Friday, November 10, 2017

Memory Lane

I attended my 25th high school reunion last weekend. Because my parents moved away about 20 years ago, I rarely have a reason to visit my first hometown. And because I wasn’t in any particular rush when I first arrived in town, I spent a bit of time driving around to once-familiar haunts.

As I cruised the streets where I spent my first 18 years, I found memories around every corner.

Although my first scheduled stop was the elementary school where I attended kindergarten through 5th grades, I drove past the Route 9 exit that would have brought me most directly there, continuing instead for another mile or two so I could drive past the house where I grew up, a pretty 1720 Cape with dormered windows and enough memories to fill an entire book case.

There was the bedroom window where I spent many a contemplative moment looking out at the world. There was the garage whose doors I kicked the soccer ball against as I waited for winter to give up and the green grass of spring to arrive. There was the turn into the driveway where I came in too sharply one day on the way home from my paper route and crashed my Huffy bike and tore a hole in my new corduroys. There were the gardens, now reconfigured, my mother cultivated carefully for more than two decades.

Onward I drove, turning right onto Maynard Street, following my old jogging route. I’d forgotten how many beautiful old houses are tucked away there, carefully tended historic gems set among much newer houses. I let my whims guide where I turned the wheel, and my meanderings led me past the bank where I opened my first savings account, the library where I checked out my first borrowed books, and around the corner to the YWCA where I went to preschool. Tucked under a tree was a fenced-in area containing an assortment of colorful toys scattered around a plastic slide where the latest generation of preschoolers plays.

I drove past my old schools and the church where I attended mass the Sunday mornings of my childhood, the house where one of my first best friends lived, the sidewalks where we rode our bikes together to get penny candy and bubblegum downtown. I maneuvered my way around the center-of-town traffic rotary, which seems more perplexing after so many years away, and traveled along the narrow, winding road where I once got too close to the edge and took off the side mirror of my little pickup truck.

Along the way, I thought how strange it seems that a place I haven’t much visited in the past 20 years can still seem so familiar, despite the growth and changes, the new malls and altered storefronts, the high school that seems twice the size as it was when I last walked its hallways to make my way to physics class or senior English or the gymnasium where our rainy-day graduation was staged.

Despite being a self-proclaimed sap, I’m not generally sentimental for my first hometown. This trip I felt a bit of a tug on my heart, though. Maybe because I was traveling by myself, without the banter and many questions of children coming from the backseat – so, left to my own meandering thoughts.

Although I have been away from Westborough for longer now than the time I called it home, this is where I come from. We don’t get to choose where we live as children, but that place – and the people within it – certainly shapes us.

In that way, I am lucky to have spent my early formative years here, where I landed in a class of kids who were good and smart and funny. Because I lived in the same house in the same town from birth until college, and because lots of my classmates did, too, many of these people are kids I grew up with, from preschool through elementary school and on to middle school and high school, from kiddie soccer to varsity, from diapers to drivers’ licenses.

We knew each other when we were all still figuring out who we were, when we were people perhaps different from whom we have become many years later. I suppose, in essence, the spirit of the kids we were all those years ago is still there in our 40-something beings. It’s why we tell each other we look the same as we did then – because we can still see the 17-year-old within, still remember how we laughed and cried together, even if we no longer remember the cause of specific emotions. 

I was reminded of how good and smart and funny my classmates were during our few hours together Saturday. Like most people, I’d guess, I keep in touch with a few friends from high school, although we mainly see each other in glimpses on social media. Getting together Saturday felt a bit like when grownup siblings reassemble for occasional family dinners. Around the expected small talk, there was banter and good-natured bickering and – our sixth grade English teacher would be so proud – a spontaneous group sing of the Preposition Song.

There was no sorrow in the parting, just gladness in having seen each other. At least that’s how I felt as I bid goodbye to old friends and acquaintances, and as drove away the next morning, having spent the night with a friend and classmate who still lives in town. I passed my old house one more time, turned onto the road that is a shortcut to the highway, and headed north. Toward home.

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 November 10, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Soccer Lessons

Remember that feeling, I told my daughter Saturday afternoon. The one of elation that came after you buried the shot and were mobbed by happy, screeching teammates. Remember that one as much as the other one: the sad disappointment of landing on the wrong side of a hard loss. Both are important.

The first time I ended up in a dog pile of happy, screeching teammates I was a freshman in college, and my soccer team had beaten a tough rival. I don’t remember the import of that game, but I’ll always remember that feeling of pure, adrenaline-fueled joy and the camaraderie that comes with being part of a team celebrating in a grass-stained, sweaty heap. That was the same season we lost to another close rival on penalty kicks. Our last shooter was our senior captain – a four-time all-American and steady as they come – and she launched the ball well over the cross-bar, sending our hopes of defending the national title with it.

You win as a team, you lose as a team. And doing either by penalty kicks is a pretty awful way to end a game. But it’s a lot less awful when you win. It took me until college to learn that lesson. Our girls, mostly aged 10 and 11, learned it during Saturday’s annual Halloween Cup after a series of five games where they dominated play – but still ended up without the coveted candy-filled trophy.

We tell our kids – in sports and school and friendships and life – to give it their all, do their best, try their hardest, and good things will come. But sometimes you can do all that and still end up on the losing end. Sometimes you don’t make the team. Sometimes the best team doesn’t win. As country music icon Mary Chapin Carpenter put it in a song: sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.

Our girls were feeling utterly squashed after the last ball was kicked Saturday. They’d played all day with grit and heart, allowing only a few shots and no goals against them through three regular games, a semi-final, and the championship match. Yet, after a scoreless overtime and a tied first round of penalty kicks, it was the other team celebrating the win, and ours left stunned and teary-eyed.

My coaching partner and I have played a lot of soccer. We’ve felt the highs of winning big games and the lows of tough losses, and we love the game through it all. We told the girls we were proud of them, to hold their heads high, but our eyes brimmed with emotion, too, behind our sunglasses. It’s one thing to go through the disappointment of losing; it’s something else entirely to watch your kids and their teammates feel a loss so deeply.

My freshman year of high school, my team won a single game all season. But I loved soccer, loved playing, loved the team, wanted to get better. A year later, I was cut from the first club team I tried out for. I’d wanted to be on that team badly, and I was devastated. But I got back out there, practiced even harder, kept playing, and made that team the next season.

If I hadn’t been cut and felt that disappointment, I wouldn’t have worked so hard to get better, and I wouldn’t have made it onto the team the next year. Without that team, I wouldn’t have had a chance of playing in college. I would have missed a lot of soccer highs.

I was reminded after Saturday’s shootout of another, similar outcome two years ago, when another team of Lafayette girls made the finals and lost on penalty kicks. After a game like that, all you can do is cry a little, then get up and move on to the next thing. Keep practicing, keep trying, keep playing.

The girls from that game two years ago just completed an undefeated season of middle school soccer. I’d bet most of them can reach back in their young memories and recall the disappointment of coming so close to winning their own Halloween Cup, only to be defeated on the last kick. And I’d bet they all have other memories, happier ones, of scoring goals and winning games and celebrating together.

I wish I had a photograph of my daughter in that moment after she made the goal and turned around with an exhilarated leap to face her cheering teammates. I wish I had a photograph of all the girls at the end of every other game that day, when their smiles were proud and happy, when they were at the high end of emotion. Perhaps the best part of being a coach – at any level, with any sport – is seeing that look on the face of someone who has worked hard, made a breakthrough, seen effort transformed into some form of victory.

I don’t know how long these girls will play soccer, but I hope it’s many more seasons. I hope they keep playing, keep learning, keep loving the game. I hope they work through the lows to reach the highs. I hope along the way they all end up in a few grass-stained, sweaty, exuberant, celebratory heaps on the field. And I hope that’s the feeling they remember best.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the October 24, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Swear Jar

The first time I heard my mother swear I cried. I was probably 12 years old, too old to be crying over swear words spoken under duress and without malicious intent. But something was obviously very bad if Mom was uttering a four-letter-word.

We were driving in the family minivan, which was front-wheel drive, through Franconia Notch in a storm blending snow and sleet, with a slick sheen of black ice glossing the pavement for good measure. Dad asked how the driving was. Mom, clutching the wheel in the dark, answered with a variation of what my kids would call “the S word.”

Fast forward a generation to children who do not shed tears at the utterance of swear words. My kids are familiar with all the most oft used four-letter words, and a few others. Partly this is because they are at that age where swear words are fascinating in their sheer naughtiness. Partly it is that my older two children are on a reading tear that progresses through several books a week, which means they have moved on to more adult content, which includes, sometimes, minor league swear words. And partly – I’m not proud to admit – it’s because their mother has a potty mouth.

I do not drop swear words into everyday conversation, but I do sometimes slip up on the language front. To stem the tide of the bad words I utter, this summer I implemented a Swear Jar.

My children think this is great fun: Mom plops a quarter in the jar every time she commits a verbal violation. (So, rarely, does Dad, as well as other visiting grown-ups who are caught by my gleeful children in adult conversation using the occasional adult vocabulary.) They think the jar will be filled in no time, and they will subsequently be rich with shiny quarters. I’m just hoping it helps me clean up my language.

Why do I cuss? It’s certainly not a product of my own upbringing, during which nary an F-bomb was dropped. If my dad uttered something so harsh as “damn,” we knew one of us was in big trouble. That evening in the car when my mom swore, I thought the world might just be ending.

I don’t remember when swear words wiggled into my regular vocabulary. Maybe it was college, or the gradual increase of swearing in movies and T.V. shows and other forms of pop culture. Probably, though, it started during the five years of my relative youth when I lived in a ski town. Or in the several years after that when I spent (and still spend) a considerable amount of time hanging out with a bunch of other ski coaches, who can toss around the swear words nearly as ably as legendarily cuss-happy sailors. I used to coach all winter with a friend who is also a fisherman, which is close to a sailor, at least when it comes to language usage.

It was in between those two eras, however, during the six months I lived in Ireland, when I first experienced cussing as an art form. The Irish have earned a reputation for their friendly hospitality, but if you spend a bit of time with the locals, you’ll find those lilting Irish voices take swearing to a level far beyond any American ski coach or sailor. They pronounce some favorites a bit differently – replacing a U with an E in one and transforming a short-I sound into a long-I in another – but the gist is the same. And they use words even I can’t bear to utter, tossing them into conversation as if they’re harmless qualifiers.

Regardless of how my potty mouth has evolved, I have made a strong attempt to restrain it since my kids arrived on the scene. Like many parents, I’ve developed verbal alternates to actual cuss words. “Son of a motherless goat!” is great when I drop something on my toe or whack my head on the not-fully-opened back door of the minivan. “For Pete’s sake,” which I may have inherited from my dad, is a good all-purpose expression of frustration. I also enjoy, “For the love of Pete,” alternately, “For the love of all that is holy.”

I am trying to be creative in articulating my annoyances, and the very presence of the Swear Jar inspires me, usually, to take a deep breath before bleeping. It is being filled much more slowly than my kids thought it would be. We’ve decided that if the Swear Jar ever does get filled up (or if I just stop needing it), we will donate that money to some local charity.

Less swearing and a bit of cash for a good cause: that sounds like a win-win, no matter how you say it.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the October 13, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 22, 2017

What goes up must come down

Sunday afternoon, knees creaking with every step, I remembered ABC’s Wide World of Sports intro from many years ago and thought the wording could be changed to, “The thrill of summiting and the agony of descent.”

Coming down Cannon earlier this summer.
Hiking can be a punishing sort of pleasure, even more so with kids, and I was feeling the punishing part of it on the way down Mount Moosilauke.

There was a time when I preferred the downhill to the up. I remember running down trails as a kid, exhilarated by the speed and making daring leaps over obstacles. Not once did I consider my knees and their perfect cartilage.

Those days are long gone. Now, the descents are often, indeed, agonizing. My knees grind and click with every step. I lean heavily into my hiking poles to get through the steepest parts of the trail. Somehow, I still expect the down to take less time than the up, but that is rarely the case.

“When will we be at the bottom?” the youngest hikers in our group asked repeatedly during Sunday’s descent of the steep Beaver Brook Trail, when each landmark we remembered from the trek upward seemed impossibly far away from the last one we’d passed.

The tradeoff for the pain of going down, of course, is reaching the lofty tops of mountains after going up, looking over a small piece of the world from thousands of feet higher than when you started. On the upward journey, there is the promise of the summit, of views that stretch for miles across other peaks and into neighboring states.

Sunday’s hike up Moosilauke also included scrambling along pretty waterfalls and marveling at the wooden steps bolted into granite ledges for our climbing pleasure. The kids checked out a backpacking shelter just off the trail, the boys distracted themselves with some imaginary game they’d devised, and the younger girls happily plucked bright red bunchberries from the edge of the path.

There was mild consternation at the steepness and length of the climb, but this was easily assuaged by doling out chocolate and well-timed breaks. Less than a mile from the summit, a tweaked knee threatened to keep the 8-year-old tweakee and her mother (me) from the top, but with the goal tantalizingly close, she power-limped through.

And then – ahhh. What a summit! What a thrill! I’d be long content at the top of about any mountain I’ve climbed – at least on days like Sunday, which was sunny and bug-free and warm even at nearly 5,000 feet up. I could sit there and watch cloud shadows drift across the landscape for hours.

Alas, the world below always eventually calls.

With our summit aspirations met, lunches dug out of backpacks and hungrily consumed, and obligatory top-of-the-mountain photos taken, our merry crew of five kids, two dogs, and three creaky-kneed grownups headed down. The kids were raring to get back on the trail, unimpressed in their youth with contemplating life from on high. We adults, though, lamented the quickness with which we were back below treeline, away from the views and the openness of the summit.

On tired legs, we slowly made our way down the mountain. Back through the high-elevation fir forest, descending until we reached birches and mountain ash, following the trail back to the steep cascades of Beaver Brook, picking our way carefully down the wooden blocks and boulder steps. Once down, we piled, relieved and exhausted, into the car, where the dog promptly fell asleep with her head in the littlest’s lap.

“That was not my favorite hike,” said littlest told me when we reached home.

That’s an easy sentiment to hold immediately after a challenging climb and descent. But once we’re all showered and fed and have unloaded our packs, we remember most the fun – or funny – parts of each hike. The moon rising over Mt. Lafayette and that sense of awe in looking out across a wilderness nearly unmarred by human activity. The gray jays that ate puffed corn snacks off the kids’ heads on Mt. Jackson (incidentally, on the way down that not-as-steep trail). Our famished dog thieving a pizza lunch on Moosilauke (not funny at the moment, but something I bet we’ll all remember for a long time).

We tend to forget the hardest parts of each hike and hold tight to the special memories and the lofty places that make hearts sing. In the end, we are always happy to have gone up a mountain – even if it means we’ve also had to come down. 

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 22, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

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.