading lights and go to sleep. Even the littlest one, who is still learning to sound out words and would rather be read to than read alone, looks through a book each night after she is kissed goodnight.

One night, a few months ago, my husband and I heard the muffled voices of the older children well past bedtime, broken every few minutes by the thump of something hitting their bedroom floor. Turns out they were taking turns reading to each other. One would finish a chapter and chuck the book across the room to the other, who would repeat the process.

Sometimes now when I ask for help completing a chore the response is a distracted, “Just a minute, Mom. I’m really into my book.” I’m not sure if this is a book-loving mother’s dream-come-true or the cunning of her children, who know reading is one of the few excuses that will buy a bit of time before doing chores or an extra few minutes with the light on after bedtime.

I know how it is to be sucked into a book, into a different time and place with characters who are both foreign and familiar, into a story so good it’s all-encompassing. I have been known to read while I am cooking dinner or brushing my teeth, and definitely well past my own bedtime. If I have an important project or big assignment due, I will often wait to start a new book for fear that I will become so engrossed in the story I’ll be too distracted to concentrate on work.

I understand that it is hard, sometimes, to put down the story and return to the world beyond the book cover. So I will often allow the children time to finish the page or the chapter, to languish in the story of the day a few minutes more before chores or dinner or bed. And this new morning ritual of sibling story time is fine by me, however long it lasts. Breakfast can wait.

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 April 24, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Winter's Slow Fade

The first robin of spring arrived in our yard this week. We noticed it Monday afternoon as we sat at the window watching snow sift steadily from the sky. The robin’s characteristic rusty red breast stood out in stark contrast to the whiteness enveloping the bird’s perch in our highbush cranberry, near the perennial garden. It will be a while, still, until that garden completely melts out, transforming from pristine white to sloppy, boot-sucking mud and small greening stems, and finally to a vibrant tangle of summer blooms.

Winter’s in a slow fade this year. It’s been a little bit one step forward, two steps back in the dance from one season to the next. But the considerable accumulation of our very cold and snowy winter is melting away, albeit gradually. It seems we’re about to turn the corner, really and truly, to spring.

The fields around our house, which are mostly south-facing, have melted down to a thick crust, covered with the occasional dusting of new spring snow. The driveway is now more mud than ice. Each day it seems something new emerges from the snow. Stone walls forgotten beneath a thick layer of white reappear along field edges. Tree stumps in the yard and boulders in the field we haven’t seen in months rise from the receding snow, causing many second glances in the dim light and foggy awareness of early morning – is that a bear or a big rock, a turkey or an old stump?

The snow fort at one end of the driveway, where the plow created colossal walls through winter, where snow benches and snow caves and curving sled runs were built, is diminished now to a mere hardened snowbank with an icy tunnel through the middle. Sandbox toys overlooked in our fall cleanup reappear, surfacing where they were dropped a season ago.

Other, not so pleasant, things emerge from the snow, too. A winter’s worth of dog droppings along the border of the yard. Tree limbs of various sizes, blown down during wind storms, which we’ll drag someday to the ever-growing brush pile out back. Roadside trash, which will fill many bags in the coming weeks.

We live along a road that cuts through to the local recycling center – a.k.a. The Dump – and items often blow from the beds of dump-bound pickup trucks to settle into the ditches and vegetation along our road. Each spring, as the snow recedes, we begin to pack plastic bags into pockets as we head out for walks and bike rides. Usually we fill these bags before we make it halfway to where we’re going, collecting beer bottles and soda cans, plastic lighters and crushed paper cups, a winter’s worth of debris scattered through the neighborhood.

As winter’s slow fade continues, as the litter and debris of both humans and nature is cleared away, new things – welcome things – emerge in their wake. Fiddleheads will soon unfurl along the roadsides. Slate-colored juncos and song sparrows have joined the ever-present chickadees at the spot where, until recently, the bird feeder hung. As those birds look for seeds dropped into the melting snow, the robins wait for worms to wiggle from thawing ground.

Just outside the picture window, where we noticed spring’s first robin, the snow has melted completely away from the house. There are daffodil and crocus bulbs planted there, and we watch to see if they have survived a winter of hungry rodents, if they will emerge from winter’s slow fade as another harbinger of spring, adding color to the changing landscape as the robin’s red breast did this week.

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 April 10, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Playing Games

The other day I walked into the living room to find my three children embroiled in an intense game of Uno. The scene reminded me of a line from an Anna Quindlen essay, where she muses that perhaps she’d had three children so that she wouldn’t have to play board games and could instead pursue some other diversion, like curling up quietly with a good book, while the kids entertained themselves.

Learning to entertain themselves – and each other – is a skill I’ve long encouraged in my children. I may not be sitting down with a great novel while they’re playing games, but it allows me some time and quiet to tend to other tasks (like finishing this column). There are other lessons to be learned from playing games, not least of which is how to win – and lose – gracefully. There’s also patience, thinking ahead, math skills, paying attention, and keeping your cards (literal and figurative) close when necessary.

The first game beyond Candy Land (ugh) and Memory we tackled was Clue. That was my husband’s idea, and I figured the kids would quickly lose interest amid the vague and sometimes conflicting evidence of “who done it.” But my husband often presents the kids with challenges (and, sometimes, responsibilities) I’m not sure they’re ready for, and they usually handle these just fine. Playing Clue was no exception, and they soon grasped the game’s complexities. He also introduced the kids to Monopoly, a game, like Candy Land, for which I have little tolerance, although perhaps that’s just a reflection of my aversion to shopping and economics.

The kids have also picked up Old Maid and Dominos and this winter discovered Rack-O, another oldie-but-goodie my mother pulled out of some closet where she keeps relics from my childhood and hers – books and dolls and Matchbox cars and my brothers’ old Legos – unearthing them at  appropriate times.

Over the weekend, my husband taught our older two children to play cribbage, a game full of math and strategy and second chances. It also happens to be my own favorite game. My father taught me the intricacies of cribbage when I was about the same age my children are now. Before long, we were playing the cutthroat version, where if your opponent misses a point and you catch it, it’s yours for the taking.

Back then we came north from our Massachusetts home for ski weekends and summer vacations. Here, there was no television – or, at least, only two very fuzzy channels. So we often passed the evenings playing games. Cribbage, Sorry!, Yahtzee. If friends were over, we’d bring out the Pictionary board or a game of real and pretend words called Balderdash, which always ended in gasping-for-breath fits of laughter from both the kids and grown-ups gathered around the table.

The game playing in our house has not reached quite that level of silliness, yet, nor is it always harmonious. There is sometimes squabbling over whose turn it is and occasional accusations over someone breaking the rules or peeking at opponents’ cards. If one child settles into a winning streak, the others are likely to become frustrated. Sometimes a bad hand is chucked across the table and the game abruptly ended. But they’re learning, with practice, to celebrate a win, then move on. To regroup after a loss and try again.

Each of my children seems to favor a different game. The littlest one is especially taken with Uno, which involves tactical thinking, but no math or reading. She’s ruthless in her play, impishly laying down plus-2 and plus-4 cards, letting out an exultant “Yyeeessss!” with each victory and a mild “Hmph” at a loss. My son thrives in the long game and careful rumination of Clue and Monopoly. My older daughter enjoys the challenge of figuring out which combination of cards to keep and which to throw into the “kitty” in cribbage.

All of them giggle gleefully when they have a good hand or draw a valuable card. They give too much away with giddy grins and disappointed frowns. I guess, with all the lessons being learned while playing games, we still need to work on the importance of a poker face.

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 March 27, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.