Friday, October 24, 2014

Motherly Musings

The other day, in a moment of motherly musing, I was remembering how my son used to call me from another room or a different part of the yard when he would realize I was out of his sight. “Mama?” he’d say, the slightest twinge of anxiety edging his voice. When I’d answer, he always gave the sweetest response: “I love you.”

He was just making sure, in all those queries, that I was nearby, and I figured the “I love you” was the fa├žade of a growing-up boy who didn’t want to announce outright that he was nervous when he lost track of where I was in relation to him. He doesn’t do that anymore, and, like most bits of my children’s growing up that fade until I suddenly realize they are gone, I don’t know when he stopped.

It seems to happen in fits and starts, this growing up process. One day I’ll look at my son, and he seems abruptly three inches taller, or my daughter’s face appears unexpectedly mature and I wonder where my little girl has gone, or the littlest one decides she doesn’t need me to walk her into the classroom each morning.

Now my son, who once needed to know where I was at all times, wanders confidently through his familiar domain. He goes on regular solo expeditions, wandering far into the fields beyond the yard, although he often convinces the dog to keep him company. He has even ridden his bike to his grandparents’ house around the corner without me realizing it until he appeared again at my side and I thought to wonder where he’d been.

At social gatherings and school events, all three of my children are now generally comfortable running off to play with friends. Some children, I’m convinced, do that from the first moment they are independently mobile, scampering out of their parents’ grasp as quickly as possible. Not mine. It seems just a week or two ago they were constantly hovering at my side, and I was endlessly trying to shoo them away to play and leave me with a few inches – and a few welcome moments – of personal space.

As I’ve watched my children gradually gain independence, I’ve come to appreciate both the freedom to move and converse without a child or three clinging to my leg and the moments when they come back to sit with me. I used to be able to hold all three at once to read stories; now, when one of my children climbs onto my lap, it is all long legs and pointy elbows until they settle in. But the settling in is as sweet as ever. They are, all three, still young enough that when we are walking somewhere – down the driveway, through the woods, along a sidewalk – someone (or two) will hold my hand.

There was a time not so long ago that I took walks close to home with a baby strapped to my chest and a toddler gripping each hand. Now, hand-holding has become a test of how fast they’re growing up. As we walk together, I often put my hand out and spread my fingers, holding my breath as I wait to see what will happen. Thankfully, my hand is filled each time, still, with a smaller one to hold.

For that I am grateful, and will be for as long as it lasts, this hand-holding and couch-snuggling and bedtime-story-reading. Sometimes it seems I am the one who needs to be reassured of my children’s closeness. I am the one calling out to make sure they are still within shouting distance. I am the one seeking spontaneous hugs, sneaking in an extra squeeze, trying to store up all that closeness in my heart for the inevitable day when I will reach out my hand and they will be too grown up to hold it.

At ages 7 and 5, my children are at a magical stage where self-reliance and proud independence coalesce with the lingering attitude that Mama is pretty cool. They will entertain themselves happily for hours (except for the times when they’re harassing each other, but let’s focus on the good moments here). They are super fun skiing, mountain biking, and soccer-playing companions. They get themselves dressed in the morning, get their own snacks, brush their own teeth, and put their own laundry away. In short, I no longer have to do everything for them, but they still, usually, like having me around.

I have often heard my own mother say that a parent’s role is to foster in her children both roots and wings: a sense of place, of home, but also the confidence, skill, and knowledge to take off and fly to new heights, new places, new experiences. I am already slightly terrified that my children will fly away some day, as I did once. But I want them to be ready for that day when it comes. And I want them to know where home is, too, that when they need me, I’ll be here.

My son still calls to me regularly from the other room or across the yard or down the stairs. Only now, when he calls, it is often, “Mom?” instead of, “Mama?” And it is generally followed up with a question about something (“Where are my soccer cleats?”) or to share some glimmer of newly acquired knowledge (“Did you know that kinkajous are nocturnal?”) or seeking permission (“I’m going outside, OK?”).

As I answer each of his queries, I add my own, “I love you.” And still, thank goodness, the reply comes, “I love you, too, Mom!” as he bounds off into the world.

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 24, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Leaf Leaping

On one of those beautiful fall days we had in that lovely stretch from September into the first bright days of October, with sunshine streaming through colored leaves and temperatures warm enough for t-shirts, my youngest daughter grabbed a rake and started making a leaf pile. In her sixth autumn, she already knows one of the best fall activities is leaf leaping, and for that you need a good pile of leaves.

Any type of leaves will do, really, but the bigger the pile, the better the fun.

By the time her brother and sister came home from school, that first leaf pile of fall was of sufficient width and depth for jumping, which the children set gleefully to doing. A running start is paramount for the best landing. Run. Jump. Giggle. Sometimes they’d intersperse that sequence with a good roll through the leaves or a few minutes lying still in the pile, completely covered, silent until some unassuming being – the dog, a sister, Grandpa – happened by and the hidden child would jump out to starling effect.

I can’t figure out the allure of jumping into leaves. I did it when I was a kid, too – it’s a beloved fall tradition for kids growing up wherever there are trees to drop leaves to rake into piles. But as I watched my children for several successive afternoons jump joyfully into leaf piles – often with hard landings, always with plenty of crunch, and ending up with leaf particles mashed into hair and clothes – I couldn’t remember why, exactly, that activity is so much fun.

Whatever the appeal, my children remained jubilant in their leaf leaping. As the week went on, the trees dropped more leaves, and the kids and I kept on raking until the piles were nearly as tall as the children. Orange and yellow maple leaves joined the red ones that had started the pile. These were interspersed with smaller golden birch leaves and not-as-pretty, brownish apple leaves.

Each leap and landing released a colorful confetti of leaves swirling into the amber light of an autumn afternoon. Rake in hand, I’d fluff the pile after every jump, prepping for the next leaping turn. I even took a leap. Alas, while I strive to embrace my children’s wonder of life, I think I’m too far beyond the magic of childhood to get that leaf-leaping thrill now. In motherhood, at least for this activity, I’ve been relegated to spectator and pile fluffer.

One afternoon we invited a few friends (and their spectating, pile-fluffing moms) to join in the leaf-leaping fun. By now, we had four huge piles of various autumnal hues. The children – nine of them, ranging in age from 2 years to 8 – gravitated to the largest pile, a colossal heap of orange maple leaves and yellow birch. Some of the kids jumped right in. A couple surveyed the scene first, mentally weighing the possibility of a hard landing against the potential for pure fun.

In the end, fun reigned.

Not content with mere jumping, the kids threw leaves by kaleidoscopic armfuls into the air and laughed as the wind carried them into friends, siblings, moms. Little feet kicked big steps joyfully through the crunchy piles. Occasionally, someone would lie back for a moment, looking up through the leaves still hanging from branches overhead to clouds skittering in white puffs across a blue sky.

After an hour or two of kicking, tossing, and jumping, the biggest pile had been diminished in heft by at least half, the leaves now thoroughly mulched and loftless. The children moved on to the other piles, happily scattering leaves hither and yon.

The next day, our calm and sunny fall changed, as Autumn found its bluster. The wind knocked down the remaining maple and birch leaves. Rain soaked the shrunken piles, which would soon be picked up and hauled away to the compost. Prime leaf-leaping season, at least in our yard, blew away on a gust of wind, leaving the song of children’s laughter in its wake, and a few leaves still dancing on the breeze. 

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 10, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Garden to Bed

It is a task I do reluctantly in the bittersweet transition from summer to autumn: cleaning out the gardens. Putting them to bed, some call it. It’s not that I don’t like the work. I do – being outside amid the changing colors of fall and the sounds of animals scampering about as they prepare for winter, digging in the dirt that has provided the bounty of summer, soaking up the fresh air and – if I’m lucky – a bit more sunshine.
Truckload of spuds

It’s just that the gardens stay abed for so long; emptying them of summer growth and goodness seems such a long goodbye.

After months of coaxing seeds, then shoots, then swelling plants to grow and bear fruit (or vegetables), after tilling and weeding and plucking off tomato suckers and thinning rows of baby carrots, it is a bit of an affront to pull it all out and throw the remains into the compost heap. Yet, there is something pleasing to restoring some semblance of order to the garden plots that have grown unruly since we sowed the first neat rows in springtime.

Last week’s frost killed anything that wasn’t covered, and a few things that were. The cold was a clear indication that it was time to set to work. The sprawling leaves of the zucchini plants, which had for weeks loyally provided a squash or three each day, turned black. The eggplants, which produced a multitude of pale purple flowers through the summer, but only one tiny fruit, withered to brown. The tomato vines drooped. The basil leaves, which had been a vibrant and warmly fragrant green only the week before, hung shrunken and brittle on brown stems.

I started with the small garden boxes in the side yard, which are easier to tidy than the large garden down back. Out came the wooden stakes that had bolstered the cherry tomatoes, and with them the frost-browned plants, whose vines and leaves and roots had grown intertwined with their neighbors through hot months in the sun. Even in their wasted state the plants were prolific, with tiny green tomatoes still clinging hopefully to narrow stems.

Out, too, came the pea trellis. The early peas have long since been happily consumed or packed into the freezer, but a few withered shoots still clung to the wire fencing. These I removed before rolling the trellis upon itself to store in the back corner of the garage through the long months of dark and cold.

Working around the row of small lettuces that may still grow big enough to eat, I tilled the little garden, breaking up clumps of earth compacted during the growing season, pulling out weeds that had flourished as they hid beneath the vegetables, dragging the long, white skeletal roots of tomato and pea plants from the dry, cool earth.

Occasionally one of my children would join me in the garden-cleaning effort. The youngest picked fallen cherry tomatoes in various hues from the dirt and chucked them into the field as she kept me entertained with a 5-year-old’s chatter and giggles. My son came down with his three-pronged weeder to help rake the chopped dirt smooth.

When I headed to the big garden with potato rake and spade in hand, all three kids trotted down to help with one of their favorite garden tasks: digging potatoes. Of all the magic a vegetable garden can provide for kids (and grown-ups), digging potatoes is probably the most fun: like searching for buried treasure.

As I pushed my spade into the soil, the kids stood by eagerly, focused on the turning dirt, seeking the pale yellow and red of spuds and racing each other to scoop them up. In keeping with our family’s potato-digging tradition, the kids placed the tubers into their yellow Tonka dump trucks, meant for the sandbox, but just as useful in the garden. So, while our potato crop this year was meager (and we had already eaten many of them), we still managed to haul two truckloads up to the house.

There are still lots of weeds in the potato patch. These I’ll yank out this weekend when the sun is supposed to regain some of its summer strength. I’ve left some green beans and cucumbers in place, but have become lazy in covering them against the nighttime chill, so they’ve nearly stopped producing and look more dead than alive. My late planting of shell peas has put out shoots and pods aplenty, but the peas within are slow to ripen in the shortening days. I have hope for the second and third crops of carrots, whose frilly green tops stand tall in the garden box with only a row of lettuce left for company.

Perhaps, then, we’ll pull a bit more goodness from the earth before the gardens are completely tucked in for the season, before we say our last goodbye to this year’s bounty and wait for the gardens’ awakening next spring.

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 26, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.