Thursday, May 23, 2019

In Praise of Dandelions

When they were little, my children would pick dandelions by the armful. They’d load them onto the backs of their tricycles, weave them into gold-and-green crowns, and bring me bouquets – grasped in small hands and presented with proud grins. It didn’t matter much that those clutches of dandelions soon wilted, even when placed into cups of water – there were always more yellow blooms where they’d come from.

Some people hate dandelions to the point of waging (hapless) war against them. This is something I’ve never understood. Dandelions are hardy and sunny. They’re among the first blooms to pop up each spring, when nature’s palette is quite bland, and will propagate well into summer, after other (less resilient) blooms have arrived to fill the landscape with color. Whether it’s a single dandelion smiling upward along the front porch or an entire field of them reaching for the sun, they seem happy flowers.

Plus, when they’re done blooming, those sunny disks transform into wonderful, orbicular seed puffs. I don’t care how old you are, blowing into those puffs to watch them disperse seems irresistible. Unless, I suppose, you’re one of the people at war with dandelions.

For a few summers during my Colorado tenure, I worked mowing lawns for a friend’s company. Mostly, we took care of vacation homes – giant houses used for only a few weeks of the year and kept pristine for all the other weeks. There was one house, on “The Bench” overlooking town, whose owners rarely (if ever) visited during summer. But they insisted every dandelion hiding in their lawn be plucked or poisoned.

I couldn’t understand the painstaking search-and-destroy missions we conducted every week. The people were never there to SEE the dandelions. And the thing about dandelions in lawns is that when you mow the grass, the flowers get lopped off, and everything is just green; you wouldn’t know the dandelions were even there unless you really looked.

Of course, I don’t welcome dandelions in the garden and pull them up using the special dandelion-digging tool that reaches deep into the ground to – hopefully – extract the entire root, lest it re-sprout. But I leave the rest of them alone.

I don’t eat the dandelions – root, leaf, or flower – like some folks do. Nor do I use them medicinally or ferment the blossoms into wine. I just like how they look – bright, happy, undeterred by the mixed feelings they instill in humans.

Especially this year, when spring has been slow to settle in, and sunshine frustratingly fleeting, I’m glad to see the dandelions and their golden happiness spreading through the greening fields. If I close my eyes and turn my face toward the spring sunshine, I can picture my children, when they were very small, handing me bouquets of what some would disdainfully call weeds.

Those were some of the sweetest flowers I’ve ever received.  

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 24, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

A New Bike

The white bike with the big wheels is my 10-year-old’s new favorite thing. After taking a spin on it the other day, I can understand why. This is a real bike, a big step up from the little mountain bike she’s left behind in the garage, and a million pedal strokes from the training wheels she outgrew years ago.

Little bike, little girl - not long ago
I still remember a couple of my own new bikes from when I was a kid. The first I got when I was around the age my daughter is now. It was a pink Huffy with a giant, puffy seat. I rode it around the driveway, downtown to meet my friend Liz, and through the neighborhood to deliver the afternoon edition along my paper route.

In high school I got my first mountain bike – a Bridgestone MB-6, sleek and dark red with weirdly knobby tires. This bike went with me to college in upstate New York, where I first dabbled in riding singletrack, discovered the joy of careening around corners and flying down hills through the trees, of coming home mud-spattered and tired and happy.

I carted that bike across the country to Colorado when I moved, and it soon became a “townie” fitted with chrome fenders, curved handlebars, and baskets for carrying groceries and whatever else I needed to haul around town. When I moved back East, I had to leave the Bridgestone behind. I hope someone, somewhere is still riding it.

Surely I had other bikes in between the Huffy and the Bridgestone (I have a vague recollection of a 10-speed somewhere in there), but these are the two I remember.

I’m guessing the new (to her) white Cannondale picked up at the bike swap last weekend is going to be one of those bikes for my daughter, that she’ll love this bike even after the shine wears off.

It was all she could talk about on the long drive home from her second soccer game of the day Saturday. My husband and older two children had gone early to the swap and picked it out of the lineup that morning, when Katy and I were on our way to the first soccer game. She couldn’t wait to see it and take it for a spin.

No matter that she’d run who-knows-how-many-miles in two hours of soccer, she popped out of the car as soon as we stopped, took a happy look at the bike, and – after a few quick adjustments – hopped on to do laps up and down the driveway and around the house.

Watching my youngest ride a bike that is bigger than mine, I couldn’t help remembering a few short years ago when I helped a smaller, similarly pony-tailed version of the same girl take her first wobbly driveway laps sans training wheels. Now I’ll be lucky to keep up.

Keeping up is, in large part, the main goal when you’re the littlest. We started taking family bike rides when the kids were little, my husband and I spinning along while the kids figured out how to balance and brake, lean into turns and shift gears, climb hills steadily and descend with confidence. The littlest kid has always had the littlest bike, and she’s always had to pedal that much harder to stay within reach of her brother and sister.

Now the littlest kid has the biggest wheels. She’s already spent hours on her new bike, riding up and down local roads, around the corner to see grandparents, and all over the yard. She’s figured out the gears and tested the brakes and learned how to make smooth, tight turns.

She can’t wait to ride her new bike to school. I’m looking forward to more family biking adventures on the trail – even if I’m now the one with the littlest bike. 

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 10, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

April at Home

While many of our friends and family members fled south – or west, or across the Atlantic – during the week of April school vacation, my family stuck it out at home. We’ve taken this week to regroup and shift from the mostly-cold time of year to the mostly-warm one.

Gradually, we’ve worked our way through the piles that have accumulated over the long winter, from ski gear to a cumbersome stack of to-file papers to various assorted stuff we just didn’t keep up with over ski season.

Ski bags have been emptied, their contents washed and stored away until we dig it all out in the fall to see what (if anything) still fits the kids. I’ve waxed the skis one more time and am rearranging the storage space to accommodate those and the bulky winter gear. Each April, I try to label all of this so we can pull out what we need – and determine what we’ll need to replace – easily come ski season. And each November, it’s still a scramble.

Outside, the ground is still drying. But we’ve picked up most of the branches and sticks the winter winds strewed about the yard. We’ve raked the thatch out of the grass around the house and scraped as much of the gravel (displaced by the plow) as we could back into the driveway.

Inspired by the spring blooms of crocus and daffodil, I’ve pulled weeds from the small garden bed by the front window. I’ve started to turn the soil in the vegetable gardens and have considered the timing for planting the first peas. And I’ve mostly ignored the large perennial bed out front which more closely resembles an aspiring jungle than a flower garden.

The vacation week hasn’t been all work. The kids have had plenty of laze around time – reading in the sunshine on the porch, lingering long into the mornings in their jammies, playing soccer in the driest patch of greening grass they could find. We’ve also started planning some fun summer adventures, looking forward to that season of hot sun and cool rivers, hiking and biking and exploring new places close to home.

There is still much that needs doing – there always seems to be. Spring brings with it new chores, shifting endeavors, and an array of different activities. But we’ve made progress in this week at home. It feels good to have tucked winter away tidily as we make way for the next season.

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 26, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

On the Run

Each November, as daylight retreats toward the solstice and the damp chill of winter encroaches, I put away the running shoes. And each April, as the snow disappears from my ski route through the woods and the sun warms toward t-shirt weather, I pull them back out and – despite the painful protests of my hip flexors – take once again to running the back roads.

I do not love running, but I have dabbled in it, off and on, for many years.

In high school, I took to jogging between soccer and track seasons. (In the latter, I was a marginally speedy sprinter and a decent long-jumper, but never ran more than 200 yards at a time.) A couple times a week, I’d don the headphones of my yellow Walkman, pop in a mixed tape, and head out on a loop around the neighborhood, which I figure measured about a mile and a half.

During college, I often ran a route around campus on weekend mornings, when it seemed I was the only one awake. Jogging became a way to pass the time and get some exercise while I waited for my friends to wake up and go with me to the dining hall for a late breakfast.

The summer I spent in Ireland I ran occasionally, heading up the narrow road, turning down a lane that led to the beach, and coming back on the sand. I usually had the beach to myself, but the locals thought I was mad (Irish speak for coocoo) to run without the purpose of chasing a ball around a field.

In my Colorado years I left all running (except on the soccer field) behind and took to mountain biking, though I was never hardcore like many of my friends there. Still, I had my favorite loops, including one I could ride from home. It took about an hour, traversed a gentle river, passed by an old mine, and wove through a grove of aspen trees in a perfect mix of uphill, downhill, and flat.

The first summer I moved back East, I bought a road bike and learned the joys of pedaling for hours along pavement. I developed biking friends – people who liked to ride and had large blocks of free time during the warmer months to hit the road.

Sadly, that road bike sits dusty in my garage now. I haven’t given up on someday getting back into riding, but that day does not seem like it will be soon, large chunks of free time being as scarce as they are. My mountain bike, though, still sees sunlight during the summer, generally on family outings. At 20-plus years old, that bike is roughly double the age of my children.

It was after having those children that I started to run again.

I run now because it is easy – at least schedule-wise and logistically speaking. To run, I do not need to block out an hour or two or three. I don’t need to pump air into tires or remember to carry a spare tube in case of a flat. I don’t need to load the bike into the car and drive to a trailhead.

To run, I just need to lace up the running shoes, grab the dog’s leash, and head out the door. And so I run. Not far, and certainly not fast, but enough. Enough to get the heart pumping and the lungs sucking in fresh air. Enough to feel as if I am staying strong. Enough to keep track of the natural shifts in the local landscape as the seasons evolve from one to the next. Enough to clear my mind.

I don’t always love running. Indeed, sometimes it is hard to find the motivation to get started. But I am always glad, once I return home, that I have – if only for a short time and a small distance – been on the run.

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 12, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Spring Fever

Around this time each year, I start to get excited for spring. I know better: one 60-degree day does not a season make. And I love winter – I do! But it’s hard to not look forward to green grass and pretty crocus blooms when the sun is out – and the driveway is a mess of sinking mud and melting ice.

At each seasonal junction, I am thankful to live in a place with four seasons. (I know some people count mud season separately, but there is no slush solstice or mud season equinox.) How fleeting would spring’s fragile blooms seem without the knowledge that sturdier summer blossoms were on the horizon? How could we love the heat of summer so without the promise of crisp fall days to come? How bare would the late autumn trees seem without being able to look forward to winter’s snow-laced mantle?

Now, at this pivotal time, I am cherishing each day on the snow I can get, hoping (futilely, probably) for another few ski-through-the-woods outings with the dog, maybe even one more powder day. But I am also relishing the sun on my face, the warm afternoons when I can open the windows and let fresh air filter in, the mornings when I am comfortable leaving the house in a lightweight vest instead of my long down coat.

It’s around now that I start talking with the kids and with friends about warm-weather adventures: hiking and camping, running the backroads, paddling kayaks along the water. Often, these conversations happen as we drive toward the ski area or ride the chairlift. That seems less like irony to me than faith in the world continuing to spin from one season to the next.

You see, I’m not wishing days away, lamenting the cold and snow as I long for the next season. After as many trips around the sun as I’ve had – all of them in places with distinct, if sometimes slow-to-arrive seasons – I’ve learned (usually, at least) to accept whatever the weather presents and try to dress accordingly.

New England weather is, after all, notoriously mercurial – and getting more so, it seems, all the time. So while the calendar says the new season arrived this week, I know that winter, or at least wintery weather, can – and likely will – return before spring really settles in. I’ve seen snowstorms in May, including one Memorial Day weekend when the kids were able to make a snowman in the front yard – then came inside to eat ice cream cones in front of the fire.

And that’s OK. Part of living here is rolling with that wacky weather. I’m more likely to be upset about a 50-degree day in January than I will be by a 40-degree morning in June.

I know that for the next several weeks, the ski boots will share space with the soccer cleats and the flipflops. The laundry pile will comprise shorts and t-shirts along with long underwear and wool socks. By the time I feel comfortable packing away the down coat, I often just leave it hanging in the closet by the front door, knowing I’ll need it again soon enough.

On these warm new-spring days, when the sun seems to sink more slowly than it has for ages, we – all of us: kids, dogs, grownups – stay outside a bit longer, lingering even in the sinking mud and slushy snowmelt, peeking into the flower bed to see if the crocus leaves are popping up yet. We are not so much eager to push winter behind as we are ready to welcome what comes next – knowing it will all cycle around again. And thankful for it.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the March 22, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Fan Club

My parents came to every home game my college soccer team played, and many of the away games, too. This might seem unremarkable – until you realize I went to college a 6-hour drive away from home. And that I mostly sat on the bench, making brief appearances in a handful of games through three years.

Being at the games was about more than simply rooting for me. They became part of a group of parents cheering for their daughters, a collective cadre of supporters who watched through crisp sunshine, cool rain, and even autumn snow, who hugged us after many wins and occasional losses, then took us out to dinner.

Now that my own kids are out there, competing on the soccer field and the race course, I’ve found they also have their fan club – and that I’m just a small part of it. This was clear at October’s Halloween Cup, when grandparents, aunts and uncles, and family friends stood along the soccer field sidelines for hours to cheer for the kids.

It was again apparent last weekend, when my son raced at our home hill of Cannon Mountain in a two-day event to try for a spot at this weekend’s state Championships for his age group.

Ski racing can seem an intricately complicated sport, even at the junior level. To simplify, there are a series of races through the season whose cumulative results qualify a pre-determined number of kids to Champs. If you don’t make the cut, you get one more chance – at Finals – to qualify.

Finals were last weekend. My son needed to finish in the top 5 out of a pool of close to 100 racers from around the state to get to Champs. His twin sister and a bunch of his ski racing buddies had already qualified. He really wanted to go to Champs as a competitor, not an onlooker.

Being a spectator at a ski race is really an act of love. It entails several hours in usually cold weather, sometimes with precipitation falling, and often including a hike up (and then back down) an icy slope to gain a decent vantage point. All to watch the kid you came to see ski by in a matter of seconds.

Because I coach the youngest ski racers on weekend mornings, I often have to follow along on Live Timing, which means logging onto a website to check racers’ times as the competition progresses.

As I was coaching Saturday morning, my phone buzzed incessantly in the pocket of my ski bibs. At our mid-morning break, I pulled it out to get an update. Even if Live Timing hadn’t been an option, I would have known my son’s first run went well. Friends who were at the race – on the other side of Cannon Mountain from where I was coaching – had texted to tell me he looked great and skied fast. Other friends following from afar on Live Timing sent congratulatory “Woo-hoo!” messages. They kept coming through the day and into the evening.

Sunday afternoon I ditched my ski boots and hiked up along the edge of the long giant slalom course to watch the action. (If you read this column regularly, you may remember that last year I wrote about what a disaster I am when my kids are racing. I’m much better mid-course than at the finish. If you missed it, here's Race Mom Jitters.)

The higher I went, the more spectators I found. I ended up standing with my husband and younger daughter, my dad (Mom was lower down), and my brother. Our posse of Owen fans joined a group from Cranmore, there to cheer on their own kids. But they didn’t just cheer for the kids they knew, the ones from their own race program. They yelled for every kid who went by. If they could learn a racer’s name from some other spectators cheering nearby, they yelled that name. They asked what number my son was, then cheered as enthusiastically for him as they did for their own kids.

And so the fan club grew that day, if only for a few minutes.

My boy came through with two days of great results to notch that coveted trip to Champs this weekend. The reasons I am proud of him are fodder for some other story, one I’ll write in a more private way.

While the success of the weekend may seem the most important thing – and certainly had my kid walking on air – I noted something more valuable than results this weekend.

What I’m most thankful for is the fan club my children have, the people who will show up to watch – whether on the sidelines, at the edge of the race hill, or as part of the audience in the auditorium. They offer support in person or from afar. They are there to boost the kids up on the tough days and to celebrate with them on the good days.

They’re the best fans any kid could have.

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 8, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Foxes

My son spotted the first fox one morning last spring as we were on the way to school. There, in a field we pass multiple times a day, sat a small red fox, with black-tipped ears and bushy tail, who seemed to be gazing at the mountains.

So began my obsession with a local fox family.

We started looking for the fox each day, hoping its mom was in that field somewhere. One day, on the way home after dropping the kids at school, I saw two foxes. Soon, we realized there were four kits.

Through the next several weeks, as the hills evolved from brown to green and the temperatures warmed toward shorts and flip-flops weather, we saw the foxes almost daily. I would slow the car each time I passed the field and stare at what had before simply seemed a pile of rocks – but which we determined was the foxes’ den.

Sometimes, if I was driving by solo or out for a jog, I’d stop and watch the foxes from across the road. The kids loved to see them, too, but I was infatuated.

For about two weeks in June, we saw them every day, either on our way down the hill or on our way back up – sometimes both. They’d be perched in a spot of sunshine, alone or in pairs, sometimes the fuzzy ears of all four peeking above the rocks and tall grass. Often they’d be looking toward the mountains, sometimes curiously gazing at the road with their bright little eyes and black snouts.

We never did see a parent fox, and I imagined an exhausted mother and father – red foxes work together to raise their young – tuckered out inside the den after a night of hunting to provide enough to feed four fast-growing babies.

I imagined a den which had seemed snug and cozy at the end of winter, when the kids were newborn and tiny, becoming overcrowded as the little ones grew bigger – and figured Mama Fox probably kicked the increasingly boisterous crew out so she could get some rest: a fox’s variation of, “For crying out loud, go play outside!”

As the fox kits grew bigger, they also grew braver, wandering further from the den. I watched them hunt in the field and play-wrestle with each other. Once, I rolled down my window and scolded one of the kits for creeping too close to the sparse traffic. I was terrified we’d come down the hill one day and find a dead fox in the road.

Instead, the kits gradually disappeared from our view. Multiple sightings each day diminished to a couple a week, then none at all, as the nearly-grown foxes dispersed from their family unit.  

Still, I kept looking at the field, wondering where they were. Perhaps, I thought, they were wandering through the woods between the den and our house. Maybe they’d moved – safely – across the road and up the hill, or into some forest-edged fields closer to town. Or they’d grown into a more nocturnal schedule and were simply sleeping away the daylight hours in the same old den.

While it’s been months since we’ve seen the foxes in that field, I still look as we pass by their old den, hoping to see a glimpse of a ginger tail or the black tip of a fuzzy ear.

Over the years, our game camera has captured images of both red and gray foxes, and we see fox tracks through the field and along the Woods Road throughout the winter. This time of year, we often smell the subtly skunky scent red foxes leave at various posts throughout their territories during mating season.

Lately, I’ve noticed a series of tracks crisscrossing the crusty snow near where the foxes denned last spring. I’m hoping that means they are setting up house again, preparing for the next litter of kits, and that we’ll get to watch them emerge from the den come springtime to gaze at the mountains, watch the traffic go by, and carry on their foxy ways.

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 22, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Winter Woods Road

Just outside our front door, there’s an obscure labyrinth of paths that leads through the field and into the woods behind our house. These passageways are never so clearly traveled as during the winter months, when markings in the snow reveal the passings-by of critters large and small, human and non-human, often furred but sometimes feathered.

A happy pup on the Woods Road
As often as I can, when there is snow covering the ground, I head into the woods with the dog, who wiggles in full-bodied, happy anticipation of the smells she will sniff and the squirrels she might chase. Usually I travel by ski, but if the snow is deep and untracked, I wear my snowshoes. I may enter the woods from the edge of the road or the front yard, on the path just below our springhouse or at the back corner of the field.

However I get there, my main route is along what we call the Woods Road, a traverse built years ago through the forest by my husband’s grandfather. Because I have traveled this road in all seasons for many years – including when my children were tiny and, therefore, moved at a dawdling pace that allowed for more careful observation – I am familiar with the places where game trails intersect the old road, where the squirrels sometimes stash their winter cache of food, which trees the pileated woodpeckers favor in their search for tasty insects.

During the snowy season, the Woods Road becomes an open canvas, one shared by many travelers. Here and there, other paths enter the road from neighbors’ yards, and for a stretch, the road will be leveled by wide snowshoe treads, or marked for a ways by slender ski tracks. Sometimes I am the first one there after snowfall, leaving a trail for others to follow if they’d like, although the Woods Road is broad enough to accommodate more than one track.

Perhaps it’s because I can see more clearly what’s been sharing the road – if only in space, not time – but it seems there is more condensed travel along this route in winter. I like to think we human woods wanderers are helping the creatures who live in the wilder part of the neighborhood, packing out a trail so they may travel more easily during the hard winter months, finding food, evading would-be predators.

Once, a few winters ago, I was startled by a snowshoe hair who leapt across the trail in front of me. More often, I find the hares’ distinctive footprints hopscotched across the Woods Road. Also there are the split-heart-shaped tracks of deer, as well as prints from foxes (often), bobcats (more rare) and wild turkeys (by the flock).   
 
Game cam snap of resident porcupine
The porcupine trails are easy to spot; the needle-spiked critters seem to feel no need to hide their travels. If the snow is deep, a trough forms through it where the porcupines shuffle from den to
hemlock grove and back. If it is shallow, their pigeon-toed footprints show the way they have gone. They also leave the nipped tips of hemlock boughs along the ground and yellow birch trees with large patches of gnawed bark.

Where the wild ones go on either end of their Woods Road travels, I have little idea. Often, I look for tree hollows that may house barred owls or sleeping raccoons. I wonder where the deer bed down during the short winter days, until they come to our field in search of old, frozen apples. I imagine there are bears denned up somewhere not too far from our home.

The Woods Road leads down from our house to an old bridge over Bowen Brook, where in summer the thirsty dog pauses to drink, and children have been known to dip toes into cool water. From there, the dog and I follow the road around the bend toward the idle sugar house, up through a boggy area only easily passable when it is frozen and hard, and back toward home.

We come to the woods in all seasons, soaking in the quiet there. In spring, we revel in the unfurling of new leaves. In summer, we welcome the coolness of the shade. In autumn we find wonder at the vast colors of the trees. And in winter we look for glimpses of the forest’s secrets revealed along the Woods Road. 

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, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Cake

I think it was the unicorn cake that did me in. Or maybe the one fashioned to look something like our cat Feargus. Really, it was most likely the sheer number of celebratory confections I made each year in a short window of time during those preschool and early elementary years. Cupcakes for classmates at school, more cupcakes for parties with friends, cakes for family celebrations.

We barely make it through the winter holidays before we dive headlong into birthday season here. All
five of us – just the McPhauls living under this one roof – have birthdays within the span of 34 days. Add birthdays for a grandmother, an aunt, an uncle, and a cousin – all living locally – within a couple weeks of that timeframe, and it makes for a lot of birthdays. And a lot of cake.

In those early kid birthday years, I carefully crafted pretty cakes. At least as pretty as I could make them. Everything was from scratch. The frosting was piped to perfection. Hours were spent on each creation. This morning-person mama sometimes stayed up far too late to make sure the cakes were ready for the next day – because who has time during the daylight hours to decorate cakes with toddlers running around needing attention all the time?!?

There was the train cake, carefully assembled from an array of specially shaped mini cakes. There was the simpler pond cake – round and blue-frosted with green lily pads and rubber ducky candles. There was a rabbit cake for my bunny-loving girl and a tractor cake for my John Deere-obsessed boy. There were snowman and soccer ball and pink puppy cakes. There were dinosaur cupcakes and butterfly cupcakes and panda bear cupcakes with Junior Mint noses and chocolate chip eyes.

And then there was the unicorn. That cake involved a rocking horse-shaped cake pan, a meticulously frosted ice cream cone horn adhered to the cake with icing and covered in glittery sprinkles, and different-colored strands of frosting comprising the mane and tail. That unicorn was my pièce de résistance, my crowning glory in cake making.

It certainly wouldn’t have won any prizes on Cake Wars, but my four-year-old loved it.

Since that creation, I’ve knocked my cake-making endeavors down several notches. One year we even had a no-cake birthday season. We spent the day of two birthdays (my twins’) in Boston and had gelato for dessert at Quincy Market. We were in Disney World – a whole different sort of chaos – for the littlest’s birthday.

Mostly, though, we just keep the cakes simple.

The birthday kids get to choose the flavor (box mix) and the color of frosting (always homemade) and select a traditional-shaped cake pan. The number of candles lit corresponds to the birthday year. “Happy Birthday” is sung with gusto by people who love them. Their happy faces still glow in the light of those little candles as they make birthday wishes before blowing out the flames.

Simple is still delicious. And with so many of us turning another year older this month, there is always plenty of cake to go around. 

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 25, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Anatomy of a Snow Day

There was little better as a kid during winter than waking up on a snowy day and learning school would be cancelled. Of course, during my school years, that meant rising at the regular early hour and turning the T.V. to the local station to stare at the list of delays and cancellations scrolling up the screen, hoping to see my school there.

If it was, the day unfolded happily in my mind. Extra time in PJs. Reading by the fire. Sledding with friends. Wet mittens, hot cocoa, rosy cheeks.

My kids feel the same sort of snow day joy, although they don’t have to stare at the television to find out if school is off. Now, we receive the message in multiple ways – by text, email, phone call. And a snow day often means a powder day at the mountain, which makes all of us happy.

Here’s what a snow day looks like from this snow-loving mom’s perspective.

4:45 a.m.: Wake up and turn phone on to see if school has been delayed. No text. Lie in the dark, partly trying to go back to sleep, but mostly wondering when the text will come in.

5:16 a.m.: Phone buzzes with two-hour school delay message from superintendent, followed one minute later by house phone ringing with two-hour delay message, then cell phone call with same message.

5:18 a.m.: Check WMUR website to see what other schools are delayed. Notice some have already called a full snow day. Wonder about the likelihood of that happening here.

5:30 a.m.: Give up trying to sleep. Get up, turn coffee maker on, head to office and attempt to meet the day’s deadlines before the kids wake up. Continue to be distracted by the chance that school will be canceled.

6:47 a.m.: Check online snow report for the mountain to see if it’s worth calling a family snow day, despite what school is – or is not – doing. Report not updated. Resume attempts to work.

6:55 a.m.: Check snow report again. No dice. Repeat above attempt to work.

6:56 a.m.: Receive email from school regarding breakfast for students. Assume this is a sign that school will not be cancelled. Feel a little sad.

6:59 a.m.: Bedroom door squeaks as first kid emerges and creeps up to the office to confirm school is delayed. Check snow report again. No dice. Back to work.

7:02 a.m.: Repeat above step with second kid to wake up. Both go downstairs to enjoy the no-rush morning.

7:08 a.m.: Look up from keyboard and notice it’s finally light enough to see outside. It’s dumping. Heart is happy. Seriously dumping. Check snow report again. Still not updated. What the heck?!?

7:13 a.m.: Phone buzzes with text that school is cancelled (and house phone rings, and cell phone rings). Hooray! Feel kind of like a kid. Also, happy that now I don’t have to make the call about a family powder day.

7:14 a.m.: Kid number three emerges from her room and finds me. We celebrate the snow day with a happy hug. Check snow report. Still nothing. Doesn’t matter, I bet we’ll ski.

7:35 a.m.: Give up trying to work – for now. Time to make breakfast, and a plan.

8:45 a.m.: Breakfast done. Dishes done. Ski boots on. Skis in car. Kids in car. Head to the mountain.

9:02 a.m.: Pull into ski area, a few minutes late for first chair.

9:14 a.m.: Slide off chair at the top. Goggles down, hood up. Push down the hill, slide through powder, yee-haw as snow poofs up with each turn, watch the kids weave down the trail, laughing all the way. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. 

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 11, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.