Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Giving Thanks

Some years ago, when the children who are now as tall as I am were still small, we established a family routine of sharing “thankful things” around the dinner table. In part, this was a replacement for saying grace, which my family did when I was a child. But really it is more an act of focusing, even for a few minutes, on some of the good things in our lives, no matter what kind of day we’ve all had.

Some evenings it is easy to spout off a list of thankful things. Others, of course, this practice is more challenging. On this week of traditional thanks-giving, near the end of a year that has been challenging in many ways, it seems more important than ever to focus, even for a little while, on the good things.  

Thanksgiving is next in 2020’s this-year-it-will-look-different lineup. Since the middle of March, most things have been a bit – or a lot – out of whack. School has been different. Work has been different. Grocery shopping, soccer, visiting friends, going to the doctor, getting a book from the library – all different.

We’ve all adjusted, to varying degrees, to the shifting normal. I no longer forget to don my mask when I head into the post office (although it still feels a little odd). My kids have grown used to longer class periods in school and lunchtime spent six feet away from friends. Last weekend, my family celebrated my dad’s birthday with a woods walk and hot cider sipped around a fire, rather than a sit-down dinner and cake with candles. (I do wonder if I’ll ever again be comfortable eating birthday cake after the guest of honor has blown across it to extinguish candle flames.)

But holidays are different, and I think many of us are feeling a tinge of sadness at traditions set aside, for now, as we head into the first of a string of holidays that normally brighten a literally dark time of year.

My crew is lucky to live within a few miles of lots of extended family. My kids have grandparents around each corner, aunts and uncles down the road, and a cousin across the street. Normally, holidays are a time for blending the local McPhaul and McCarthy branches of the family, with the odd additional out-of-town guest or local friend adopted for the day – and the feast. Our average holiday dinner guest list is usually between 12 and 20, generally tilting toward the higher end.

Our normal gathering place for this particular holiday is my in-laws’ house, which we can reach – literally – by walking over the river (a brook, really) and through the woods. This year, though, along with most other folks, we’ll be marking Thanksgiving in our own homes, without any large gathering.

I bought a Thanksgiving turkey over the weekend for the first time – ever. The kids and I sat down about a week before Thanksgiving to plan out our own dinner-for-five menu. The main event, of course, is the bird. But also included are Gaga’s famous sticky rolls and a dish my kids call “glop,” along with Nana’s Swedish apple pie. While the setting and the company will shift, my kids insist the menu should stay as close to “normal” as possible.  

One tradition we’ll maintain, especially on this day of thanks-giving, is to share our thankful things with each other. In this year of feeling regularly uncertain and unsettled, I’m thankful for many things, including that my children have these family traditions, which will continue to evolve – even if, like most other things, they look a little different this year.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's November 25, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.    

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Planting Hope

The day before the second snowstorm of the fall we planted bulbs: two dozen daffodils and about 50 crocuses, placed here and there through the perennial bed. This is the garden we completely overhauled in the spring, when COVID reshuffled our regular weekend routine of soccer-soccer-soccer, and we found time on Saturdays and Sundays freed up for other things. Months later, with the pandemic raging more strongly than in those first confused and uncertain days – and with the presidential election finally upon us – my children and I tucked papery-brown bulbs into the cold dirt.

I often think that gardening – whether it’s planting vegetable seeds in the spring or flower bulbs in the fall – feels like hope. That couldn’t be any truer than during this year.

I am no big fan of November – the dark days and barren landscape of that in-between-sun-and-snow month. And while I love winter, this year my anticipation of it is more apprehensive than eager. I wonder how we will manage if the kids return to remote schooling (indeed, we already know my older two will spend most of December and the first half of January learning remotely), and whether we will be able to celebrate holiday traditions – and winter birthdays – with family and friends.

The continuing unknowns of 2020 can seem overwhelming sometimes. 

In March, when my work and the kids’ school switched from in-person to remote, literally overnight, we gradually settled into a routine of daily walks, study time, late afternoon family soccer games. Then, the days were lengthening toward summer. The green shoots of flower bulbs planted in autumns long past were poking through the warming earth, and I was contemplating what seeds to sow in the vegetable bed.

Now, of course, we’re heading toward the long nights of winter rather than the promise of spring.

We planted bulbs this fall because in our re-do of the perennial garden, we discarded many things – an abundance of weeds, along with perennial roots and, yes, years-old daffodil and crocus bulbs. And because I have a feeling this winter will seem long. That there will be joy, but also frustrations, more milestones missed, and normal activities canceled or rearranged.

Folding those bulbs into the soil on the cold and blustery first day of November was an act of planning for spring blooms, yes, but it was also a gesture of hope. 

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

Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Season Not Lost

Soccer season, like so many other things over the past seven months, did not go quite as planned this year. On the day that would have, in a non-pandemic world, held the annual Halloween Cup, we woke up to four inches of heavy wet snow, with more falling fast. I guess the silver lining is that we didn’t need to worry about cancelling due to bad weather and slick roads, since Covid had already canceled the event for us.

In the grand scheme of things, whether kids get to play soccer or not may seem trivial. But any semblance of normal these days is a big deal for them – for all of us, really.

For most of the summer, we weren’t sure if the kids – high school, middle school, kindergarten – would get a soccer season at all. While my older children have had something like a regular season in middle school, my 6th grader’s team (which I coached with a friend) was restricted to practices and intra-squad scrimmages. No games against other towns. No joyfully-past-their-bedtime Under the Lights tourney in Littleton. No Haverhill Cup.

But for a few hours each week the kids were on the field, together, kicking the ball around and learning the game a little bit better. Two days a week, they made their way through stretching and wind sprints, skills work and tactical talks, all without the potential reward of earning a W or raising a trophy. They listened and worked hard. And out there on our home field, we all smiled. A lot.

In this year of so much weirdness, I think soccer was a happy highlight for the kids. I know it was for me.

One player showed up to the first few practices in a cast-like boot to protect a still-healing broken foot. He did as much as he could, so hampered, then jumped in full steam as soon as the doc cleared him to lose the boot. Another kid arrived one day complaining, in a charmingly happy manner, that he hadn’t had time after school to change out of his restrictive “school picture day shorts.” A few of them boogied mid-scrimmage one afternoon to music playing from a nearby field. Once, a quick, furious downpour left the kids soaked – and scrimmaging under a brilliant double rainbow.

At different times throughout the season, my daughter and I lamented some of the differences of this year compared to other soccer seasons. She missed the challenge of competitions, the power of playing good defense, the thrill of scoring goals. I missed thinking about which lineup would work best on any given day and watching the kids figure out this “beautiful game” little by little.

Last October, her team made it to the Halloween Cup final only to watch the opposing team’s players lift the candy-filled cup at the end of the day. It was my third time in five Halloween Cups coaching a runners-up team. Maybe next year, I told my daughter then. This year’s tournament would have been her final Halloween Cup, and mine, too.

Alas, this October there would be no penalty kick shootouts and dedicated fans, no games played just after dawn and just before dark, no triumphant wins and disappointing losses. This October, there was no gathering of teams from throughout the region, no gaggles of kids running around the Dow and swinging through the playground between games, no concession stand stocked with baked goods and crockpots of warm food, endless pots of coffee and countless volunteers.

Instead, our season finale was just 15 kids and two coaches who love soccer, on the field together. We ended the season with a long scrimmage session. The kids passed the ball and made some moves and scored a few goals. They took some hard knocks and helped each other up. There was less intensity than the normal end-of-the-season competition, but more laughter.

Probably, if someone asked, I’d say I wish it had been a normal soccer season. I wish these kids who are moving on to middle school next year had their chance to be the big kids on the small field. I wish I’d gotten to coach them through one more tournament. But in a year that has often involved seeking out silver linings, we still managed to find plenty of them on the soccer field. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's October 29, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.