Friday, August 10, 2018

GOAL!

As the clock ticked toward the final minute of play, I worried we were in for the disappointment of a loss. My daughter had been asking for ages for the chance to watch her favorite soccer player – Alex Morgan – in a live game. Now here we were, in a sea of #13 jerseys, and the U.S. Women’s National Team was down 1-0 and almost out of time.

We waited anxiously amid the crowd of 21,000+, hoping for some last-second magic, yelling out to the players on the field just in front of us, hoping our cheers would inspire a goal.

One of my faves, Carli Lloyd.
Three years ago, when the once-every-four-years Women’s World Cup was being contested in Canada, my husband and I considered making the drive to Montreal to watch the U.S. – the eventual winners of the coveted Cup – play. I’ve been kicking myself ever since that we didn’t load our then 6- and 8-year-olds into the minivan and head north for that. So, when I saw the U.S. Women’s National Team would be playing in Connecticut, I bit the bullet, bought the tickets, and headed south.

My kids have watched a lot of soccer games with me in the living room. They’ve seen me sitting literally on the edge of my seat, watched me jump out of said seat in excitement, and heard both mutters of discontent and loud shouts of triumphant joy. Like pre-teens everywhere, the kids have become adept at rolling their eyes at their mother’s weird antics. But now they get into the games just as much – and often as vocally – as I do.

Nothing compares, though, to being there live to watch the action – with several thousand soccer-crazed strangers.

First, there was a meandering drive through a labyrinth of parking lots until we were finally directed into a spot, followed by the long walk to the stadium, where everything – from a hot dog to a taco to a bottle of water – seemed to sell for the bargain price of $5.

Eventually, we got to the good stuff. The official walk-in by the starting 11. A live performance of the National Anthem. Pre-game fireworks on the field. The team huddling up before kick-off – just like the kids do before their games.

Naturally reserved, my kids weren’t quite sure about joining in the “U-S-A!” chant that erupted at various points throughout the game, but they eventually did. We rose up for the wave as it undulated through the stadium. And, of course, we watched soccer. We groaned when Australia scored mid-way through the first half and rode the rollercoaster of great plays, hard charges, and near misses.

Second half was the best, as the U.S. team controlled much of the play and attacked the goal at our end of the field. Alex Morgan was yards away. Megan Rapinoe took several corner kicks so close to our seats, she surely heard us cheering for her. Rose Lavelle, Crystal Dunn, and Tobin Heath dazzled us with their killer footwork. Carli Lloyd came on near the end of the game to a huge ovation.

It all feels different when it’s happening right there in front of you, life-sized, without a commentator dissecting every move and the distraction of instant replay. I could tell by the kids faces, they were soaking it all up.

As the minutes ticked up to 90, though, it seemed a lesson in disappointment was headed our way. And then, in the final minute of the game, on the last Rapinoe corner kick, Lindsey Horan timed her run and her leap just right and headed the ball past the Aussie goalkeeper.

The crowd roared and leapt to its feet – we along with it – in an eruption of triumphant emotion not easily replicated in a living room. In that moment, the lesson shifted from one of disappointment to one of keep-trying-to-the-very-end. A tie, stolen from what had seemed like a sure loss, felt like victory.

It was a little bit of soccer magic, more real because we were right there to see it – and feel it – happen. 

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 10, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.



Friday, July 27, 2018

Cousins

For as many summers as my children can remember, their California cousins have flown east from their suburban home across the country to the relative wilds of northern New England. The arrival of the California cousins – or the Tennessee cousins or the Texas cousins – is an eagerly anticipated event, one the kids talk about for weeks beforehand.
NH & TN cousins, many years ago

My mother, who is an only child, often says she doesn’t fully grasp the relationship between siblings, even after having raised three of them. I feel the same way about cousins. Considering both my parents come from Irish-Catholic families (and each has dozens of cousins), it seems incredible that I only have three first cousins.

I love my cousins dearly, but I’m stuck age-wise between them and their kids. We had regular family gatherings when I was growing up, but the age gap meant we weren’t running around together playing capture the flag or giggling like crazy over nothing much, which is what my kids spent much of the middle of July doing.

This year we met the California crew on Cape Cod – two families with kids ranging in age from 9 to 16 years, a pair of grandparents, and another aunt and uncle thrown into the mix – for a week of beach time. We returned home to New Hampshire to find my husband’s Texas cousins and their kids visiting, which meant a happy continuation of cousin fun.

The cousin bond is special – not quite sibling, but different than friend. Maybe it is the novelty of only seeing each other once a year (or less often), or a sense of familial loyalty, or that they share some of the same stories. Whatever the reasons, the kids fall into the relationship each visit as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

In past years, when the California cousins are on the East Coast, the kids have established a regular list of things to do – hiking Bald Knob, kayaking Long Pond and looking for crayfish and salamanders, toasting marshmallows at the backyard firepit and watching fireflies flit through the summer night.

This year, we got to introduce the California crew to some of our favorite haunts on Cape Cod, where we’ve gone for a week each of the past eight summers. We visited old favorite beaches and explored new ones. We played mini golf in one of our regular (and not so busy) places and checked out a new course down the road from where we were staying.

We got ice cream at the same place my family did when my brothers and I were children and watched the kids run around on the beach we played on when we were little. We even found a new candy store to substitute for the annual cousins visit to Chutters.

From our rental house at the Cape, the kids could tramp down to the beach whenever they felt like it. They usually paired up – one New Hampshire kid, one California kid – in a revolving mix of personalities and activities. My kids look up to their older cousins, all teenagers now, and the older kids seem to appreciate the chance to do kid stuff for a week with a slightly younger crew – and no other teenagers to impress.

The timing of this year’s cousin visits from various corners of the country meant that bidding a melancholy adieu to the California crew was quickly followed by happy anticipation of hanging with the Texas contingent. Before we’d even walked through the door back home, the kids were clamoring to see their Texas cousins, who have visited the past few years.

Forget recovering from vacation, we jumped back in to communal dinners with 20 people – including 10 kids ranging from baby to 13 years old. There were impromptu soccer matches and rounds of hide-and-seek and other made up games. The kids piled into the pickup truck to drive through the field and visit the neighboring cows. There was plenty of general goofing around.

With all the kids growing older, I’m not sure how many more years of week-long summer visits we’ll have. But I know my kids will remember fondly these wild weeks of cousin fun well beyond childhood. 


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 27, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Card Sharks

When I was 9 or 10, I beat an old man at cribbage, high on a mountain. I have no recollection of this encounter, but my father swears it happened, and so it must be true.

This was during one of my family’s multi-day hiking outings when we’d string days on the trail with a night or two at an Appalachian Mountain Club hut. Apparently, the old man was both thrilled and surprised to have been out-pegged by a little girl. Maybe he’d gone easy on me. I have no idea.

The cribbage story is one of the tales my family tells of these outings – along with my older brother’s disagreement with the green spaghetti we ate one night and my younger brother filling his small, teddy bear-toting backpack with rocks along the trail. So I remember it without actually remembering.

I also don’t remember learning to play cribbage, although I imagine this happened over a series of winter nights spent in Franconia, where we came to ski on weekends – and where, when I was growing up, our television received only one or two channels, and that only if the cloud cover was aligned perfectly over the unwieldy antenna on the roof.

In the absence of television and smart phones (heck, back then we shared a party line with the other half-dozen houses on our road), we either read or played games through the long winter evenings and the occasional summer nights spent at the house. There were rousing, post-supper, multi-generational rounds of Balderdash and Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit when friends were over. And, apparently, quieter and more contemplative contests over the cribbage board when fewer people occupied the living room.

Despite growing up in the digital age, my children have become quite the little card sharks in recent years. I will take very little credit for this, as I don’t have the patience to teach card games, with all their intricacies, to anyone. Some games I have learned – or re-learned – along with the kids.

My husband has taught the kids to play Hearts and what we call Bull Poop (rather than the more adult-language name for the game), along with a couple variations of solitaire. He and my parents have also worked to hone the kids’ cribbage skills. Friends have taught them to play Kings in the Corner and Beggar My Neighbor.

Most nights after dinner, at least one of the kids asks to play some card game or another, and in these summer evenings that seem to stretch long between dinner and bed, we usually fit in a round or two of something.

Already, the children have developed a sense for card game strategizing that often escapes me. They delight in holding the Queen of Spades and giving her away at the perfect time in Hearts, and they usually know someone is trying to “shoot the moon” before I do. They can often tell when someone is bluffing at Bull Poop and have learned to count ahead to see which cards they should try to unload at which turn.

It is only at cribbage where I feel I have a slight advantage, but I may be fooling myself here. My older daughter tallies each hand quickly in her head and sometimes knows my score before I have finished counting it out. Both she and her brother have beaten me in cribbage fair and square. (I have never been the mom who lets her kids win – except, perhaps, when they were tiny and wanted to play Candy Land, and I tried to organize the cards so the game wouldn’t last to the point of boring me to tears.)

Last week, the littlest one wanted to learn to play cribbage. She played against a sibling with my husband’s help and was soon ready to tackle the game solo. In her first game on her own, she beat me, and was on the way to skunking me before I managed to close the gap in the last hand.

I think there’s probably some educational value in the card-playing – basic math, planning ahead, having to choose what to keep and what to let go. Mostly, though, it’s just a fun way to pass the time together – wherever we are. A deck of cards slips easily into a pocket or a purse – or a backpack.

Later this summer, we have a two-night hut trip planned in the mountains with another family of card-playing friends. We’ll pack a couple of decks of cards and our smallest cribbage board. Perhaps one of the kids will challenge a stranger to a round, and that will become part of the story we tell many years – and many rounds of cribbage – from now. 

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 13, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, June 22, 2018

June Swoon

If there ever was a June I was ready for school to get out, it was this one. I’m not quite sure why I was so eager for summer this year. Probably it’s a combination of Morning Rush Fatigue, Too Much on the Schedule, and Overtired Kids. We were all ready for a change of scenery and routine.

Mostly, though, I think it’s that I know these seasons when my children will be unencumbered by summer jobs, and when they will still want to spend lots of time hanging out with each other and with me, are rapidly dwindling.

After the rush of end-of-school-year activities, it was nice last week to turn the page on the daytimer and see lots of open space. No games or sports practices (but plenty of time to play in the yard), no classes (but lots of room for imagining and dreaming up home science experiments), no concerts or homework or obligatory appointments.

There are a few items and deadlines penciled in here and there, but we have a week or two of mostly unscheduled time before jumping into summer plans, and I am hoping to be able to shape my work time around family and play time during these school-less weeks that seem always to fly right by.

The kids – in their youthful rush to grow up – may not know how fleeting these sweet days of childhood summer are, but they do know the season is short. They haven’t wasted a moment getting to the fun.

In the first week of summer vacation, they’ve shared a short hike to a semisecret place with friends, basked in the smoky glow of a backyard fire, paddled kayaks along a river, played with friends, and jumped into the rain-refreshed Ham Branch.

The kids have also taken to sleeping in – allowing me precious extra time in the early mornings – and wandering downstairs just in time to watch the day’s first World Cup soccer game. Meals happen when we are hungry, rather than when the clock suggests it’s time to eat. Bedtime has blurred beyond the point of distinction.

Next week we will again adopt some semblance of a daily family schedule, but on a summer scale. There will still be plenty of time for going with the flow, between our summer’s bigger plans: the annual trip to the Cape – this year with West Coast cousins who have never been there – an extended hiking trip with friends, and other plans that range from tackling a few more 4,000 footers and riding bikes through wooded trails to jumping into the river on hot afternoons and impromptu outings for ice cream.

Somewhere in between, I’ll have deadlines to meet and chores to tackle, but I’m striving for that sweet summer balance between meeting obligations and savoring these long days that pass so quickly.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying waking to the strong sunlight and raucous birdsong of summer’s early mornings, the colors of the garden (despite the weeds), the laughter (and, yes, sometimes squabbling) of my children playing in the yard and splashing in the water, fireflies and thunderstorms, and falling asleep to a chorus of frogs singing from the pond and barred owls calling to each other across the just-dark sky.

Ahh, summer, thank goodness you’re here.

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 8, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Field Tripping

With summer vacation perched promisingly on the horizon, it is school field trip season. This was apparent last week in Boston, where I traveled with my older two children and their class for a full day of city exploration – and where around every corner we found a new group of school kids following some similar agenda.

Not Franconia's skyline.
Whether it’s touring the big city or taking a closer look at a local landmark, the kids always look forward to field trips. Partly, I think, this is because they are sprung from the confines and routines of school. Mostly, though, it’s because they get to explore some new place – or a familiar place in a new way.

Over the years, the kids have been on an interesting mix of school trips, and I’ve been lucky to tag along on lots of them. Among their favorites they list the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, with its engaging planetarium discussions and eclectic range of displays; the state house in Concord, where they sat in the Senate chambers and high-fived the governor; and the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, where they’ve learned about animal habits and habitats.

Last week, my younger daughter’s class visited the Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park. While the Flume is just down the road from school, many of the kids had not been here before the field trip.

Caught up in the excitement of being outside on a gorgeous day, the kids seemed somewhat oblivious to the natural beauty that attracts people from all over the world to this place virtually in our back yard. These kids are, after all, growing up surrounded by green things and mountain views. But trips like this give them a chance to learn a bit more about the natural history around them.

Between scrambling across the many glacial erratics along the path, feeling the cool mist from water spilling over the 45-foot-high Avalanche Falls, and clambering through the Bear Cave and the Wolf Den, the children paused – ever so briefly – to notice wildflowers blooming on the forest floor, chipmunks scampering near the trail, woodpecker holes drilled in neat rows into a birch tree, and the calling of a barred owl from somewhere nearby.

The next day, this chaperone went from meandering through the natural wonders of the Flume to pounding the pavement – and cobblestones – of Bean Town. The Boston trip is an annual tradition at my kids’ school, and one the fifth and sixth graders look forward to all year. It’s a long day – starting with boarding the coach bus just after 6 a.m. and ending some 15 hours later when the bus pulls back into the school lot.

This year’s Boston trip included a walk along the Freedom Trail. The students toured Paul Revere’s house and listened to the tale of Revere’s midnight ride at the Old North Church, wandered through Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, scaled the 294 steps to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument, and even got to climb aboard the USS Constitution before returning to Faneuil Hall Marketplace for dinner.

Any one of those places holds enough historical import to fill a book.

Beyond the history, though, and the chance to take a first-person look at some of the things they’ve learned at school, the Boston trip is an experience these country kids – and their chaperoning parents – don’t have every day. The busyness and noise of the city, with all the unfamiliar smells and its skyline of tall buildings rather than tall mountains, is so starkly different than the pace of home.

Just as city life seems distant from our more rural existence, so does history often seem distant when considered from the pages of a book. But walking along the route of that history makes it a bit more real. It is easier, then, to notice the connections between the past and the present, this place and other places.

One of these is that the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill monument was laid by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825. Lafayette, though French, was a hero of the American Revolutionary War, and when he toured this country five decades after the United States had declared its independence, he was met everywhere he went by adoring Americans.

The day after he visited what would become the Bunker Hill monument, Lafayette headed north, to New Hampshire. The mountain that occupies a large portion of the horizon here in Franconia is named in the Marquis’ honor – Mount Lafayette. My children’s school is named for the mountain, which they can see from the playground. Mount Lafayette stands at the northern end of the Franconia Range, which traverses south across Mount Lincoln to reach Mount Liberty and then Mount Flume, down which Flume Brook flows to reach the Flume Gorge.

How fun to join field trips to a place close to home and one farther away – places connected, even if obscurely, through the threads of history that wind from city to town, over mountains and along rivers, from long ago to now. 

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 8, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Spring Sing

Tuesday night was the annual Spring Concert at my kids’ elementary school. Students dressed up, many to a degree reserved for very special occasions in an increasingly casual world – button-down shirts, pretty dresses, fancy shoes. Parents snapped pre-show photos, and an adoring audience filed in to find seats as the band warmed up behind the curtain.

It’s a scene repeated at countless schools in myriad places, and one my children look forward to each May.

During my their first ever school concert, my oldest daughter, the girl who clung to me tearfully each morning of kindergarten, stood front and center on the stage risers, singing and shimmying to the “Penguin Polka” with big confidence. I considered this transformation of shy little girl to happy performer some kind of school concert miracle.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been the mom of kindergarteners (although I can still sing the Penguin Polka). The big kids from my children’s first concert are high schoolers now, my kids are among the older ones on stage, and the kindergarteners seem tiny – and adorable.

Because this is such a small school, we get to watch the children – our own and everybody else’s – grow from wide-eyed, baby-teethed kindergarteners into self-assured pre-teenagers. The difference between the school’s oldest students and its youngest is perhaps nowhere more apparent than when they are all gathered together at the spring concert, just before those sixth-graders head off to middle school.

School concerts are a combination of excited voices and singing ones, well-played instruments and squeaks, charmed laughter from the audience and heartfelt applause. It is perfect – and only occasionally painful – imperfection.

The audience, though the faces change from year to year, is always a mix of parents and grandparents, older siblings who were on the stage not so long ago and younger ones whose turn is still to come, and a medley of other friends and family and teachers.

The concert hall is the school’s gymnasium, which is also the cafeteria. For concert night, lunch tables are folded up and put away next to the kitchen. Folding chairs are rolled out and set up over the markings of the basketball court.

This year’s event featured contemporary songs and old favorites, along with a sword dance, a wild Irish reel, and the weaving of long ribbons around a May pole. The theme was welcoming the arrival of spring, and it seemed apt to celebrate growing, blooming things in a place dedicated to helping growing children find their own ways to bloom.

At every school concert, there is a song that gives me goosebumps – music will do that to a person – and at least one that makes my eyes go all watery. Tuesday, that latter song was Simple Gifts, a Shaker dance tune written 170 years ago and sung Tuesday by the younger children at school. The lyrics are of the joy and simplicity of being free and finding ourselves in just the right place.

In a world that seems so often gone mad, what better, simpler gift, I thought, than to listen to children’s voices singing to a room full of people who love them?

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 25, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Suddenly Summer

Summer, it seems, has come suddenly this year. Or maybe that’s just my excuse for feeling like I’m far behind where I should be this second week of May. For that, I’ll blame the April showers, which were of the snow variety right up to the last day of the month.

Two days after April’s last snow, we had beach weather: sunny and 80 degrees. It feels like we skipped spring and went straight from winter to summer. There was hardly even a Mud Season this year!

Suddenly, the lilac leaves have popped, the bright green shoots of the daylilies along the west side of the house are 10 inches high, and the lawn needs mowing.

I’ve taken advantage of this week’s warmth and sunshine to try to catch up, but most of the house – and yard – is in that between-seasons flux of disarray. My heaviest sweaters are put away, but I still have to dig through the summer bin to find my shorts. I’ve started turning the soil in the garden, but haven’t planned out which veggies I’ll plant where.

Everywhere I look there is something to be done. In some ways, I like this – I can pick which chore or task to tackle based on my mood and the time I have to devote to it on a given day. There are no deadlines, but plenty of work.

This week I have carried the snowshoes and sleds up the narrow stairs in the garage to store them until whenever next winter’s first snow arrives. Skis have been, finally, waxed and strapped together and stored out of sight.

The garage has been swept out and rearranged, allowing easier access to gardening tools and bikes. Soccer balls have taken the place of snow sleds, and golf clubs have replaced skis. I even found the beach towels the other day as I was rearranging the storage area to stow away the winter gear.

Snow shovels have been put away, replaced by rakes to clean up winter’s deposit of fallen twigs and grass thatch. The pea trellis is loaded into the garden cart, waiting for me to stake it into the ground and drop those first seeds of the season into the warming, waiting earth. There are, of course, plenty of weeds to be pulled from the perennial bed.

Summer may have arrived all of a sudden, but I’m still getting there one step – and one task – at a time.

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 11, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Rosa Rugosa

We ripped a good portion of the wild rose hedge out when we first moved in, much to the dismay of this house’s former owner. The Rosa rugosa had hugged the inside curve of the driveway before arcing around the back of the garden wall in a tangle of thorns and flowers, separating a cultivated perennial bed from the wilder field beyond. But we were transforming part of that front field to mown grass, the better to hold the venue tent for our upcoming wedding.

We spent countless hours that spring and summer reconfiguring the garden, and anytime we got within a foot of the slate wall we’d find roots from the rugosa, looking to spread if we’d only let it. Thirteen years later it seems to have settled in to the space we’ve allowed it – a wide swath remaining along that bend of the driveway, stretching for about 30 yards before stopping to leave room for the lawnmower to pass between its thorny branches and the garden wall.

From the side window of my childhood bedroom, I could look out at other roses: a mostly tidy jumble of antique rose bushes at the edge of the yard. In my mind, they are a mix of bright and more subdued hues and smell heavenly – like summer embodied: sweet, hot, ephemeral.

The roses in our yard now are not so refined, but just as lovely. The wide hedge is its own little wilderness, and within its realm are all sorts of wonders.

In Fall, the leaves of the Rosa rugosa are the last to drop. Long after the bright maple and yellow birch leaves have sifted to the ground, when even the tamaracks have dropped their needles, the rose hedge’s rusty leaves finally drift downward.

The naked brambles reveal birds’ nests tucked deep within. Through spring and summer and into fall, the birds maneuver deftly through the twiggy branches, disappearing within to build nests of sticks and grass – or, sometimes, just to take shelter – wisely beyond the reach of potential predators.

Even now, as we wait for the rose hedge to rebound from the weight of winter snow piled onto it for many long, cold weeks – before the green leaves unfurl, before the time for laying eggs – the birds take shelter there, darting within the still-brown brambles when a car comes past or a dog runs near or children yell to each other in the yard, a bit too close for the birds’ comfort.

They flit from bare lilac branches to rose hedge to serviceberry tree and highbush cranberry. The chickadees, year-round residents here, have shifted to their spring song now. Goldfinches – waiting, like the leaves and flowers, to show their summer colors – call “potato-chip, potato-chip” as they fly about. Song sparrows alight on different perches, their bright melody seeming to welcome spring, even on mornings when the temperature dips below freezing.

Soon, we will begin peering beneath the garden-side edge of the rugosa hedge, looking for the curled over spathes of Jack-in-the-pulpit. Several of the quirky plants poke up through the sheltered soil there each late spring, first just pointy leaves reaching skyward, then growing tall and taller and curving protectively over the spadix.

As summer bursts into color – a thought that seems distant with the memory of snow still so fresh – the rugosa’s swath of green leaves becomes peppered with yellow-centered pink blossoms, their scent permeating the yard and floating up to bedroom windows. A couple of wild raspberry canes mingle with the rose thorns, their juicy berries worth the scratches it takes to reach them.

Bees, earlier fed by the apple blossoms of the old orchard out back and a multitude of flowers growing wild through the yard and fields, buzz from rose bloom to rose bloom. The bees – and late summer butterflies – come to the rugosa even after its flowers have faded, to feast on the asters whose tall stalks twine up through the hedge. The bees cling tiredly, during these last warm days, to the asters’ fringed purple blooms as summer declines into chilly nights and shorter days.

But all that is in the seasonal distance. Spring has been late in coming this year, April serving up a slow thaw and lingering show showers. May, on the horizon, offers hope of greening leaves and a landscape slowly changing, from the tired brown left by winter’s cold and melted snow to colors, subtle at first, gradually blossoming into a spectrum of hues.

In the hottest, brightest days, the Rosa rugosa, with its labyrinth of flora and fauna within and around it, will bloom bright pink and divinely scented. Fleeting as summer, yes, but a sweet something to look forward to during the still whispering days of spring. 

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, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Transitioning

These last few weeks, I’ve felt a bit like the tiny crocuses outside the living room window –  alternately basking in the warm spring sunshine and huddling against the stubborn winter cold. My first peek out the window in the morning now is as likely to reveal a giant flock of robins hopping around the yard like an army of wind-up toys as it is a fresh coating of snow.

During these transitional days, I am often as indecisive as the seasons, still enjoying winter’s last thrills, even as I look forward to and prepare for spring – whenever it might arrive.

On those warm-sun days, if I have the time, I weigh the options – an outing with the dog or one more trip to the ski hill for fast turns down quiet groomers?

When the day warrants time only for a quick outing, I’ve traded in forays through the forest by cross-country ski for slow runs on backroad routes I haven’t traveled much since November. I try to identify the birdsong floating through a landscape that was recently winter-quiet and to remember where I usually spot the first wildflowers – often escaped from some long-ago garden.

On longer treks, when the sun beckons the dog and I to climb higher on still-snowy trails, I can’t help but think ahead to summer adventures. Which tall peaks, now still blanketed in snow, will we hike during the green months?

The kids have had their bikes out the last few weeks, as the afternoons stretch longer between school ending and the sun setting. They ride over mud and snow, skid out on the ice, remember the exhilaration of flying downhill on something other than skis – and think about summer rides to come.

The ski gear is still out, in case we are inspired for one more day on the slopes. The ski boots by the big radiator near the front door join a jumble of muck boots and sneakers, flipflops and soccer cleats – any of them potentially required on any given day now.

We’ve lugged the sleds and snowshoes back into the garage, but haven’t yet hauled them upstairs to their warm-weather storage, lest there’s one more good snowstorm that merits their use before spring really settles in. Experience tells us that snowstorm could come as late as Memorial Day – or not again until next fall.

Some days I am impatient for the seasons to get on with their shuffle, for sunshine to prevail over lingering flurries. On other days, I remind myself any snowflakes falling now won’t last long in the strengthening light and lengthening days.

This, the dog knows – or, more likely, she just doesn’t care. She takes pleasure in whatever she finds, running gleefully along dirty roads, traipsing through puddles and scampering hopelessly after the chittering red squirrels. She stares intently through the windows at the newly arrived birds hopping around the yard. She laps happily in the recently-thawed stream near our driveway, trots mindlessly through the mud, and then – as if it’s the best thing in the world – rolls gleefully in any big-enough patch of snow she can find.

Perhaps she remembers that snow will soon disappear. Spring is coming. Next week, maybe, or the week after that. Whenever it gets here, we’ll be ready.

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 13, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Adventuring

Our group must have looked quite the spectacle from the tram cars: a gaggle of the littlest ski racers making their way down the mountain’s toughest trail. A few of our crew ripped right down D.J.’s Tramline, not the least bit phased by the rock drops and snowy bumps as high as the skiers who were maneuvering around them. Others struggled – more with their own nerves than with the technicality of the skiing. These are, after all, Cannon kids; they’ll ski just about anything.

After the descent, as we stood between the tram car docks waiting for a ride back to the summit, I had the kids look up at the trail they’d just skied: strewn with boulders and exceedingly steep in some areas. Whether they’d been the anxious ones or the confident skiers moments before, they all seemed to puff up just a little bit gazing back up the mountain.

That was my first time down Tramline, too, and it was, until Saturday, the only trail on the mountain I hadn’t skied. At least the only one on the trail map.

That trail map has changed a good bit since the days when I was one of the littlest ski racers here. Maybe it’s because I lived (and skied) away during college and for several years after that, or because I’ve been exploring the mountain with my own kids as they have grown and progressed in their skiing prowess, or because I coach with a guy who knows every nook and cranny here – on the trail map and off – whatever the reason, I find joy in this adventuring.

Last Wednesday my kids had a rare snow day from school, and we spent a good chunk of it at Cannon, arriving to find snow so deep it was hard to open the car doors (and we later had to dig said car out of the unplowed spot we’d parked in early that morning). We made one run down a wide-open trail before the kids dragged me into the woods, and we spent the rest of the day exploring.

I grew up skiing this mountain, although we were weekend commuters, so too far away to make it on a snow day from school. Back then, there were no glades. Sure, there were a few secret stashes off the saddle between Cannon and Mittersill, and once the latter area closed and the forest grew back up around trails and lift lines, there were some hidden spots there, too. But certainly nothing on the trail map.

Now Cannon lists 22 glades on its trail map, ranging from short, beginner woods runs to long, tight, tricky tree skiing. Wednesday we headed to the top to ski the glades there, then over to Mittersill to ski more glades, and finally ended the day on the old Tuckerbrook trail, cut back in the 1930s and maintained, often clandestinely, in the decades since.

This is the one off-piste trail I remember from my own childhood. Skiing it is a rite of passage. Tuckerbrook is not a particularly hard trail, but it is an adventure. You have to hike to reach the entrance, it’s not groomed, and there’s a long traverse out at the bottom. You also need to line up a lift back to the base area, as the trail spits skiers onto a dead end back road a couple of miles from any ski lift.

Although a few others had been in there by the time we reached Tuckerbrook Wednesday, it was some of the best skiing we had all day. As grateful as I am for the manmade snow that allows some consistency to ski season, there is nothing like the real stuff – and that’s what you find on Tuckerbrook and in the glades.

So it was fun to continue the adventuring last weekend, both for my kids and their ski groups and for the young skiers I help to coach. My youngest daughter took another trip down Tuckerbrook. My oldest skied a different unmapped trail. Our group snuck through woods so tight branches smacked our legs and cheeks as we made our way to hidden glades, turning around trees and rocks, finding soft snow everywhere we went.

I don’t know about the kids, but I ended the weekend tired – and fulfilled. And grateful that, on a mountain with as many secret stashes as there are named trails, there are plenty more adventures to chase.

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 23, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Race Mom Jitters

It is a rare occasion that I get to devote an entire day to watching my kids ski race. Based on my physical reaction to being Race Day Mom last weekend, that’s probably a good thing.

I’d taken the day off from coaching the littlest racers at Cannon to spend the day rooting for my son and his friends at the U12 State Finals at Cranmore. Most of the day, all was just peachy. The sun was out. The snow was soft. I chatted with other parents at the finish area, cheering as kids we knew came down the course and through the finish.

(Photo cred: Josh Lawton)
About two racers before my son’s bib number, though, my heart rate quickened. My shoulders tensed. I had to focus on taking even breaths. By the time I saw Owen push out of the start at the top of the hill, I felt like I was going to vomit. Or cry. Possibly both.

For the 49 seconds it took him to get through the course, I was a disaster. And then he pushed through the finish, and everything returned to normal.

This is how it is for me every time one of my children is in a race course and I am at the finish.

I can’t explain why the mere act of watching my children do something they love causes such acute angst. There is no logic behind it. I am not overly concerned with how well or poorly they will do compared to the field. Nor am I particularly worried about them being injured.

And this is not a new sport to me. I grew up ski racing. I’ve coached young racers and soon-to-be racers for several years. I’m familiar with race day nerves from a competitor’s perspective, but I was never the kid puking off the side of the trail before first run. Likewise, I never felt overly nervous for the kids I coach as I doled out pep talks at the start or high fives at the finish.

Although I’ve coached and watched my kids play other sports – soccer, baseball, basketball – those competitions don’t inspire anything like the anxiety I experience during ski races. The one exception there, perhaps, is the few times my kids have been involved in penalty kick shootouts during soccer games.

Maybe, then, it is that sense that my child is up there alone.

Perhaps at its core this nearly paralyzing, and thankfully only momentary, anxiety I feel on race days is simply motherly instinct. My son is facing a challenge on his own, and there’s nothing I can do to help him. My daughter, who wakes up full of nerves every race day, has to overcome her own anxiety to push off from the start and charge hard through a course, and there’s nothing I can do but stand idly by and watch.

There are no timeouts, no teammates to rely on mid-race, no direct opponent to deke around or win the ball from. During that short race run, it is just the racer and the course – and the potential for both heartbreak and triumph.

I know I’m am not the only frazzled parent standing at the finish line. I’ve watched friends stare at the course stone-faced as their children come through, or bouncing with nervous excitement, or muttering some encouraging phrase repeatedly for their child’s entire run. Normally reasonable people, we get a little wonky during races.

My kids are just at the start of their ski racing experience. Maybe the more races they’re in, the more times I stand at the bottom and watch, the easier it will get. For now, though, I remind myself to breathe, cheer as loudly as I can, and know that this feeling, too, shall pass – as soon as my kid crosses the finish.

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 9, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

What happened to Winter?

The driveway this winter has progressed through a somewhat regular and recurring rotation of fresh snow, slushy post-rain puddles, and the thick ice that forms when temps drop from well above freezing to well below. There is no consistency to winter anymore, it seems.

Missing snowier days...
We survived the deep freeze of Christmas week, whose brutal cold sapped our energy and made our fingers and toes ache. By the end of those two frigid weeks, even the most outdoor-loving of my outdoor-loving kids was content to stay inside when he could.

The January Thaw came twice – both the week before my birthday and the week after. I don’t remember all the specific weather details, but somewhere in there, between the rain and thawing, it snowed enough that we had to shovel the roof, brush off the car, and plow the driveway several times.

The first week of February, I let my kids skip school one day to ski a foot of new powder. When I tossed that idea out to my husband, feeling a bit guilty about the missing-school part, he was immediately on board (although, sadly, he still had to go to work). We only get so many powder days in a winter – or a lifetime – after all. The kids dragged me through every puffy-with-new-snow glade they could find, and we stayed out well into the afternoon.

I guess it was good we had that day, because this Tuesday I wore my rain pants and muck boots to the mountain for my coaching gig. Out of a small vacation week group, I had only two intrepid 7-year-olds join me for a morning of slushy-icy runs and wet chairlift rides. As we went in for our mid-morning break, I wrung the water out of my sopping mittens.

The kids didn’t seem to mind. They chatted happily on the chairlift, practiced the rainy day drills I assigned them, and skimmed cheerfully through slushy puddles to get from one place to the next.

The last three years, we’ve had similarly wacky winter weather during the two weeks of February break that are traditionally the busiest ski weeks of the season. Last year, for the first week, when out-of-state skiers are on vacation, we had fresh snow and beautiful weather. The New Hampshire kids got rain and ice the following week, but they didn’t batt an annoyed eyelash.

I have a photograph, somewhere, of my crew from two years ago standing in a deep puddle at the top of a chairlift. They gleefully slid through that puddle – and another one at the bottom of another lift – every run that day.

I’m glad the kids go with the flow, and I try to match their enthusiasm for skiing in the rain. But maybe they don’t mind because it’s such a regular occurrence in their young skiing lives.

I can remember only a handful of rainy ski days in my entire childhood. Tuesday one of the other coaches, a guy who’s on the hill six days a week, said it was his eleventh day this season skiing in the rain. Rain ponchos and serious rain pants – like the kind fishermen wear – have been added to many a ski coach’s wardrobe.

My own kids, like the good New Englanders they are, will ski in just about any kind of weather: howling wind, 40 below, sleet, snow, ice, sunshine. But like me, they are dismayed by the recurring winter thaws that no longer stick to a few days of January.

“This is sad,” my 9-year-old proclaimed Wednesday morning, as she exited the house jacketless and looked out on the snow-less field and the mud bog of our driveway.

All I could do was agree – and hope for another swing toward winter before spring sets in for 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 February 23, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Dance of the Groomers

I can see them when I sit at the living room window on winter evenings, or when I go out to take one last peek at the sky before bedtime, checking the stars, sniffing hopefully for the scent of snow about to fall, looking to the mountain for the groomers in their nighttime dance.

We've come a long way since this old Tucker Sno-Cat!
Sometimes there is only one on our side of the mountain, a solitary light moving slowly along. Often we can see two or three, and on rare occasions all four snowcats, working their different parts of the mountain, moving along trails disguised by night’s darkness. The bright lights seem synchronized in their slow up-and-down, to-and-fro motions, although surely the snowcat drivers can’t see each other as they work, cleaning up the day’s mess of bumps and ruts and uncovered ice, planting neat rows of corduroy as they go.  

A couple weekends ago, as I drove back up Three Mile Hill toward the mountain for an evening function, I watched one cat crawl up Middle Ravine (perhaps) and another down what I figured to be Skyline on Mittersill. I smiled at the glow of cat lights moving on the mountain I know, have known for as long as I have known anything, but only by day.

What do the trails look like in the dark, bereft of the skiers who congregate there for their daily bread, their freedom, a few hours of joy – all during daylight hours? The groomers know. They know a landscape apart from the one so familiar to so many: the same contours from a different perspective.

In mountains, as in life, perspective is critical – and constantly shifting. Have you ever looked at a familiar mountain from a different angle and not been able to name it? Or climbed to the top to see it up close, rather from the distance of town? Or considered a problem from a different potential solution, a sentence with a different twist, an opinion from someone else’s point-of-view?

Fluid and quiet from afar, I know the snowcats are noisy when close, that the hard blades of their tracks churn through the snow and ice as they move. Leaving well-swept snow in their wake, they are a juxtaposition of power and grace.

A couple of Sunday mornings ago, the temperature dropped after the trails had been groomed, creating a solid, slippery, and unsafe surface. Back up the mountain the groomers went to refurbish the trails. From below, the little ski racers I coach on weekends watched wide-eyed as the cats moved along familiar trails, fixing them up just for us.

Some evenings, my own children look for the snowcats during dinner, gazing from the dining room table, out through the early dark of winter, toward a light or two or three moving along the mountain. In the mornings, when the sky is pre-dawn slate, just lightening to peach along the mountains’ silhouette, we can usually spot a groomer putting on the finishing touches, making one last pass before the skiers arrive.

The cats leave the snow ready for edges to carve, for skiers to find their Zen moments – in short, quick turns or fast, sweeping ones across the fall line. A day’s worth of skiers marks the once-smooth canvas into countless cuts and divots, slices and ruts, leaving it muddled and choppy. And as night falls, the groomers take to the mountain again, and we watch their dance from afar.

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 February 9, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Birthday Parties

Throwing birthday parties is not my forte. Don’t get me wrong – I love birthdays and celebrating them. I enjoy a candle-bedecked cake as much as the next person, and for years I made the kids whatever shape they wanted, although the unicorn nearly did me in. But in this Pinterest-savvy world, I am like the anti-Pinterest. I don’t do well with themed decorations and clever party games and perfectly assembled goodie bags for every guest.

Some parents don’t think twice about hosting a houseful of kids hyped up on sugar and toting noise-makers, but the thought of such a scene puts me on the edge of an anxiety attack. Maybe if we could spread the birthday planning out a bit, it would be OK. But all three of our kids have birthdays within a month, which ups the party planning anxiety.

When my oldest two children were in kindergarten, we threw them a birthday party. The invitee list included the kids’ entire school class – all 12 of them – plus a few other friends. We planned an outside party, because at the mere thought of 15 children under the age of 7 running around my house I felt a colossal headache coming on.

An outside party in January can be tough to pull off, but we went for it anyway. We told the kids to bring sleds. I filled plastic spray bottles with colored water for making snow art. My husband built a fire in the backyard fire pit. He mixed cocoa for the kids and added a little shot of courage to the parents’ mugs. We all stood outside and watched the kids tumble around in the snow.

All was well – until it was time to go inside for cupcakes and presents. That headache I’d felt waiting to attack arrived quickly. Fifteen small kids – and many of their parents – in one living room is noisy. Add the excitement of wrapped presents and the promise of cake, and the noise becomes pure chaos. But the noise was just the tip of the birthday iceberg.

At one point, I glanced over to the window seat table and saw one little girl with a bowl full of nuts sitting next to another little girl who has a severe nut allergy. We quickly separated the two and breathed a sigh of relief. A few minutes later, I looked out that picture window to see one of the more intrepid 5-year-olds down by the (now extinguished) fire pit, hacking away at a log with the hatchet we’d inadvertently left unattended.

It’s a wonder no one went into anaphylactic shock or lost a finger at that birthday party.

That was not the first birthday party we’d hosted, but it was the last one with more than six kids in our house at one time. After that, we did a couple of years of small celebrations, with the kids picking a few friends to join them on a special outing of their choosing. One year, in an effort to go big, but not in my own house, I coughed up a couple hundred bucks and had a party at a big gym. The next year we had a family birthday weekend in Boston instead. I figured that cost about the same as renting a party place. Plus, birthday dinner at Quincy Market was a fun novelty.

The last couple of years, we’ve stuck to birthday treats shared with classmates at school and low-key family dinners. The kids don’t seem to mind – or even notice. Maybe it’s because they’re a bit older now – two reached, by their own definition, pre-teen status this week, whatever that means – and they realize the value of quality celebrating over quantity. Or maybe it’s because with so many local family members, the birthday dinner becomes a big, intergenerational bash – just as much party, not as much stress.

This week we gathered all the people who love my kids best into our home. There were a few presents, and only one adorable 5-year-old. We ordered take-out pizza. The cakes were of standard size and shape. There was no theme, no goodie bags, and certainly no hatchets involved.

It was just the right kind of birthday party.

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 12, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

January Thaw

For about three years running when I was a kid, I wanted to have an ice-skating party for my birthday, which falls this month. Each year, winter would start off all frosty and lovely. The ice would freeze smooth on the pond just down the road. The invitations would go out. And then the January Thaw would arrive, just in time to turn the pond to slush and ruin my plans.

Drip...drip...drip...
This year, winter has started off with a combination of lots of fluffy snow and brutally cold days. Several days over the holiday vacation week, I felt as if I were wearing a corset as I zipped into my coach’s jacket, so tightly packed were the layers of polypro and down beneath.

So when I snuck out for a few runs early this week, it was blissful to ski without being hunched up against the cold and wearing so many layers that I could barely move. Those runs were beautiful. A bit of fresh, soft snow, great cover on all the trails, and a temperature right around freezing.

That moment of bliss, I’m afraid, preceded this year’s January Thaw.

As I write this column, it is still solidly winter. The trees are dressed in lacy white. The field is fully covered. The mountain peaks at the edge of my view are snowy. But the forecast looks warm and wet for the end of the week. By the time anyone reads this column, we’ll know how bad it is. I won’t even utter that four-letter word that begins with R; it’s dirtier than the mud it causes. Alas, I’m afraid it’s coming.

The January Thaw is a bit of an ambiguous concept. There’s no exact date for the dreaded phenomenon, and some years it doesn’t even happen – or it comes in December or February or, the worst, multiple times over the course of a winter. The Farmer’s Almanac, that bastion of long-range weather prediction that meteorologists urge us not to believe because the science is vague, or, perhaps, non-existent, describes The Thaw thusly:

“Small ‘blips’ in the overall pattern reveal noticeable fluctuations that can be observed from year to year. These blips are called singularities in weather lingo. Indian Summer, a period of unseasonably warm weather that usually appears in mid-October, is one such blip. The January Thaw is another.”

I will say that I much prefer the other singularity – Indian Summer – to this one. The Almanac goes on to say the January Thaw typically sees temperatures an average of 10 degrees higher than the previous week. Well, this is one heck of a thaw. By week’s end, temps are forecast to be in the mid-40s – above zero. That’s about a 70-degree change from a week prior!

If I can find any solace in this weather “blip,” it is that it will be brief – and in the fact that it has been happening (though perhaps not as dramatically) for far longer than I have been lamenting it.

Some years ago, my mother gave the kids a book called “Ollie’s Ski Trip,” written in 1907 by Swedish author Elsa Beskow. Young Ollie loves winter – and snow, skating, sledding, skiing – and is thrilled to meet Jack Frost, but dismayed by the occasional early arrival of winter’s “cleaning lady,” Mrs. Thaw, who forgets when she is supposed to set to work and sometimes tries to melt Jack Frost’s handiwork before spring arrives.

Whenever Ollie noticed hints that Mrs. Thaw was at work, he’d chant, “Mrs. Thaw, Mrs. Thaw, Please don’t sweep our snow away! Come again some other day!”

If only it were so easy to control the weather. Here’s hoping Jack Frost follows close on Mrs. Thaw’s heals this January, and there’s plenty of winter still to come.

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 12, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.