Thursday, December 13, 2018

Christmas Magic

“You seem so excited about getting the Christmas tree this year,” one of my girls said to me last week as we sorted through our box of ornaments and contemplated where to hang each one. While some Decembers the tree trimming can seem as much holiday chore as happy tradition, it’s true that this year I was eager to get the tree up, to insert that key symbol of the season into the living room.

I figure this is because I can feel the shift of this season in my children, from pure magic to – well, whatever comes after the magic fades. And because I ran into a mom of older kids, the day we got our tree, who said her offspring don’t even want to help decorate the tree anymore. And because I remember getting there myself – reaching the age, somewhere in teenage-dom, where I didn’t really want to help with the tree anymore either, when hanging ornaments onto needled branches felt more tedious routine than joyful ritual.

My kids aren’t there. Yet. But I can see the writing on the packaging of Christmas future. So I am embracing this season as much as I can – and trying not to let the bittersweet-ness of growing-too-fast children seep too deeply.

Instead of dwelling (for long) on the photo from five short years ago that popped up on my computer screen recently – the one of my now-non-believing son writing his annual missive to Santa in large, uneven, red and green letters – I focus instead on his sister’s excitement of getting the Christmas decorations out and strewing them about the house.

Rather than worrying (too much) about the littlest exclaiming incredulously that so-and-so doesn’t believe in Santa OR elves, I focus on her sleepy-eyed fascination each morning with finding our own magical elf, Jingle. And try to ignore the fact that she’s already let go of the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, so Jolly Old Saint Nick is the only one left.

Although this season is busier than busy, I try (with occasional success) to step back, take a breath, and focus on the joy – and the goodness of that busyness. How lucky to be busy with things that I love – writing and coaching and being Mama – even if many dark winter mornings I long for a few more cozy minutes snug in bed.

Beyond the deadlines and shoveling and bills I wish I could ignore, there is skiing and cookie-making and finding and wrapping gifts and eating good food with people I love. My house smells like Christmas trees and ski wax – two of the happiest smells I know. And it sounds of children, sometimes fighting – with me or each other – but also sometimes, often, laughing and sharing stories and discussing which decoration should go where.

Shining lights fill the season – on the tree in my living room, from the glint of sunlight off snow, and shimmering in the so-dark winter sky. The other night, as we were driving through that darkness, my daughter looked out the window at the countless stars twinkling from an unimaginable distance away from our car, our town, our planet.

“There are so many,” she said, her voice filled with wonder. “They look like Christmas tree lights sparkling all around us.”

Perhaps, then, the magic of this most wonderful time of the year doesn’t fade so much as it shifts. Maybe it’s there to be found, no matter what form of magic we believe in, if only we look the right way, in the right 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 December 14, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Snow Thankful

The landscape last week transformed in a blink from dull November to dazzling winter. Tuesday the kids scored a snow day from school – an occurrence so rare in these parts that it threw us all for a loop.

At first, I was aggravated by this unanticipated day off from school, which came after a three-day weekend and on top of a to-do list already lengthened by two days away the previous week. The kids, of course, were thrilled – both by the bonus day off and by the snow quickly covering the world outside.

As I shuffled my schedule to accommodate work and mom duties, they dug out winter gear and headed out to play. Occasionally I’d glance up from the keyboard, relocated for the day to the dining room table, and catch a glimpse of a sled flying by or a shovel being dragged into the front yard or a snowman taking shape in the frosted-over perennial bed.

It was perfect “snowball snow” – wet, dense, and easy to shape. Soon the kids had figured out that if they started at one end of the yard with a fistful of packed snow and kept rolling, they ended up at the other end with haybale-shaped snow forms nearly as high as they were. Slowly, the yard filled with large snow sculptures.

Try as I did to focus on the tasks staring at me from my computer screen, the fun being had outside was a consistent distraction. There’s something about that first snowfall that calls to my inner child: come out and play! (OK, OK, it’s not just the FIRST snowfall, but the opening act of the season pulls my focus to unravelling.)

Eventually, I gave up and pulled on snow boots, jacket, and mittens to join the fun. I helped the kids roll bigger and bigger snow bales, packing and lifting and piling the wet, heavy snow where they directed. At one edge of the yard, my son built an igloo, heaping snow into a huge mound and hollowing it out from within. My daughters rolled snow, one giant ball at a time, into a circle to create a Stonehenge-looking fort, complete with seats and backrests and an arced door to crawl through for entry.

The temperature dropped that night, freezing the kids’ soft-snow creations into solid forms in the front yard. Since then, they’ve been dusted by flurries, softened by the sun, and refrozen several times.

And the kids have spent hours outside – in both daylight and the pre-dinner darkness of November evenings – careening down our tiny sledding hill, fitting sneakers into old ski bindings to slide around the yard, adding features to their initial snow creations, and joining an epic snowball fight.

Beyond transforming the landscape and providing the kids with endless opportunities for outdoor fun, the snow has helped me to shift more readily toward winter, too.

While much of my work this time of year – and beyond – relates directly to snow and skiing, I have been hesitant lately to embrace the busyness the season brings. I was lamenting the dark and the cold, the arrival of endless early mornings for the next many months, the severe diminishment of downtime.

That all changed as the world transitioned to white last week. I’m ready now. Let it snow. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 23, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Leading Traditions

When I wander into my children’s elementary school these days, I am always astounded by the adorable smallness of the kindergarten and first grade students. More than once this year I’ve remarked, “They’re so tiny!” to another parent or teacher, who then reminds me that my kids were that little once, not all that long ago.

Then I remember how big the 6th graders seemed when I first walked into school with my two kindergarteners. The “big kids” towered over the littles. They moved confidently through the halls, laughing and talking all the way, oblivious to how BIG they were.

Now my two oldest are 6th graders, and even my own littlest is one of the “big kids” now, in 4th grade. The kids who were 6th graders when mine started kindergarten are now high school seniors – “big kids” in a whole different way.

There were several aspects of being 6th graders my older two children happily anticipated as they started this last year of elementary school. Sixth grade is the culminating year at their school, their seventh school year traveling the same hallways, playing on the same playground, and following the same schedule.

Finally, they would be the BKOC – the Big Kids on Campus.

One of the things I love about their school is that the older kids are encouraged and guided to become leaders in various activities. While they were looking forward to a new teacher, FIRST LEGO League, and just being the oldest, the kids were most excited about the responsibilities that come with being in 6th grade: leading mixed-age Peace Groups, working with the 1st graders on various projects, planning and orchestrating the school-wide end-of-the-year Festival of the Arts.

Last week, the 6th graders helped the 1st graders carve pumpkins. The older kids also paired up with their 1st grade partners during the annual Halloween parade through town – one of my absolute favorite Franconia traditions. With no littles of my own needing help with costumes or maneuvering the route, I joined the crowd of parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors gathered to watch the procession of super heroes, princesses, goblins, and vampires stroll through town.

I watched as one of my sixth graders (the other was in Boston for a different parade) shepherded her two 1st grade charges from candy bowl to candy bowl, the littles each holding tightly to her hands.

It’s not quite true to say the transformation from wide-eyed, gap-toothed little kid to self-assured, take-control big kid surprises me. I’ve watched it happen, gradually, over the years. What’s surprising is how quickly those years seem to pass. When I close my eyes, I can still see my own 1st graders, small and sticking close to my side. When I open my eyes, those same kids are nearly as tall as I am and branching out more and more, realizing little by little that there’s a whole big world out there.

As much as my 6th graders are embracing this school year, there is also some trepidation about what comes next, as they worry about being ready for middle school, leaving the familiar boundaries, stretching just a bit into that bigger world. I’ve watched other classes of sixth graders, though, and I know once April vacation hits, these kids will be looking more forward than backward. They’ll be ready for the next step, eager – if still anxious – to move on.

For now, they’re busily preparing for the upcoming FIRST LEGO League competition and starting to plan for Festival of the Arts. And they’re looking forward to their next project with the 1st graders, building gingerbread houses in December: a sweet tradition, in more ways than 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 November 8, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Dark

The snow that turned the yard – briefly – bright white earlier this week was an anticipatory antidote to a day that started dreary, dark, and drizzly. This time of year, I often have to force myself to take a deep breath and remember winter is – well, if not short, not forever.

Don’t get me wrong: I love winter. I love snow. I love being outside on skis or snowshoes or just on my porch, gazing up at the winter-bright stars.

Seasons, juxtaposed.
I just don’t like the darkness. Or this barren stretch of between – between leaf fall and snow fall, between soccer season and ski season, between vividly colorful fall and glistening winter wonderland.

The dimness that seeps into early mornings near the end of summer serves as a rude reminder of the long darkness to come. I am distracted at first, however, by the start of school and all the hustle that happens as I shift my schedule from summer activities to school year busyness. I can ignore the gradual growing of darkness – until the morning when I have to use the light on my phone to safely navigate down the hallway, past doorways behind which sleeping children lie, and into the dark kitchen where my coffee maker awaits.

I can even ignore the light disappearing from the other end of the day, which becomes most notable around the end of soccer season. In mid-September, there is still considerable daylight after practice ends. By the middle of October, we are driving home at dusk. And now, without the distraction of planning practices and rehashing games just played, I am suddenly aware of how short the days are becoming.

We haven’t even made it to the end of Daylight Savings Time yet, and already dusk comes so early that I feel as if we should be eating dinner at 5 and going to bed at 7.

We have eight more weeks of shrinking light until the Winter Solstice. It’s no wonder ancient people planned elaborate pagan rituals around the day when, finally, light begins again to lengthen. And no wonder that we more modern humans plan a slew of celebratory events between now and the end of December – Halloween and Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. They all serve as good distractions in these dark days – something to look forward to and busy ourselves preparing for.

Tuesday this week, the night before it snowed, the sun set in a golden glow of that only comes with Fall. The day’s last light reflected off retreating rain clouds and glanced across a few yellow leaves still clinging to tree branches to set the landscape to shimmering amber.

It was a reminder that as the length of daylight diminishes, it also becomes more precious. And the next morning’s snow reminded me that although the winter days ahead will surely be dark, if we are lucky, they will also be white. 


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 26, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Passing the Ball

A game, a practice, and a tournament. That’s what’s left of this soccer season – and of my tenure coaching the local sixth grade team. This group is special to me, and not just because two of them are my own offspring. I’ve coached most of these kids since they were in kindergarten. For better or worse, they’ve been stuck with me as their soccer coach since they were 5 years old, and so I feel a little bit of ownership over the soccer portion of their lives.

Seven years. That’s about twice what any high school or college coach gets with a group of players. But the distance in skill and understanding from kindergarten to almost-middle school, from their very first practice to their last elementary school game, is immeasurable.  

When these kids started, most of them couldn’t tie their own cleats. They were tiny, with gap-toothed grins and knobby knees and not a whole lot of coordination. Over the years they’ve become more than better soccer players; they’ve become a team.

I’ve watched as this crew has progressed from toe balls and clumsy dribbling to quick moves and long crosses and power shots. I’ve seen them transition from little kids who sometimes didn’t know which way on the field their team was going to poised players who make clever runs off the ball, from bunch ball and chaos to smart defense and tactical offense.
                
Coaching these kids has been part parental responsibility, but mostly a labor of soccer love. I love the game, love sharing it with others, have loved watching these kids learn and grow on the field.

I coached them through their first jamboree as kindergartners to their first Halloween Cup as third-graders. I held my breath with them when, as fourth-graders, they triumphed through three penalty kick decisions and incessant cold rain to reach the finals of the last tournament of the season, then – bone tired and thoroughly drenched – lost that game. I stood with three of these girls – and their year-older teammates – at last year’s Halloween Cup final, where they went down to a penalty kick loss after not giving up a goal all day.

A coach can teach kids to pass and shoot and defend, but there was little I could do on either of those days except tell them how proud I was of their grit, and then let them feel the loss. It’s all a part of the game, a part of the learning process, a part of growing up.

Gradually, they’ve grown together – both on and off the field. They’re a good mix of sassy and tough, goofy and competitive, and they make a great team. I feel lucky to have been their coach – one of a small crew of coaches – as they’ve learned their way around a soccer field.

One more game, one more practice, one more tournament. Then I pass them along to the next season, the next coach. And, for this group at least, I graduate to soccer spectator. You can bet I’ll be there cheering these kids on when they take the field next year.

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 12, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Backroad Musings

When my youngest was a baby and the older kids toddlers, I used to load them all into the car – which back then entailed buckling three little ones into cumbersome car seats – and go for meandering late afternoon drives. We’d cruise the neighborhood by minivan, looking for farm equipment and horses along the way, so these tours became known as Pony & Tractor Rides.

The timing of these outings was entirely based on the littlest one’s need for a short snooze between naptime and bedtime. Things were just easier – for everyone – if she slept for 20 minutes, but the only way she’d sleep at that time of day was in a moving car.

Sometimes she’d be asleep before we left the driveway, and the ride could be a short one. Sometimes it took a couple of miles, so the tour was extended. Sometimes there was no sleeping at all. But there was quiet. At least that’s the way I remember it. And as any parent of small children knows, there is immeasurable value in a few minutes of quiet.

The path we followed changed a bit based on the timing and my whim, but we had favorite routes. Often, we drove out the Easton Valley, where we’d pass cows and tractors and the occasional hay wagon at Pinestead Farm and possibly an old grader or some other interesting piece of equipment near the Franconia/Easton town line. A right turn a bit further along would bring us up Sugar Hill Road, where we knew we’d likely spot a pair of old, retired mares and a couple of older, not yet retired John Deere tractors.

From there, we could pass by the Stewart Farm and look for more horses near the stables down the road. Or we could loop around and drive past the old Gibbs Farm, or turn onto Toad Hill Road and decide at the far end whether to go uphill or down.

Usually, we’d end up on Lover’s Lane, a road every bit as pretty as it should be with such a name. Back then, some neighbors there kept a small herd of goats, and we knew if we timed it just right, we’d see the goats being led back to the big red barn that sat down in the hollow at the base of an old meadow. Often, there was an antique tractor out in the field, too.

The barns, stone walls, and cleared fields are remnants of a more agrarian time. It seems impossible now that so much of a landscape that is forested was nearly treeless a century ago. As we drove, I was thankful for the quiet, but also for both the trees and the barns, the places for wild animals and tame ones to dwell – and for the many things to see that that would entertain the kids during these short outings that allowed us all to recharge.

In the funny way things have of cycling around, we’ve taken to embarking on the occasional late-day drive again. My husband, who started this recent trend, calls these jaunts Neighborhood Appreciation Drives.

The kids no longer need pre-dinner naps, of course, or help buckling in, nor do they have the same fascination they once did with John Deere Tractors – although they all know how to drive one now. But they are always eager to load up for a Neighborhood Appreciation Drive.

Sometimes we embark on a new route, visit some unfamiliar scenic outlook. Sometimes we stop so the dog can splash around in the river. Always we pull over along the side of a backroad to visit a trio of horses who come to the fence and let us pat their soft noses and dusty necks in exchange for handfuls of fresh grass and clover leaves.

These drives are less frequent than the Pony & Tractor Rides of years ago. They happen spontaneously, during pauses in busy schedules, usually during that magical time of day bridging sunset and moonrise, when colors shift in the sky and across the mountains.

When we turn onto the familiar road to home, just as I did when the children were little and we wandered back from our Pony & Tractor Rides, I often feel a same sense of calm. Perhaps this comes from the change of pace, the soft colors of the sky at dusk, the quiet time spent with my family. There is much here to appreciate. 

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 28, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Maggie Meets the Sea

We took a spontaneous, whole-family trip to the Seacoast last weekend, piling all three McPhaul kids and both adults into the minivan – along with the dog. Only the cat was left behind, and since he doesn’t even like the short drive to the vet once a year, he seemed OK with staying home.

I am a planner. I like to know what the itinerary is before I head out on a journey. This natural tendency became more acute once I had kids and needed to plan for snacks and meals and bathroom breaks and all the other minutiae that come with traveling – even if just down the road – with small children. Now that the kids are older and relatively self-sufficient, I’m able to “wing it” a little more. But I still carry snacks and a first aid kit just about wherever we go.

My husband, at least when it comes to family time, is more likely to improvise. He’ll tell the kids to grab what they need for any potential adventure – sneakers and swim suits, towels and lunch – and jump in the truck. He’ll take a drive without a pre-determined destination. He’ll change the plan as he goes – or just head out without one. If we’re going away for more than an afternoon, I make a list and check off items as I pack well in advance. He throws a few things in a bag five minutes before we walk out the door.

We know each other’s tendencies – and that sometimes, often, they are in opposition to each other. Usually we make it work.

So, when he mentioned this idea of driving to Portsmouth for the day, with several potential things to do while we were there, I threw caution to the wind and said, “Let’s do it.” And then, of course, I packed enough snacks to last us at least three days.

Along with visiting a friend who lives on the Seacoast and watching the hometown high school soccer teams, who were playing all the way down there Saturday afternoon, we also wanted to take our dog, Maggie, to the beach.

Maggie turns two this week. We brought her home when she was a tiny bundle of golden fluff. She’d never been outside until the October day, just before Halloween, when we collected her from the Vermont farm where she was born. We placed her promptly on the grass. One sniff and she was smitten. She’s loved being outside ever since.

One of Maggie’s favorite outside places is in the water. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lake, a river, or a muddy drainage ditch along the road. If her fur is wet, she is happy (unless a bath is involved). But she’d never explored the salt water – a fact of living in the mountains rather than by the sea.

Always game for an adventure – whether a morning run, a family hike, or just a quick ride in the car – Mags eagerly loaded up Saturday morning. She stuck her head out the window as we drove down the road, wind in her face, ears flapping, eyes half-shut in ecstasy. She whined in anticipation as we drove through the Notch, hoping to get out and jump into a river or run along a trail.

She leaped from the car when we finally arrived at the ocean, picked her way down the rocks to the beach and bounded toward the water. Then stopped and retreated as gentle waves broke and moved up the sand. Rivers don’t do this, nor lakes.

Several times, Maggie trotted forward as the sea water retreated, then backpedaled clumsily as it rolled again onto the gray sand. Finally, she followed the kids as they waded in up to their knees. She chased the rocks we threw into the waves for her. Lapped at the water as she always does and shook her head in confusion at the briny taste.

She got used to the waves, then realized the ocean is filled with treasures. She started coming back to the beach with long, bushy strings of bright green seaweed clenched in her teeth, proud of her discovery in this odd-tasting, always moving water.

We humans stood and watched her antics, thoroughly entertained as we so often are by this goofy dog who chases butterfly shadows, begs for bits of broccoli, and is entirely obsessed with squirrels.

Then we carried on with our unplanned road trip, meandering along the shore before turning inland to the next thing and, eventually, north toward home. It was fun to explore, even briefly, a different part of the state. Back home, contentedly tired, we all agreed the best part of the day was watching Maggie meet the sea.

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 14, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Among the Weeds

August is the month of garden abundance. In the case of my garden this year, the abundance is mostly in weeds. While many of the vegetable seeds I planted in the hopeful days of spring have been a flop, however, others have grown into prolific production.  

In the time-honored tradition of vegetable gardeners, I’ve been passing along the overabundance to friends and neighbors when I can – and gladly accepting other gardeners’ excesses. It’s all part of the gardening cycle.

Each spring, I till the soil in my garden, add a bit of compost from the heap at the edge of the garden fence, throw in some manure, and create somewhat straight rows where I drop seeds with the optimism inspired by warm spring days. Then I wait, and weed, and watch for tiny sprouts to pop through the soil and reach for the sun.

My gardening endeavors fall somewhere between necessity and hobby. Yes, I can simply run down to the grocery story to buy whatever doesn’t grow well – although store-bought veggies never taste as good as the ones picked from the backyard – and I don’t tend a garden big enough to keep us fed on pickled beets and frozen beans throughout the long winter.

Still, this labor of love – and sweat and dirty fingernails and hope – occupies enough time and effort that I expect to have a few weeks at least where most of our veggies come from the garden, and longer on either end of that time when we can pick a few greens or some herbs or the odd carrot or two to add to the table.

Every year, the garden yields differently.

This year, the peas – so abundant the last two summers – fizzled in July’s stubborn, scorching heat. My beans, always a success, yielded only one incomplete row of sprouts, which soon dwindled to two producing plants – enough for a handful of beans here and there, but certainly not the bumper crop of past years that filled the freezer.

My carrots have been slow to grow. The beets are scrawny. The jury is still out on the Brussels sprouts.

My cucumber vines, though, have produced copiously. Each day for the last two or three weeks I have found three or four spiky cukes hidden beneath the sprawling leaves. If I miss a day or two of picking, I end up with a dozen cucumbers.

Luckily, this is a vegetable my kids love (although I expect at this rate, they’ll tire of cucumbers soon). I’ve passed along the extras when I can, and I’ve been – happily – on the receiving end of others’ gardening glut.

Our vacationing neighbors invited us to pilfer their tomato plants while they’re away. My mother has kept us in green beans. I sent a bag of cucumbers into the office with my husband and received fresh-picked ears of sweet corn in return. I shared a pile of cukes and a couple of summer squash with a friend whose garden had been devoured by deer, and she handed me a carton of eggs from her chickens.

Beyond the cucumbers – and among the weeds – there are a few other garden successes. Although I missed National Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Day (August 8), it’s just as well, since the squash hill has yielded just the right number of zucchini – a near impossible feat.

The sungold tomatoes have ripened in perfect handfuls. I’ve had good luck, for the first time ever, growing onions. The eggplants are suddenly bursting with lovely, sleek, deep purple fruit. The basil, which I thought had wilted beyond recovery in July, has bounced back full and green, and we had our first garden pesto of the season last week.

All that fresh-picked color piled onto the kitchen counter makes the gardening effort feel worthwhile. And it ensures I’ll return to the backyard plot to till the soil again next year, to continue the gardening cycle – flops and abundances, weeds and all. 

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 23, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

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.