Thursday, June 22, 2017


One spring, several years ago, a robin built her nest on our woodpile on the back porch. I was newly pregnant with my first child (which turned out to be two children) and was taken by the idea that the robin and I were sharing a journey toward motherhood. Her children, of course, hatched within a couple of weeks and fledged after a couple more, while I had months to wait for my babies’ arrival and, thankfully, have much longer than that before they leave home.

Are you looking at me, phoebe?
I’d never seen a bird’s nest and all the accompanying activity up close before, and I became both entranced by the process of nesting and hatching and fledging, and protective of the nest and its contents. Now we have another nest on the back porch, and I’ve taken to peering through the kitchen windows again, watching another nest story unfold. This time it’s a phoebe who has built her nest, atop the back porchlight, a couple feet above where the robin settled in 11 years ago.

While the location is the same, the surrounding environment is quite different now than it was in the robin’s day. The back porch is not the quiet sanctuary it once was, and the light on which mother phoebe has built her nest is smackdab next to the back door.

Kids go careening through that door regularly, on their way to the garage to collect bikes and other playthings. They ride said bikes around the driveway, quite close to the nest. They kick soccer balls and hit tennis balls back and forth nearby. They climb the trees along that edge of the driveway, where the phoebe sometimes, in quiet moments, perches while seeking out bugs to catch.

I can only figure that the phoebe decided on her nesting spot while we were away for a few days back at the end of April. It would have been quiet here then, with no dog and no humans. I imagine the small porch, tucked between house and garage, seemed like a nice place: sheltered from the weather, with a good view of the rest of the yard and plenty of bugs to catch for dinner.

Although we’ve faced the small inconvenience of altering our movements – keeping the door closed and instead accessing the garage through the muddled mudroom, leaving the light off, and trying not to walk too close or too quickly past the nesting area – I’m glad the phoebe picked this spot. It’s rare to have such a close-up and constant view of nature – even if it’s a common songbird and not some more exotic wild species we get to observe.

I watched the nest come together in phases, first the mud foundation, then the moss, carried by beak and packed firmly into the mud. For days the nest was empty, a small mud-and-moss cup waiting for eggs. Then one morning, when I’d given up hope, I glanced out the window to find the phoebe sitting there.

After she left, I tiptoed out and held my phone camera above the nest for a photo – it’s too high for me to see into, so I had to slide the phone along the ceiling to gain a peek inside. Low and behold, two eggs. Within a few days there was a clutch of five, and mother phoebe started spending time sitting there, keeping one wary eye on the lookout.

The eggs – all five of them – hatched a couple weeks ago. I watched as the phoebe – and, now, her mate – carried all sorts of bugs to the chicks, watched hungry beaks gape open and be filled with other, smaller winged things.

The babies – at first ugly and naked – have grown feathers, and their eyes opened this week. Now, when I peer out the window, they seem often to be jostling for space in the nest they’ve outgrown. Now and then, one chick or another will open its wings and stretch. They are getting ready to leave the nest.

I suppose there is some metaphor here, some correlation to raising human children who grow and stretch and find their own proverbial wings. But I’ve just been enjoying the phoebe show without looking for deeper meaning.

I’ve learned a good deal by watching the phoebes through the window these last weeks. Many of the details you can read in bird books or online – that phoebes almost always build nests of mud and moss and often refurbish and reuse those nests, that the female does nearly all the work from nest-building to feeding, that they hunt bugs from various perches and often catch them in the air. But seeing it first-hand allows a different level of learning.

Sometimes when I look out the window, mother phoebe peers back at me, head cocked quizzically, one black beady eye turned my way. Perhaps she is just looking for bugs to catch from her perch there on the overturned patio chair. But I like to think there’s some level of avian trust in that gaze, that amid all the noise and activity of my brood the phoebe knows we’re looking out for her little family as they prepare to fly away from the nest.

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 June 23, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Hiking for Nana

My grandmother never climbed a mountain, never stood atop a stony summit and looked out across a landscape of other peaks and hills and unending forests rolling away into the horizon, never felt the tired exhilaration that comes from standing on what feels like the top of the world.

Many years before she was "Nana."
Saturday, I will hike for my grandmother, Marjorie Marie (Thomas) Keegan, who died 24 years ago after a long decline into the fog of memory loss.

With a small group of friends, I will set out for the summit of Mount Eisenhower, one team in a larger effort to put hikers atop each of New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-foot peaks in a 48-hour period. The 48 Peaks event is an endeavor to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease, garner funding for research and support, and pay tribute to the people affected by this disease.

My grandmother never climbed a mountain; in fact, we were told as children not to tell Nana how steep the trails were, how precipitous the drops to the side, when we went on our own expeditions. But she worked her way across many metaphorical mountains in her lifetime. She grew up in an inner-city tenement in Worcester, Mass., coming of age during the Great Depression, and determined to someday own her own house. She went to work as soon as she was old enough, despite her dreams of furthering her education, so that she could help her family. She lost the love of her life to World War II.

She persevered. She got married and waited tables at the local Howard Johnson’s and saved pennies until there were enough of them to build a house. She kept on working – as a school cafeteria aide, then a high school secretary – until my mother, her pride and joy and only child, graduated from college. Then Nana went to a community college and earned her own degree. Through continued frugality, she was able to travel – to Hawaii and Europe and other places she’d surely never dreamed of seeing as a little girl from the inner city.

The one mountain that proved insurmountable for my grandmother was Alzheimer’s Disease, which started creeping in when she was in her mid-60s and I was not yet a teenager. It started with small forgotten things that gradually became bigger forgotten things – missing a turn while driving a familiar route, calling my mom for their regular morning check-in during the middle of the night, leaving the gas stove on with nothing cooking.

She moved in with my family for a few years, then to a nursing home as Alzheimer’s continued its relentless attack. She forgot how to get dressed, how to clean herself, how to act at the dinner table. She forgot who we were, even my mother, calling her “the nice girl who came to visit” when Mom would sit with her at the nursing home.

Thirty years ago, people didn’t know as much about Alzheimer’s as they do now. My grandmother simply thought she was getting forgetful as she got older. Perhaps that was a blessing, that she didn’t know how much she would lose by the end: time with her grandchildren, her independence, a lifetime of memories.

Alzheimer’s Disease is ugly and painful and hard, probably most especially for the people who become caretakers – the sons and daughters and spouses. What my mother endured while caring for her own mother, watching as this bright, stubborn, strong woman faded into vast forgetfulness, I can’t fully understand.

For me, there is one painful memory that sticks: the day I visited the nursing home with a group from my high school and my grandmother didn’t know me, didn’t even respond to my greeting. I had known, I suppose, that this was coming, that the Nana who’d adored me forever would someday not know who I was. I just hadn’t known how shockingly painful it would be.

I was old enough when she started to fade that I have a collection of vague childhood memories of my grandmother. Christmas mornings when she’d delight in our happy excitement. Sleepovers at her house, where the stale smell of cigarettes permeated everything and she made us the best grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Hot summer afternoons in the screen house in her backyard or on our own back deck. Watching the Lawrence Welk Show together.

She loved Lawrence Welk. She admired a man in uniform – and would have been proud to see one grandson grow up to wear the uniforms of an officer in both the California Highway Patrol and the U.S. Army Reserves and the other eventually find his way into a firefighter’s uniform. She cherished her family – from her beloved older brother and sister to the grandchildren she adored.

I know there are other hikers in the 48 Peaks effort who have similar stories of loved ones lost and memories faded, who will be carrying some person or remembrance with them as they climb. We hike to honor our loved ones and with the hope that this small effort will help prevent others from suffering through Alzheimer’s.

My grandmother never climbed a mountain, but I imagine she would have liked the view from the top, the wild winds there that feel like freedom, the satisfaction of reaching the summit. I will carry Nana with me Saturday, as I do always, holding tight to the memories of who she was before Alzheimer’s, buoyed by her love all these years after she left us.

To make a donation to the Alzheimer's Association, please visit my fundraising page.

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 June 9, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Spring Unfurled

The peas have pushed through the dirt of the garden box in the side yard – the first vegetable sprouts of the season. For a couple of days, I wondered if the planted seeds had drowned in last week’s thunderous deluge of mid-summer-like rain. But Monday morning, there they were: tiny and green and full of promise.

Last week’s heat also inspired leaves, which had been tucked tight against May’s lingering wet and chill, to unfurl into the sunshine that followed the rain. Suddenly, lilac bushes and maple trees and ferns and innumerable other growing things were full and lush.

In a matter of two days, the blossoms of our unruly apple trees popped into an array of pink and white. On cue, the lilacs have followed, infusing subtly-varied hues of purple into the landscape and permeating the air with their sweet, heady scent. The perennials in the front garden seem an inch or two higher every day, as do the lupine stalks in the fields.

I love this phase of spring, when winter’s chill is faded to memory, the light is long and brightening, and the warmth and color hold the happy promise of impending summer.

It is also a time when I feel, finally, that I am progressing in my gardening endeavors. The soil – at least some of it – has been turned. Weeds – a few, anyway – have been pulled. The vegetable garden – slowly, yes, but surely – is starting to take shape as I decide which favorites will be planted where this year.

I am a distracted gardener, so I often start with one task and get pulled toward another before I’m finished with the first. No matter, there is always plenty to do in the garden.

I tend to start with the perennial bed, where the weeds are consistently plentiful. It dries out before the vegetable garden, and it seems a good place to start as the days begin to warm. Often I start with the intention of spending a few minutes there and stay much longer, both inspired by the progress being made and distressed at how much more there is to do. Sometimes the kids join in the weed eradication efforts, gleefully seeking the long roots of dandelions and other persistent invaders against whom I have no grudge other than where they’ve decided to grow.

But before I get through weeding around the astilbe and lady’s mantle, before I have separated the moonbeam coreopsis from where it has overreached its boundaries and tangled with the Stella D’oro lilies, before I have tried to contain all the patches of black-eyed Susans and split (with an ax, because a shovel simply won’t do it) the spreading masses of flag iris – the vegetable plot has dried out, and I leave the high-maintenance flowers for the useful seeds of carrots and cucumbers, leafy greens and bush beans, potato eyes and squash mounds.

Bit by bit, I’ve been preparing the big garden out back, repairing the fence to keep the overgrown puppy out of the compost (she loves broccoli stumps, no matter how far decayed they are), pulling out the long-rooted grass that creeps in around the edges, picking rocks from the soil, tilling it all by hand – one row at a time.

No matter how many seeds I plant, it always seems like magic to me – that a tiny seed can sprout and push through dirt to grow, flower, and become food – or simply a thing of beauty. No matter how many times I watch spring emerge from winter and evolve toward summer, that process, too, holds wonder.

Everywhere now – in the vegetable gardens and flower beds, in the fields and along the roadsides, on treetops and up mountain trails – new sprouts emerge each day, small promises unfurled to spring sunshine, ready to grow.

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 May , 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.