Friday, September 8, 2017

A Tale of Two Seasons

On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, rather than going for a hike or a bike ride or an end-of-summer trip to the beach, we settled into what felt like a fall day. That morning was one of a string of chilly mornings, and the day’s damp start turned into a steady rain by lunch time. I was tempted to nudge the thermostat up and kick the furnace into action for the first time since May, but it just seemed too early.

Some gifts of the changing seasons.
Instead, we lit a fire in the fireplace, letting the woodpecker-drilled logs of an old apple tree burn into fresh ashes on the hearth floor, swept clean months ago. We dug through the shorts and t-shirts of summer to find jeans and fleece tops and socks. And during the big weekly grocery shop, I put a roasting chicken into the cart rather than something to throw on the grill. For good measure, we added locally-grown apples to bake into a pie.

It’s a bittersweet transition, this shift from full summer to early fall. I lament the new darkness of early mornings and the relative freedom of summer days spent mostly with the kids, but I am also relieved to get back to a more predictable routine of work, school, soccer practice – busy as it is.

Probably it was that return to the school year schedule that meant the kids were happy enough to spend a rainy day inside Sunday. Although the hauling out and tidying up of bedrooms was met with a chorus of complaints, the rest of the day they were content to cozy up inside, read, play a few games. Not a bike was ridden, nor a ball kicked all day. There was no tree-climbing or swimming hole jumping or even digging in the sandbox.

It was a stay-at-home day unlike any we’ve had since the flip-flops came out – and are unlikely to see again until that brief window in November between the end of soccer season and the start of ski season.

That nestling in against the cool and gray of outside, the crackle of the fire and cinnamon-tinted scent of apples baking felt welcomingly cozy. Still, we were happy when Monday dawned suddenly summery again. Back we went to doors flung open to warmth and brightness, to running around barefoot in the grass, to savoring the waning light of summer. That night I pushed aside the extra blanket I’d added during the recent chilly nights and slept again with windows wide open, on sheets dried on the line and smelling of sunshine.

Despite the rainy week that has ensued, that brief return to summer amid autumnal weather was a reminder that we haven’t fully turned the corner into fall yet. We are on the transitionary cusp, with one foot loitering in summer, even as the other one is stepping toward fall.

Yes, the mornings and evenings are darker now, the leaves are making their undeniable transition from summer green to autumn red-orange-gold, and the vegetables remaining in the garden are of the hardier variety – beets and carrots and kale – but chances are we’ll have a few more days that feel like summer. Days where we can toss aside the sweaters and pull out the t-shirts again, turn faces to the sun, maybe dip still-tanned toes into the cool river. Days that seem like a gift from the passing season, even as we cozy up to the next one.

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 September 8, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Mowing

I have been helping to mow our fields these last weeks of August, making long work out of what could be done by an experienced operator in a few days.
 This mowing is far from Robert Frost’s contemplative whispering scythe, though the poet kept his own fields just down the hill from ours some 100 years ago. No, our field is long past hay, if it was ever used for that, and is full of an array of wildflowers and brush and ferns. There is nothing whispering about the tractor, which gives a baritone rev when I turn the key, before settling into a deep mechanical purr. Where a scythe would clang resoundingly, I imagine, should its curved blade meet a boulder, the old bush hog instead grinds to a shuddering stop when I fail to avoid those brush-hidden chunks of granite left by the glaciers eons ago.

Probably I should have helped with the mowing long before now, but I have left the task to my husband, who has much more tractor-driving experience, for all the years we’ve been living here. The truth is that I am a bit afraid of the big, green John Deere tractor, with its noises and levers and giant, churning wheels. But I am getting used to driving it, learning how to maneuver around obstacles, though I have left the more challenging spots – like the tumbledown apple orchard with its trunks and low-hanging branches and hidden stumps – for my husband to mow.

Despite still being a bit edgy behind the wheel as I bump along – sitting on the front edge of the seat to reach the tractor’s pedals – I have found that I like the distraction of mowing, the redrawing of the landscape little by little. And while it is certainly not a quiet chore, I have found mowing can be a contemplative one.  

The first day I mowed, as I nervously watched for rocks and endeavored to avoid overhanging branches, a rainbow arced across the sky at dusk to land behind the mountains. Another afternoon the tractor, crawling noisily along, spooked two deer from where they must have been bedded down in the still-tall grass. They bounded in the opposite direction, down the hill and through the row of old apple trees, all lithe bodies and big eyes, their sleek pelts deep amber in the summer sun.

As I trundle along I am rediscovering the anatomy of our fields from the perspective of a tractor seat. I mow down to Big Rock, site of occasional picnic lunches; around the old burn pile, twined now with growing things; as near to the ancient, tumbling stone walls as I dare creep. I mow over rocks and around trees, through unseen ruts and across surprisingly muddy areas, where the tractor’s big wheels threaten to sink (and, indeed, sometimes do) under its heft into the soft ground.

I’ve watched poor meadow voles scurrying away and leaping mice hurdling over freshly cut clumps of grass to flee the path of destruction. One day I stopped to move an abandoned board left in the field and did some scurrying of my own, high-stepping back to the tractor to get away from the startled and writhing snakes I found beneath the wood. Probably they were garter snakes, but I didn’t stick around long enough to confirm their identity.

Little by little, I have mowed swaths through the tall, dead stalks of lupine that two months ago were filled with purple blooms and are now covered in seed pods dried to a mottled gray-brown. Mingling with these gone-by flowers are lofty tufts of bright yellow goldenrod and late-summer asters in white and purple, which I lament knocking down mid-bloom.

It is not all destruction, though. The patch of blueberry bushes still producing a few fruits I have left untouched, for now. Same with a few of the blackberry brambles, whose fruits are just ripening. If we don’t get to picking them, surely the bears will. The other day I stopped the tractor to break a section of pin cherry off so I could save a goldfinch nest – long abandoned at this point in the season – to admire its perfect cup, which once held eggs and growing chicks, and the birds’ method of affixing the nest to the tree by spider web silk.

And, with the destruction comes rejuvenation. Left unmown, the fields would revert to forest more quickly than it seems possible for trees to grow. In a section of the field that was not mowed last year the pin cherry and brushy willow saplings have grown bold and tall, requiring multiple passes with the bush hog to knock down. In another few years, these trees and others, the berry brambles, the scrubby bushes would align to block the view of the mountains, swallow the old apple orchard completely, change a habitat that has been, if not constant, at least similar for many decades. 

So we mow, contributing to the cycle our fields have grown into: from winter snow to the dull hues of early spring before color creeps back into the landscape and the fields’ grasses and ferns and flowers grow as high as our knees, then our waists, then our shoulders and beyond, blooming into summer before being cut down to do it all again.

There is no whispering scythe here, but the fields hold poetry just the same.

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 August 25, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Trying the Triathlon

The clouds that had been drifting across Cannon Mountain all morning started dripping rain as I stood near the summit, peering downhill into the fog. I was amid a throng of spectators at the finish line of the 25th Top Notch Triathlon, ringing cowbells and shouting encouragement to tired racers as they pushed through the last steps of the climb.

The weather this year, organizer Kim Cowles told me, was the worst it’s ever been for the Top Notch. A stiff headwind met racers as they set off on bikes from downtown Franconia. The same wind whipped whitecaps across the surface of Echo Lake as swimmers stroked their way through the chilly water. Now the high-elevation rain showers were threatening to evolve into a full-fledged downpour.

Somewhere out there on that foggy mountain was my 10-year-old son.

After managing the top water station last year with me and his sisters, and watching several familiar faces – including a couple of schoolmates – come through, Owen asked if he could put a team together for this year’s race. His buddies – and their parents – were game, and Team McCloughton was born.

Weeks before the race, Owen asked, “Do you think we’ll win?” I knew there were likely to be tough teams and older kids who had done the race before, so my response was, “Absolutely not.”

We discussed how it’s not about winning, but about challenging yourself, having something to train toward, and tackling the challenge despite knowing you probably won’t end the day victorious. Plus, the Top Notch Triathlon is a special sort of event, filled with community and competition encompassing everyone from hardcore athletes to local families to weekend warriors out for a Saturday adventure.

(My past Top Notch stories: Surrounded by Men in Spandex, Making it to the Top, and Top Notch.)

The boys, with a combined race day age of 29, were certainly among the youngest participants. The triathlon brought them each a bit outside of their comfort zones, but despite a few pre-race jitters, they were excited to get out there Saturday morning with a few hundred other Top Notch-ers.

Wyatt smiled and waved as he pedaled out from the start toward a gnarly, nearly all uphill bike course he’d never seen before. He powered up Butter Hill and through the wooded part of the route, over rocks and through muddy ruts to Echo Lake. At the handoff, Jackson dove into the chilly, wind-churned water while storm clouds brewed overhead. Part way across the lake he turned to his mom, who was swimming with him for moral support, and declared he wanted to do this again next year.

I had assumed Owen would want me to hike with him on the last leg. He’s hiked big mountains before, including the other side of Cannon earlier this summer, but never in race mode and always with me. But he insisted he wanted to hike solo, wanted me to be at the finish line when he got there.

So I gave him a cheer and headed to the tram, which would carry us to that finish line, with the McCloughton contingent of parents and siblings and grandparents. “You know you’re raising mountain kids when you’re OK with your 10-year-old climbing a 4,000-footer on his own, in the rain,” one of the other parents remarked as we rode into the clouds and toward the summit a few minutes later.

But I knew Owen wasn’t on his own, not really. His aunt was in the race and on the mountain somewhere ahead of him. Along the way he passed his school principal, who was participating in his 20th Top Notch Triathlon, and the local police chief. A couple of older schoolmates went by. His uncle was there as a member of the town’s EMS squad. People – strangers, mostly – shouted encouragement from the open windows of the tramcar as it passed overhead, near the top of that long climb.

There is nothing lonely about this community-centric event – except the utter physical effort it takes to complete. I’ve participated in the Top Notch before, and I’ve made that race day climb three times. I know there is a buoying jolt of adrenaline at the bottom, where cheers provide a mental boost. But most of the hike is a leg-burning, lung-squeezing, cheer-less slog.

As I stood at the top of Cannon Saturday peering through the dripping fog for the familiar pattern of Owen’s favorite soccer shirt, I wondered how he was faring out there in the clouds, what was going through his mind, where he was on the mountain. And then, there he was, striding on tired legs toward the summit. Even through the mist I could see he was smiling.

It was a tired smile, but a proud one, too: the smile of a kid who’d just climbed a mountain, in the rain, on his own, and made it across the first big race finish line of his life. It was a smile matched by his teammates’ grins as they met him there, each one done with his own leg of a team effort.

Winning was far from the boys’ minds as they sat in the tram station, out of the downpour that had intensified seconds after Owen crossed the finish. Any pre-race jitters were long gone as they basked in that feeling of accomplishment, a mixture of thank-goodness-that’s-over and we-did-it!

A couple hours later we learned Team McCloughton – a combination of the boys’ last names – was the only youth team to complete the triathlon this year, and they had won the category. They’d already had a topnotch day; the medals were just icing on the triathlon cake.

Now they’re hooked, ready to do it all again next year. If they do, my son might ask again if I think they’ll win. Probably not. But it’s not about winning. It’s about making it through the woods, across the lake, and up the mountain – on your own, with a little help from your friends.

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 August 11, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Accidental Forager

Our adventures in foraging began purely by chance. One day, several summers ago, my son pulled me out to the field to see a cluster of daisies he’d found growing there. Hidden beneath the happy white flowers was a treasure trove of wild blueberries, their small bushes spread out through the field like a lagoon of barely hidden delectability.

We picked those berries for days, eating some as soon as we’d plucked them from the bush – sweet and sun-warmed – and dropping the rest into small buckets for later. Further into that summer we discovered a bumper crop of blackberries ripening in a tangled thicket grown up from the front field. The thorny canes were so tall we were sometimes encompassed within them as we picked, earning many scratches in our efforts. By the end of the season, we had a freezer drawer filled with summer berries, a taste of sunshine to pull out and enjoy in the coldest, darkest days of winter.

Our foraging has evolved since then, although I’d place us still firmly in the novice category of finding wild food. We are casual foragers, not like the wildcrafting pros who make flour from acorns, dig up cattail rhizomes, batter and fry milkweed flowers, and who-knows-what else.

Beyond our favorite berry patches, there are a few small stashes of chanterelle mushrooms we look for after a summer rain, when they pop up in clusters. This year we found a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom, blooming like some exotic forest flower, on a tree in the neighborhood and added that to our list of good things to eat. Morels remain elusive, but perhaps someday we’ll stumble across those, too.

The kids know that the leaves of wood sorrel are edible – and tasty. A couple summers back they took to calling these heart-shaped greens “snacks” whenever they’d spot them along a hiking trail or at the edge of the garden. They’ve tasted ramps and fiddleheads and use the leaves of plantain growing wild about everywhere to ease the itch of horsefly bites and bee stings.

Nearly all of our first foraging expeditions emerged by happenstance, when we were out doing or seeking other things. A brief flash of orange during a bike ride revealed a throng of chanterelles. While playing under the lilac bushes, the kids have found huge meadow mushrooms tucked away there. The ramps, just the smallest cluster, we discovered at the corner of an old dump beyond the field as we were examining items discarded by some long ago stranger and somehow, now, intriguing. One year on vacation, as we walked back from the beach, we found – and devoured – a stash of wild blackberries.

I’ve taken to stowing plastic containers in the car in case we find something good to gather during our various travels. Even the dog is in on the action, wandering her own path through the fields and eating blueberries straight from the bush.

Some people find these meager hunting-and-gathering expeditions odd. How do we know these things are safe to eat, they ask. (When unsure, I always check with friends who are well-versed in eating wild things.) They wonder why we’d spend an hour in a hot field picking berries when the grocery store down the road has them by the pint for a few bucks.

It is, of course, about more than the food. During our foraging forays, we gain awareness of the places where we find our edible treasures, form a different perspective of some familiar places. We take notice of things we otherwise wouldn’t. Is the soil wet or sandy? In the sun or the shade? What kinds of trees grow near where we find chanterelles? What else is blooming or ripening at the same time? How many different types of interesting creepy-crawlies can we find in the blueberry field – grasshoppers and spiders and caterpillars covered in fuzzy prickles.

There is also something therapeutic to taking a break from summer’s whirlwind of activities to crouch in a field of wild berries on a hot summer day, a calmative effect in the rhythm of plucking berries from a bush and dropping them into a bucket. No matter how many times we find fiddleheads pushing through the leaf litter in the spring, or how many chanterelles we pick, or how many berries we gather, there remains a sense of wonder that these things grow. That they are simply there for the taking. That they taste so good.

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 July 28, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

“You know everybody, Aunt Meghan,” my niece told me soon after my brother’s family arrived in town early this month, traveling from Californian suburbia to the relative wilds of northern New England.

I certainly don’t know everyone around here, but small town living generally includes a considerable awareness of who your neighbors are – and where they are and what they are doing and with whom. If you’re looking for anonymity, this is probably not the place for you. But small towns are pretty good at taking care of their own.

As I drove around with a car full of California and New Hampshire kids, my own children and I remarked that so-and-so’s car was at the post office, we waved to friends, we stopped along backroads near home to greet a neighbor now and then. For the California kids, who live in a place with a steady stream of strangers flowing past, I guess that aspect of small town-ness seemed quaintly odd.

I have lived most of my adult life where everybody – or a relatively large percentage of folks I come into contact with, anyway – knows my name, or at least my face. In Crested Butte I moved within various social and work and skiing circles, but there were large areas of overlap among these. Even if everybody didn’t really know everybody else, a general sense of familiarity permeated the scene in this small ski town.

In the village where I lived for a summer on an Irish peninsula, I was known by several names: “the Yank” who worked for the Diamonds, the “horsey woman” (because I was a horse-trekking guide), the American girl who played soccer with the Connemara Coasters. While everybody there didn’t know my name, they all seemed to know who I was and what I was doing. It is hard to hide a newcomer in a small village where people are intricately related, especially a newcomer with a strange accent.

When I first moved back east, I found it disconcerting when strangers would stop me at the grocery store or in the ski lift line or during some social event and remark excitedly that they had known me when I was THIS HIGH. Not having been paying close attention at the age of 6 or 7 and having traversed two decades since then, I would smile politely, usually having no idea who my friendly accoster was.

I’ve been here long enough now that I am rarely approached by unknown, long-ago acquaintances. These people have long since become familiar. But it is still nearly impossible to navigate local errands without some delay from bumping into someone who wants a word – or several.

A quick run into the post office to check the mail can take half an hour. Stopping at the store for a carton of milk on the way home might consume just as long. I’ve even been waylaid on early morning jogs when I run into neighbors and slow down to chat briefly, while trying to catch my breath. You simply learn to expect delays – and how to politely run away when you don’t have the time to be distracted.

The last afternoon the California crew was here, I took the kids down to the river for a pre-dinner swim. I ran into a friend there, the only other person we saw, and had a chat while the kids and dogs were splashing and exploring and looking for interesting rocks.

On the way home, there was what constitutes a traffic jam on the narrow backroad: three cars traveling in close procession toward us, plus a couple of pedestrians and a dog in the road. I yelled a greeting out the window to the first car, which contained summer friends we hadn’t seen yet this season. A bit further along, I greeted neighbors who were out walking the dog. I noted another neighbor outside doing yardwork.

“Yep, you know everyone,” my niece confirmed from the passenger seat, no longer surprised by this phenomenon.

Later that evening, one of those neighbors sent me a text. She’d found a camera on the bridge by the swimming hole and determined from the photos on it that it belonged to one of us. It did, although we hadn’t yet noticed it missing. Personal item returned practically before it’s even lost? That’s just a benefit to living where everybody knows your name.

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 July 14, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Nesting

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. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Spring

Lately we have been collecting our drinking water from a popular roadside spring a few miles from home. For years, I’ve seen cars pulled over along Old Franconia Road, as people collect the water that flows from the spring through a simple plastic pipe and into a steel catch basin below.

We have our own spring at home, and until a few months ago it provided perfectly good water. When we had to replace our old, rusting out water line last fall, the digging around the springhouse disrupted the natural filtration system somehow, and now our water, while likely safe to drink, tastes – and smells – awful.

Not so at the Old Franconia Road spring, from which flows “the best tasting water around,” according to several folks I’ve met while refilling water jugs there.

The spring is owned by Wilman Gadwah, who lives just up the road. If you’ve ever traveled the Old Franconia Road – also called Gilmanton Hill Road – you’ve likely seen Wilman out on his John Deere tractor, working at sugaring or maintaining the meandering stone walls he’s built there over the last four decades or so.

When I called to ask Wilman about the spring, I got a brief history of the neighborhood and how he came to own this local watering hole.

He recalled that one winter, in the mid-1980s, one of the main lines for Bethlehem’s municipal water system froze, affecting the flow of town water. More people started coming to the spring, and the water was tested. Though it was, even then, declared to be fine-tasting water, testing indicated it was contaminated.

At that time, an elderly woman named Mrs. Hatt owned the spring. Her parents, the Becks, had established the Seven Springs Estate, where the White Mountain School is now, and she lived just down the road from the spring. She hired a couple of local men to replace the old tank in the spring in an attempt to clear the water, but it still tested poorly.

Wilman happened to be out building a stone wall when Mrs. Hatt walked down the road one day. She voiced her disappointment at the state of the spring – at least the state of the tests showing the water was contaminated. Wilman suggested the water was just fine, and the spring simply needed to be properly cleaned out and covered. She told him if he could figure out how to fix the problem, she’d deed the spring and about an acre of property surrounding it to him. He did, and a few weeks later, the deed arrived in his mailbox.

He’s been taking care of the spring ever since, mainly for the benefit of the innumerable folks who stop by to fill up – some 200-300 each day by one neighbor’s count.

“I don’t get anything out of it, other than cleaning the trash that people throw out constantly,” he told me. “It’s just one of those things that should be there for people to enjoy it. I don’t think you can have any cleaner water than what you have right there.”

He figures people have been drinking from the spring for well over 100 years. Back in the days when stagecoaches transported passengers from remote stations to their ultimate destinations, there was a barn near the spring, and coach drivers would stop to change and water their horses there.

Robert Peckett, the proprietor of the grand inn Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill, used to water his horses there en route to and from the train station in Littleton, where he collected hotel guests. Mr. Peckett was friendly with the Becks, and he provided a large cast iron basin – from the old Franconia Iron Works – to place under the spring and serve as a drinking trough.

Wilman remembers having to reinstall that basin a few times, after presumably drunken pranksters upended it into the road late at night. Eventually, someone blew it up with a pipe bomb, apparently just for kicks. Wilman still has the pieces of the original basin, and he’s thought about building a stone foundation and fitting them back under the outlet pipe of the spring. For now, though, the steel catch basin works just fine.

And the water tastes fine, too.

When I posted on social media about the spring, before I spoke with Wilman or knew he owned the spring, several people responded. They’ve been visiting that spring for decades, or remember the joy of stopping there as children to fill bottles on hot summer days, or they use it as a welcome watering hole on bike rides or runs along Old Franconia Road.

People stop at the spring with small water bottles or larger jugs, even 5-gallon buckets to fill and bring home. I’ve heard a local brewery uses the water from the spring, presumably to make its beer as tasty as possible.

Wilman figures the spring has been running here since the last Ice Age. People – and their horses – have likely been drinking from it for a couple of centuries. He’s maintained the spring for more than 30 years and will pass it on to his son for future safekeeping. Why?

On this road lined with stone walls and paved in history, the spring is a pleasant marker of consistency in an ever-changing world. As Wilman says, “It’s just a thing that shouldn’t disappear.”

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 12, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

April Adventuring

While friends absconded this week to the warmth of Florida beaches and the Utah desert – and many places in between – my tribe marked April vacation with a trip to our closest National Park.

In some ways – mainly the yearning to get out of town for a few days and explore someplace new – this trip reminded me of my Colorado ski town days. When the ski area there closed in April, and as the long winter lingered in deep snow and persistently chilly weather, it seemed like half the town hit the road for someplace else – to ride bikes in Moab or camp in the desert or surf in Mexico – depending on time and budget allowances.

My springtime escapes in those days generally consisted of a Subaru loaded with tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, and hiking boots – and a friend or two for company. Over the course of a few years, I visited the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Canyonlands – all national parks within road-tripping distance – and many other wide open spaces.

This week’s excursion was notably different than those taken in my younger, single days. Into the minivan went three kids and their accoutrements: books, games, stuffed animals, and lots of snacks. But as we set off for Acadia National Park, the impetus was the same: new adventures, a change in scenery, and exploration of unfamiliar places.

Both by the simple geographic location of home and by upbringing, my children are mountain kids. But they love the ocean and being by the shore. So do I.

There is magic and mystery in the movement of tides, and in the vastness of the ocean and its wildness. During one of many forays from our Bar Harbor hotel to the Shore Path that meanders through town, I wondered if kids who live by the sea are as enthralled by it as mine are, if they look for sea glass and shells, if they relish the sound of waves lapping the beach on calm days or crashing against the rocks on stormy ones.

My guess is they take it for granted, as my children do the mountains we see from home. Often, wonder comes from the unfamiliar essence of a thing, the novelty of the unknown.

Mount Dessert Island was happily quiet so far in advance of the rollicking summer season. We passed few people on the Shore Path and had Acadia’s Loop Road practically to ourselves during our ventures into the park.

We spent one full morning wandering the Ocean Trail in Acadia, where the kids peered into tidal pools and joyfully scrambled up and over the myriad rock formations jutting in odd, multicolored angles from the sea. We drove along the edges of Mount Desert Island, taking in picture book-classic New England villages and seashore scenes along the way.

We made early morning and late afternoon visits to the Shore Path and the craggy places along it. While the kids bent to look for perfect shells and tiny pieces of colorful sea glass in the small patches of rocky sand, I sat on the rocks and watched eider ducks bobbing easily on the waves just beyond the shore, listened to bell buoys chiming in the harbor, and watched boats laden with lobster traps motor past the Porcupine Islands.

These are standard sights and sounds for coastal dwellers, but wonderfully different – and, therefore, enchanting – to us mountain folks.

We were all sad to leave after a few days and hope to return someday in the not-too-distant future. But there are other places we want to explore, too. If my kids are anything like me, they’ll have a perpetual case of wanderlust and a never-ending wish list of places to visit.

I hope we spend many April vacations – and other times, too – engaged in new adventures, changing scenery, and explorations of unfamiliar places.

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 27, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Reluctant Farewell to Winter

A wise skiing friend once told me, “You know, come summer, you’re going to wish you were skiing.”

That’s a hard thing to explain to someone who isn’t hooked on this sport. I love summer. The warmth and color, the bike rides and hikes, the long days of light, the sandy beaches, the crisp vegetables picked fresh from the backyard garden. But sometimes, even on those long, hot, lovely days, I dream of skiing. Of gliding in perfect, arcing turns through snow. It is, perhaps, the closest thing to flying I’ll ever feel. Freedom. Power. Grace.

Ski you in my dreams, powder.
Normally by this point, mid-way through April, I am good and ready to say so long to winter. This year, though, I am having a hard time letting winter – at least the skiing part of winter – go.

It feels like a reluctant farewell to a loved one, where you ache for one more hug before the last good-bye. No matter how many runs I take, I want just one more perfect one, because I don’t know when the next one will come.

This winter was one of ups and downs – early snow, mid-season rain and ice, deep February powder days followed by another thaw, and another brief deep freeze in March. These April days are like a bonus to a ski season that fluctuated throughout, from one extreme to the next and back again.

The first Sunday of April, on our first weekend day off from coaching (me) and race training (kids), we went out for a few family runs and ended up skiing until after the lifts stopped running, exploring glades we’d never skied and spending a near-perfect afternoon with friends.

Our last run was on an old trail through the woods, cut some 80 years ago by a Civilian Conservation Corps crew. This trail branches off from the main ski area after a short hike, then winds its way down through an old forest, past rocky outcroppings, to the end of a dirt road a few miles from the base of the ski area.

(Read my essay on the first time I took the kids down this trail on powder.com.) 

The day ranks among my most favorite ski days ever. Maybe, I thought, it would be our last of the season. But, greedily, I hoped for more.

Last Sunday dawned sunny and warm again, after a snow-squalling Saturday, and we went out for a few more runs. Soft, sloughy, sunny runs. More exploration of new places. More turns down old favorites. I could have stayed all day.

Alas, springtime chores called us home, where the kids swiftly traded long johns and ski boots for shorts and sneakers and ditched their skis for bikes and soccer balls.

My children seem unaffected by the late-season ski fever that has enveloped me these April days. They are mostly indifferent about the prospect of more skiing so late in the season. They are happy for the warmth, for the first signs of greening grass, for the freedom of running outside unencumbered by extra layers.

In many ways, I’m happy for spring’s arrival, too. I love that there’s light in the sky when I wake early in the mornings, and that it lingers past dinner time. It was nice, during the warm spell early this week, to open the windows to that new-spring scent of fresh air floating indoors. I gladly notice new birdsong nearly every day as the warm-weather, feathered residents return gradually, following the snowmelt. The blooming of the first crocuses thrilled me as it has every spring since I was a little girl.

Still, I’m reluctant to bid a firm adieu to winter. And so I snuck away from the desk Monday morning for a few more spring skiing runs. The combination of warm sun on my face and soft snow beneath my skis was blissful. I wanted it to last, just a little longer.

Maybe we’ll get in one more day of skiing this weekend. If we do, I imagine it will be just enough to keep me longing for more – fodder for those summer days to come, when dreams of skiing sneak in past the warmth and color, and I am floating through cool white again.

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 14, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Bedtime Shift

For as long as I can remember, I have been a bedtime reader. I love a good story, sometimes to the detriment of a good night’s rest. So it’s no surprise that my kids read at bedtime, too. It’s a habit we started before they could identify the letters of the alphabet, when I would nestle two, then three, small children onto my lap and read as part of the bedtime routine.
 
Bedtime reading -- even long after you outgrow the cradle!
One night last week it struck me – out of the blue, as these parenting things so often do – how much that bedtime routine has changed at our house over the years.

I was tucking in the not-so-little-anymore littlest one when it hit me that she is the only one I still read to on a regular basis – and that soon she’ll probably want to read on her own at bedtime, as her older brother and sister do now.

When the kids were little, we would take turns snuggling all together in one bed or another, rotating whose turn it was to choose the book. There were favorites, of course, most memorably Goodnight Moon and The Going to Bed Book. I can still recite large portions of both from memory.

As the kids grew – in both stature and story savvy – we moved to the stairs, where I could snuggle one child onto my lap and the other two on either side. We shifted from rhyming picture books to longer stories, then progressed to chapter books. I read the Little House on the Prairie series, a couple of E.B. White classics, and the first two or three Harry Potter books out loud to my children at bedtimes.

Gradually, as the older two became stronger independent readers, one or both of them would be too enmeshed in whatever book they were reading on their own to join the family bedtime reading session. I’d often find myself sitting unnecessarily on the stairs with only one child.

Now the youngest McPhaul is an independent reader, too. We still read together most nights, she and I, although now we alternate pages: she reads a page to me, I read a page to her.

I tuck the other kids in before or after, sharing a few moments – often our only one-on-one time of the day – to hear the news from their day, or to answer kid questions, or to simply appreciate that they still want me to tuck them in.

Bedtime is, however, not always peaceful. A morning person by nature, I am often frazzled by then – distracted by the running list of things to do before I get to go to bed myself, thinking of some work challenge or household task, or frustrated by the disarray I find when I step into the kids’ rooms to say goodnight. 

Many nights I have to will myself to take a deep, calming breath and carry on through tucking-in time with some sense of calm. (I am not always successful in this endeavor.)

The littlest one takes the longest to tuck in. She often has reading homework, which she insists on saving until bedtime. After that, there is a whole series of bedtime measures that must be taken: a special song, our secret handshake, and a specific sequence of kisses. This can be both sweet and exhausting.

Since my bedtime revelation last week, I am embracing the sweet side of the bedtime routine and trying to let go of the rest.

This youngest child and her older sister often tiptoe downstairs – or slide down the banister – to find me long after they’ve been tucked in. They need a drink of water or to pack something in a school bag or to tell me one more thing. Sometimes they’re just after an extra hug.

Some nights I hurry them back to bed with a quick squeeze and a firm admonition to go to sleep. But sometimes I linger in that last hug of the night. I notice how tall my children have become and wonder how much longer they’ll come to me for one more post-bedtime cuddle. I know this phase, too, will pass as they grow bigger, more independent, further from those nights of bedtime stories read together.

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 24, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ski Buddies

Some of my best and longest-standing friendships are with my childhood ski buddies. So it’s been fun, in that circle-of-life way, to watch my children creating bonds with their own ski pals this winter.

Ski buds from way back!
Watching these friendships unfold, I’ve pondered what it is about skiing that fosters such close ties. Perhaps it is simply that there is ample time on cold chairlift rides to talk and laugh. Maybe it’s lunchtime in the lodge or cheering each other on at ski races.

My sense, though, is that it’s more than that. It’s something about shared experience – the early morning wakeup calls and bundling up against the cold, the days spent outside that both exhaust and exhilarate, the immeasurable sense of joy that comes from flying down a mountain – the things skiers understand simply through embodiment.

When I was a kid, my family headed north from our home in Massachusetts to our ski place each Friday night, then repeated the trip in reverse Sunday evening. The drive was about three hours one way. Looking back now, from the perspective of a mom with three kids and all the related logistics, I’m not sure how my parents did it. But I’m awfully glad they did.

None of my friends from home skied. There was no school ski program, like the one my own kids participate in now. The local high school didn’t have a ski team. The closest place to ski –the place where I taught ski lessons for a while as a teenager – was a hill smaller than the trail where I learned to turn as a toddler.

I didn’t think much about this skiing lifestyle when I was a kid. It was just what we did. And it was what my ski friends and their families did, too, whether they trekked to the mountains from someplace else, as we did, or lived more locally.

Every Saturday and Sunday of the season, plus every single day of winter vacations, we were out of the house and headed to the mountain before the sun – if it made an appearance at all – was fully risen over the mountains. At lunch time, we gathered together – a gaggle of kids and their parents – to eat sandwiches, crowded around a few tables in the lodge. On Saturday nights, multiple families congregated at one house or another in an alternating pot luck that lasted the length of ski season.

I played other sports growing up, most notably soccer. While I’m still friends with many of the girls (and guys) I played with, it’s a different, more distant friendship. Maybe that’s because I no longer play much soccer. But I think it comes down to the observation attributed to legendary Dartmouth College ski coach Otto Schniebs: “Skiing is more than a sport. It is a way of life.”

Skiing has certainly been an integral part of my life and my way of living, affecting not only my friendships but the places I have chosen to live, the work I have done, and the way I am raising my family.

As I thought about ski buddies – old and new – this week, I realized the multi-generational effect of skiing in my life. I grew up not only with my skiing friends, but surrounded by their families as well, and skiing runs deep in this crowd.

My friend Amy’s dad still runs the timing for every race the Franconia Ski Club hosts. The new warming hut at the base of the Mittersill slopes at Cannon, where we grew up skiing together, is named for her mom, who volunteered countless hours over many decades to skiing and young skiers. Likewise, Becky’s dad works as race administrator for FSC, and her mom races on the same team I do in the local innkeepers’ league.

My own parents met on the mountain where my family still skis – three generations of us. My dad, at a spry 81 years old, has a 40-year PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) pin and still teaches ski lessons. My mom skis multiple times each week, sneaking in runs with the grandkids when she can.

The second and third generations of this crew gathered last Saturday night for dinner. The kids ran around the house, playing and giggling. The grownups hung around the kitchen sipping beers and talking – mostly about skiing. It was like déjà vu from 30 years ago.

A few days earlier, my kids had hosted sleepovers for a couple of their own skiing buddies. It didn’t seem to matter that they were spending every day of school vacation together, from early morning straight through afternoon, these kids were trying to pack in as much time together as possible. It’s like they’re making up for the days lost between ski weekends.

I know from years of experience that ski season ends, and ski buddies scatter, if only temporarily, back to their non-ski-season circles and activities. But we’re already talking about getting together during those no-skiing months – I and my ski friends, and my kids and theirs – about trips to the beach and hikes in the mountains.  

Whenever it ends, ski season will come again. There will be more chairlift rides, more dinners for gathering, more laughing and playing and talking together. Ski seasons come and go, but ski buddies are forever. 

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 10, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

No-break February

“What day is it?” my groggy children mumble from the jumble of covers lately when I rouse them in the mornings. “Do we have school or skiing?”

Depending on the answer – and despite the fact my kids like both of those things – there is either disgruntled grumbling or a contented harumph sighed with the waking-up stretch.

This view from this "office" never gets old.
I have a distinct late-childhood memory of standing at the end of the driveway, skis and gear bag in hand, so early one winter morning that I watched the sun’s first pink glow while I waited for my lift to a ski race. I have non-racing skiing friends who were raised with the importance of being at the mountain for first chair drilled into them over many winters of pre-dawn wakeup calls.

Early mornings are simply part of the skiing game.

We are past the midway mark of ski season, at that divergent point that comes with every season: by now we are firmly settled into the winter routine, but fatigue is creeping in. I think that’s why schools schedule February break here – so we can all take a deep breath, pause, and regroup.

For some, that break means a trip to Disney World or some beach far south of here or a tropical cruise. For my family, February break means sleeping in an extra half hour, since the lifts don’t open until 9 o’clock next week. 

February is for skiing, and this month often features the best skiing of the season. Already this February, local skiers have enjoyed deep powder, firm corduroy, and spring-like conditions. We’ve had dumping snow, sunny skies, and even a bit of – ugh – rain. It’s like a whole ski season of variability wrapped into 28 short days.

Next week it won’t matter what day it is; we’ll be off to the ski hill bright and early every morning. That is, assuming everyone stays healthy.

Last year my kids kicked off school vacation week with a three-way case of strep throat. Some may call that good timing, having an off week to recoup. But there is very little couch-sitting around our house between the end of November and the middle of April. (We’re actually not big fans of couch-sitting in any season.)

The Crud hit when I was smack in the middle of two straight weeks of coaching. Thank goodness for a Nana who believes she is invincible in the face of germs. She took my sick kids until the antibiotics kicked in, at which point they were back on the slopes. By the end of that week, though, I was hit with a can’t-get-out-of-bed variety of sick.

This year I am trying to pace myself – and the kids. I nag them constantly to wash their hands, keep said hands away from faces, take their daily vitamins. We eat lots of vitamin C-rich foods. We go to bed early.

There is skiing to be had, after all, and while fatigue may be creeping in during this mid-winter madness, so is the awareness that we are on the waning side of ski season.

In the corporate world, the proverbial early bird may get the figurative worm. In the ski world, the early riser gets first chair, which means fresh tracks on a powder day, smooth corduroy on all the others. We’ll take our downtime in April.

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 Feb. 24, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Home Hill

There is a small kicker built carefully into the short hill by the driveway, and ski tracks mark the snow throughout the yard. Spending all their Saturdays and Sundays and vacation days from late November through mid-April in their ski boots is, apparently, not enough for my kids. So, they have built a mini ski-and-sled park at home.

Many days, some combination of my children is outside from moments after we return home from school until I haul them in for dinner. Sometimes they gulp their food down and run back out to the cold darkness for a few more minutes of snow play before bedtime. One evening last week I gave up trying to get the kids inside and just ate dinner by myself.

I like to think that my children are not overscheduled, but the truth is that in the winter, our family is busy. Mainly that is due to our skiing addiction and the obligations that come with that. But as the kids grow older, it seems there is more busy-ness introduced each season.

Two of them now play instruments, which they are meant to practice on a regular basis. One plays basketball, which means two nights of practice or games each week during the winter. Then there are the afterschool activities, academic and otherwise, which push the calendar toward overflowing.

None of the kids is involved in all of the activities on that calendar, but the logistics of who is supposed to be where, and when they’re supposed to be there, is sometimes overwhelming.

Impromptu playtime, wherever we find it – before school, after dinner, for nearly the entire bonus time of the rare weather-induced delayed start to school – is crucial to keeping all of us balanced. On days with no afterschool activities on the docket, no basketball practice, and no homework, out the kids go, come cold or blowing snow, afternoon sunshine or post-dusk darkness.

They grab sleds or skis. Brooms, shovels, and rakes are hauled off the porch and out of the garage for the purpose of “grooming” the ski runs and sledding hill. The puppy bounces enthusiastically after her kids, excited by their excitement.

On the little hill that runs from the curve of the driveway into the stubbly field, the kids make laps. They schuss down on their skis, hitting the little kicker, competing in impromptu races, or simply seeking a few seconds of speed and cold wind in their faces.

They get running starts to build momentum before jumping, head-first and belly-down, onto sleds. They link arms to slide downhill together, side by side. They develop elaborate, clumsily acrobatic tricks that involve multiple people and someone transferring from one moving sled to another on their way down the hill.

Sometimes, during these snow-sliding escapades, someone lands on a face or bonks a knee into an ice chunk or gets an arm twisted the wrong way. Then, there are tears as the wounded party hobbles inside. But they always go back out, later that night or at the next obligation-free opportunity, taking to the home hill with the abandon of kids set free. 

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 Feb. 10, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Snow Day (Sort Of)

Tuesday morning I awoke to the aggravating sound of sleet pelting the bedroom windows. I much prefer the soft whisper of snowflakes to the sideways assault of frozen water, for a whole host of reasons. One is that whispers are easier to sleep through.
What a snow day should look like...

Regardless, the kids were happy to have a day off from school, even if it was more of a “sleet day” than a “snow day.”

Snow days (or sleet-and-freezing-rain days) are the only chance my brood gets to sleep in during the winter. Otherwise, we are up early for school, and just as early – sometimes earlier – for weekend skiing. It was nice Tuesday not to have to drag the kids out of bed in the dark of a winter morning.

Instead, they emerged on their own time, all tousle-haired and sleepy-eyed – and confused about why they were allowed to sleep late (which, in our house, means 7 o’clock). “No school? A snow day?” asked my son when he heard the news. “Yes!”

It’s been a while since we’ve had a snow day. When the kids were younger, we used to build little kickers in the back yard on the rare weather-induced day off. The kids would fly off the jumps on sleds or skis and come back inside with rosy cheeks and wet mittens.

Or we’d make snow creatures in the front yard. Some winters we’ve had such a huge pile of snow at the edge of the driveway, the kids could build snow forts complete with sitting areas and tunnels and exit slides.

We haven’t had a snowbank worthy of a fort for a couple of winters now. In December the snow-building opportunities seemed to be looking up. The plow had made decent piles in the fort area. Elsewhere in the yard, the kids had shaped and piled blocks of snow to make the start of an igloo. There was even a small snowman – until the puppy ate it.

Alas, all that white stuff has long since melted. Tuesday’s warm temps and so-called “mixed precipitation” resulted mainly in our driveway-turned-skating-rink melting out – again – into large puddles of slush. There was not enough snow to make even one snowball, let alone an elaborate structure.

Instead, we went for a long walk in the woods, discovering ice-fringed hemlock and beech branches before the temperature warmed to a melting degree. In the shelter of the trees, the mixed precip had left enough white to make a satisfying crunch underfoot, although we had to step carefully through the not-quite-frozen marshy area along our route.

Despite the sad, snowless state of the yard, the sleet day timing was perfect. The day before, two of these children had pulled in quite the haul of birthday presents, which they now had time to properly explore. One kid was recovering from a cold, and we both appreciated the bonus relaxation time to push her back toward healthy.

The day also left us with time for catch-up chores. In the process of cleaning up, lost mittens were found buried under the birthday goodies, new clothes given as Christmas presents were unearthed in the corner of a bedroom, and long-forgotten toys were happily rediscovered.

There were also a few rounds of board games played, some quiet coloring time, bouts of spontaneous snuggling, and – of course – the arguments that come from too much together time.

By the end of the day, the puppy and I were both exhausted, even if the kids seemed rejuvenated by this bonus day off. I thought of my friend in Tahoe, where they’ve received something like 300 inches (that’s 25 feet!) of snow this month. Her kids have had 10 snow days in the last few weeks. That means they’ve been out of school almost twice as many days as they’ve been in.

While the occasional snow day is a nice pause in routine, I’m not sure I’d take 10 of them in a month. But I sure would like some of that snow.
 
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 January 27, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Dog Tales

Last week I was interviewing a guy for a story I’m writing and realized we were neighbors once, nearly two decades ago and more than 2,000 miles from here. The first hint was when he said he’s lived in Crested Butte, Colorado, for the better part of the last 40 years. But it was his mention of having golden retrievers – a long line of them, now in the 12th generation – that ultimately tipped me off.

Hey, neighbor, wanna play?
It’s safe to say I’m a dog person, the kind who crouches down to greet canines at just about every opportunity – at holiday parades, during walks through the neighborhood, along hiking trails. I will often ask strangers the name, age, and breed of their dog without seeking a bit of intel about themselves. Dogs make good conversation starters – and great company.

I knew three of my interviewee’s dogs, from the seventh and eighth generations of the ongoing line, back in my ski town days, when I was living in a basement-level apartment across the street. Chipeta, Moki, and Dillon – a mother and two siblings – would often amble across the traffic-less road and sit at the top of my front steps, dropping a tennis ball down the stairs until I either came out to play or let them in to hang out.

They were mellow and sweet and – most importantly – provided a doggy fix to a dog-loving girl who was without a dog.

After I made the connection last week, I pulled out an old photo album to look for pictures of the golden trio. Stuck amid images of a 20-years-younger me, I found a few shots of the neighborhood dogs – including one of the three of them lined up at the top of my stairs, an old tennis ball at their feet – along with other pups who filled the void during my dogless years, that time between when I left my childhood home and the dogs I grew up with and when I got my own first dog.

Otis and Boone – a golden retriever and a black lab/golden mix – accompanied me on countless hikes and backpacking outings. They belonged to friends, and I sometimes dog-sat for them when their people were away. Ike, an age-hobbled, perpetually smiling yellow lab, was another of my dog-sitting charges. Chelsea was the next-door-neighbors’ mutt, who ran alongside her people on long mountain bike rides well into her old age.

The ski shop where I worked in Crested Butte had a host of shop dogs. Bella was a slightly gawky Bernese Mountain dog who belonged to one of the shop owners. Ruby, a yellow lab who went with the other owner, was Bella’s older, more distinguished counterpart. Rounding out the mix was Honey, a sweet golden who tagged along to work with the office manager.

Around the corner from the house where I lived for four years, there was a huge malamute named Ullr, after the Norse god of winter. Ullr howled daily with the noontime whistle and was always up for a belly rub. I was happy to oblige as I passed the inn where Ullr kept watch, finding contentment in his general doggy happiness and the feel of fur on fingers.

Then there was Ben, a smiling, slightly shaggy, black dog who lived with the family I worked for when I left Colorado and overshot New England by a few thousand miles to land, briefly, in the west of Ireland. Ben loved to play soccer and would join me and the family’s two boys in our evening games in the barnyard. That combination of a dog to pat and a soccer ball at my feet lent a sense of the familiar in a place far from home.

I haven’t thought about this cast of dogs for a long while, but that random blast from the past brought them all back to me. Like good dogs everywhere, this canine crew offered unconditional friendship at times when I was without my own doggy sidekick, easy company during skiing and hiking explorations, and simple stress relief through belly rubs and ear scratches.

It’s been more than 15 years since I moved back East, which means all those dogs are now long gone. But I still can picture them in the old, familiar places, can still see in my mind’s eye their dog-smiling faces and happy anticipation about everything from hikes to biscuits to the noontime whistle.

They weren’t my dogs, but they’re all locked into my heart’s memory just the same, friends from other times and other places.

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 January 13, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.