Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Apple Path

When our children were small, my husband began mowing paths through our field, grassy lanes that allowed little legs to maneuver more easily through the landscape of home. We still mow the paths – one up around the front field, another down to Big Rock, and “Auntie EB’s Path” toward my sister-in-law’s house. The one that gets the most use, though, is the Apple Path.

This one wends between what were, perhaps, once neat rows of apple trees. Long untended, the trees now are in various stages of wildness. Some have fallen over in recent years, their old trunks twisted and gnarled. Others, left unpruned for too long, have grown unruly, like wild-haired beasts, with shoots flying upward from branches at all angles and varying heights.

Some years ago, as winter merged to spring, I made an attempt to prune a few of the trees, cutting off new shoots and sawing away tired old branches. I vowed to get to each tree – nearly three dozen in total through the front field and the back one – over the course of a year or two. But it was hard work after so many years of neglect; I was indecisive in which limbs to prune and which to keep. And so the orchard remains mostly wild.

While some of the trees are gangly and awkward, others are tall and full – vastly larger than the neatly, purposefully trimmed trees of commercial orchards. Those trees are tended to optimize fruit production. Ours are simply a familiar part of the topography now, changing just as the other wild trees – the maples and pines and birches – growing, breaking, altering their shape through the course of weather and nature.

The woman we bought the house from told us these were Prohibition trees, planted to grow fruit for making hard cider. The house was built in 1929 – near the tail end of Prohibition – and I wonder if the trees were here before the house, tended by some thirsty farmer down the road.

Whenever it was planted, and despite our neglect of the trees, we have watched many seasons shift through the old orchard.

In mid-spring, the trees transition from bare, twisted limbs to a glorious display of pastel blooms. At first, the small, tightly-whorled buds of palest pink appear, then a few blossoms unfold here and there, until suddenly the field explodes into a sweet-smelling froth of white and pink flowers. The bees buzz through the apple trees then, happily seeking the nectar there.

By the time the flowers have gone, the landscape around the apple trees has greened toward summer, and our attention shifts to other things. But come fall, the apple trees stand out again – no so much for their foliage, which, frankly, is rather blah, but for the abundance they hold.

Some of the trees have red fruit, others yellow. The apples don’t grow large, and they tend to be spotted, but they are ample in number. Some years – mostly when the kids were little and unencumbered by homework and soccer practice – we have gathered enough to make cider (not the hard kind) and apple sauce.

Mostly, though, our apple trees feed the wildlife. We have seen – either in live time or through images captured by the game camera – an array of animals traveling the Apple Path: turkeys, bears, deer, foxes, porcupines, coyotes, squirrels, crows. This year, there is a distinct, well-trodden trail pressed into the grass along the length of the Apple Path, leading from the densest cluster of apple trees down to the forest beyond our field.

The game cam is on the fritz, so I can’t know for sure who has made the trail. But I suspect the regular travelers include the mother bear and three cubs we saw often through the summer, the cubs growing from tiny, black fuzz balls to what I imagine is teenage-hood for bears – which likely means those cubs are constantly hungry now.

Several years ago, when my own cubs were still tiny, we had a mother bear with four cubs in the neighborhood. When we inadvertently startled them one evening, she sent all four up a lanky apple tree just behind the vegetable garden. While they peered out from the branches, she remained calmly on the ground below, noshing on windfall apples.

Now, in the thick of autumn, many of this year's apples have fallen to the ground. Past experience tells me the deer will continue to eat the apples as far into the winter as they can, ambling along the Apple Path and scratching through the snow to reach the fruit that remains long after it ripened and fell.

When the snow becomes deep, the deer keep to their sheltered, hidden places. The bears, too, will have hunkered down by then, hopefully well fed on fall’s bounty. Winter’s starkness will again reveal the bones of the trees and lead me once more to thoughts of pruning – someday.
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 11, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

September Hodgepodge

September marks one of those in-between seasons: no longer full summer, but just reaching into fall. The kids have returned to the classroom, but they are still settling into the new school year routine. The days might feel steamy-hot, but they can also be wear-a-coat chilly. The flowers are mostly gone, but the leaves are popping with new color. This time of year is sort of a mashup of different things – a little of this, a little of that.

Between seasons (a few years ago).
The other day I went out to the garden and picked a handful of Brussels sprouts. Given the cabbage-worm-eaten look of the giant leaves, I’m guessing these might be the only Brussels sprouts I get this year, at least from my own garden. There are a few carrots left to pull from the ground, but the bulk of summer’s bounty has been plucked and consumed.

Last week’s frost did leave a few veggies unscathed – or at least didn’t damage them past the point of recovery. The leaves of my last two rows of green beans browned in the cold of those two consecutive frosty nights, but the beans themselves survived to be eaten. And while the older leaves of the sprawling zucchini plants have wilted with time and chilly temps, there is still new growth – bright green against the shifting colors of fall – and a few more squash to be picked.

The berries are gone, and the apples are abundant. The perennial bed has yellowed and waits to be cut down for the winter, and the fields are mostly straw-colored now as growing things fade away – except for the tall purple asters, whose vivid color seems bright even against the glow of changing red and orange and yellow showing from the trees.

The kids still head outside to play after school, but they’re coming to terms with the reality that there is not much light – or warmth – lingering after dinnertime. And there is homework to do now, and earlier bedtimes to match the earlier mornings. Weekends, too, are a mix – of persisting summer chores and preparing-for-cold-weather tasks, of regrouping from the busy weeks and keeping up with the weekend events, of slowing down and hurrying up.

My own work right now is also a bit of a jumble of wrapping up loose ends and chasing new leads, as I work to cross that bridge between the writings of one season and the stories of the next.

Between work and chores, soccer practices and dinner prep, family time and outside obligations, I remember to take in the shifting colors of this early fall – in the yard beyond the garden, on the hillside behind the high school soccer field, along the rivers and roads, as I make my way between seasons.

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 27, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Barefoot Blues

One recent morning, I headed out to the dwindling garden to pick a few carrots for the kids’ lunchboxes and gasped when my bare feet hit the grass. Yes, fall color has been creeping steadily into the landscape and the sun is slower to rise these days – and slower to warm the air – but I was not prepared for the sharp cold of dewy grass on bare toes.

Bye-bye, bare toes.
I love the changing colors of fall, that slow fade to gold and ochre that precedes the brightening of hillsides to brilliant orange and blazing red. I welcome the crispness of the morning air and the season’s apples. I don’t begrudge having to don a cozy sweater during the chillier evenings.

But I am loath to give up bare feet and flipflops.

Leaving the shoes behind is one of the first joys of spring, when the days are finally warm enough to eschew socks and sneakers for sandals and bare toes – no more hauling out the boots to pull over thick socks before making even the quickest of trips outside.

Gradually, as the days lengthen, barefoot becomes the norm around our house – and beyond. There is barefoot gardening, along with barefoot soccer in the yard, barefoot walks along the river, and barefoot balancing on the slackline. Most trips beyond the house – other than hiking and biking outings – require only a quick slide into flipflops. Our formerly winter-white feet become tough and tan. Our toes revel in the feel of rough sand and smooth grass. Barefootedness is one of the best parts of summer.

I know, of course, that summer is nearly over now. Although the calendar gives us about another week of this season before it is officially fall, summer always feels as though it’s ended when the kids go back to school. They’ve just finished week three of the new school year, so I’ve mostly waved goodbye to the warmest season.

I’ve come to terms with the school backpacks hanging in their regular spots and with afternoon homework help. I’ve started to get used to the morning rush of breakfast and packing lunches and getting everyone out the door before they’ve fully roused from the previous night’s sleep. I’ve even found some happiness in pulling on jeans for the first time in months and cozying into flannel and fleece.

But giving up the bare feet and flipflops feels like letting go of the last little bit of summer’s freedom, and that is a hard thing to do. I guess you could say have cold feet – in more ways than one – about the next season, lovely though it may be.

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 13, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Impromptu Play

It is fully dark these days by 8:15. I know, because when I looked outside the other night to see what the kids were doing in the yard, I could find them only by their voices. And because a few minutes later, the youngest came in for a headlamp – a tool used normally for camping (or spelunking), but in this case needed to prolong the game of 2 v. 2 wiffleball that had started before dinner, taken a second intermission for dessert, and was now continuing, literally, into the dark of night.

I loved it. The whole unscripted, kid-decided rules, is-anyone-even-keeping-score fun of it. My kids have played a fair bit of wiffleball this summer, along with other spontaneous, sometimes made-up games.

When their California cousins were here near the start of summer, the kids spent hours running around my parents’ yard with one type of ball or another. They made up varying teams, mixing and matching the three California teens and the three New Hampshire pre-teens for whatever the game du jour was. Often this was kickball. Sometimes the grownups weren’t sure what was happening, but it was fun to watch.

When the Texas cousins arrived soon after the California contingent had departed, a whole new gaggle of kids took to playing made up games or some variation of soccer – played barefoot and usually with the littlest kids tending the goal – or hide-and-seek or capture the flag. They must have run miles all those evenings, across my in-laws’ wide lawn, oblivious to the glorious mountain views beyond them, just focused on the game.

When they play on their own, kids get to make up the rules – and they have to referee themselves. Generally, they figure it out relatively peacefully. But my kids – and others – can be uber competitive: sometimes there are squabbles. Sometimes someone stomps away in frustration, but that someone always ends up back in the mix eventually. Nobody wants to miss out on the fun for long.

A couple of weeks ago, when the out-of-town cousins were all long gone, I was finishing up the dinner dishes when I saw my older daughter run out of the garage with a pair of clippers and a metal rake. Sitting on the front porch with my husband a few minutes later, I watched the kids far up in the front field, moving around by one of the large maple trees there.

Eventually, the two girls careened partway down the driveway on bikes, dismounted to grab a couple of large-ish birch branches fallen nearby, and lugged them all the way back up to the maple tree. As we watched the kids move around near the tree, into and out of the woods nearby, we wondered what on earth they were doing.

We agreed, though, that it didn’t really matter. They were outside. They were working together instead of arguing (which, believe it or not, happens a fair amount). They were using their brains and their bodies. We let them be until the gathering darkness made it hard to see them, then called them in for bedtime.

They were building a fort, they said, and they continued the mission the following day before moving on to the next spontaneous, unstructured summer thing.

This week’s impromptu, hours-long, into-the-dark wiffleball game came after three of the four kids playing had spent a full morning at middle school orientation and two more hours at soccer practice. It came in the waning days of summer – and, perhaps (as much as I hate to admit it), in the waning days of childhood.

It seemed unimportant that it was late and that it was fully dark outside. Next week brings the start of the school year and the return to more structure – classes, sports, homework – another year in the march toward adulthood.

For this late-summer night, I wanted to let them play as long as they could.

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, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, August 9, 2019

So Fast Summer

August sneaks up on me every year. In June, summer stretches before me like an endless daydream of carefree days, family adventures, sunshine and warmth. Then, suddenly, it’s August, and it feels like summer is coming to a screeching halt before it’s really even begun.

This summer has seemed to pass particularly quickly. It feels a bit like one of those days where you get to the end of it, flustered and exhausted, and wonder what the heck you did all day. But once you’ve had time to sit and reflect, you realize there was a lot packed into the day – or, in this case, the season.

During the first month of summer we had a revolving cast of visiting cousins in town, which made for days – and nights – that were fun, to be sure, but also sometimes hectic and amorphous. We loved the quality cousin time, but never really got into our own summer swing of things.

For the first time since the kids were toddlers, we also didn’t take our annual week-long pilgrimage to the ocean. We’ve had lots of shorter adventures that have all been a blast, but without that week of beach time marked on the calendar, summer has seemed a little off, I guess.

And don’t even get me started on the garden. Oof. Busy June weekends, on top of some pretty miserable early summer weather, thwarted all my good intentions of getting the vegetable gardens planted early. The perennial bed is a disgraceful tangle of weeds with the occasional sturdy bloom poking through.

Still, my flower boxes are overflowing with color. And the small plots I managed to sow – late as it was – with veggie seeds are producing well, keeping us in beans and carrots, cukes and zucchini, beets and more kale than I know what to do with. It all makes me think it’s simply time to cut back on the size of both gardens for a while.

Despite missing our Cape week – and the fact that it took us to the end of July to get to our first big hike of the summer – the adventures we have had have been fabulous. We’ve gone glamping and mountain biking, camping and kayaking, climbed a few tall mountains and splashed in our favorite spots along cool rivers. I’m still holding out for a few days at the ocean – and a few more hikes, bike rides, and trips to the pool and the river.

I guess that’s the upside of August hitting so hard – realizing summer isn’t really forever, and that it’s wise to fit as much of its goodness in before the days shorten too much more, before the kids are swallowed up back into the school year, before we move on – ready or not – to 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 August 9, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Good Ones

Too late, I remembered I was chewing gum. I’d already taken my seat in Ms. Spinney’s classroom when I realized the gum was there. I looked at her, she looked at me. She never said a word, but I knew I’d be served a detention slip the next morning. It didn’t matter that I was a good kid and a good student. The rules were the rules, and in Ms. Spinney’s class gum-chewing was not allowed.

This sophomore-year incident popped into my mind this week when I heard that Ms. Spinney had died. And from that one memory, my thoughts wandered to other teachers I remember from my years of schooling, long ago as they sometimes seem. I couldn’t tell you the name of every grade school or high school teacher or college professor I ever had – or every specific lesson I learned from them – but I remember many of them. Mostly the Good Ones.

I remember Mrs. Forsythe from first grade and that I was happy my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Petersen, moved on with me to teach my third-grade class, too. I remember being nervous to start at a new school in sixth grade, when my Hastings School class would merge with the Fales School kids.

I remember Mrs. Cowles teaching us The Preposition Song in English class that year. Three decades later, I can bust out all the prepositions – alphabetically and to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy – whenever I feel in danger of ending a sentence with a preposition. We also learned to diagram sentences with Mrs. Cowles – do kids even do that anymore? – and, when we really caught onto something, she’d tell us, “Now you’re cooking with gas!”

In high school, in a classroom with an impressive collection of wind-up toys, Mr. Sharpe lit the writing fire in me during creative writing class. In Mr. Kasierski’s biology class I learned to dissect once-living beings (ick), but also to look closely at the natural world, to notice the details there among still-alive things.

Mr. Mullen introduced us to classic American literature. I couldn’t tell you every book we were assigned to read that year, but I still have the journals we had to keep as part of our classwork. And I can picture Mr. Mullen acting out the scene in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” when Stanley leans back, full of angst, and hollers, “Stellllaaaaaa!”

Ms. Spinney walked us through contemporary history. By the time our class arrived, she’d already been teaching for more than 30 years. History, of course, had shifted in those decades – although I imagine the challenges of engaging a group of teenagers in what they likely considered ancient history remained similar through the years.

I don’t remember, all these years later, which exact periods or topics we covered. I do remember Ms. Spinney using Billy Joel’s newly (in 1989) released song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as a lesson. If you don’t remember the lyrics – or have never heard it – look it up. It offered a timeline outside of, but related to, our stagnant textbooks. I’ve always thought that was an ingenious bit of teaching.

Miss Spinney retired many years ago, but in the town where she grew up and lived her whole life, she remained involved in mentoring young people through some of the challenges of school and adolescence. She was one of the Good Ones – even if she did give me one of the two detentions I earned in four years of high school. (I never flubbed and chewed gum in her class again.)

I think teaching is probably harder work than anyone who has never been a teacher realizes. It’s a big responsibility to have a hand in shaping young minds. But what a tradeoff, to know that if you do it right – if you’re one of the Good Ones – a few of the lessons you’ve shared along the way might just come happily to some former student’s mind many years down the road, many miles from the classroom. 

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 26, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Playing with the boys - and the girls

This essay is not about girl power. Or boy power. Or equality or differences or politics, although it could be about any of those. Rather, it is about a shifting landscape in the sporting world, one that has evolved over decades and generations. One that was on full display last weekend during the final game of the World Cup.

When my mother was in high school, she played basketball. Her uniform included a skirt, and only certain players were allowed to cross half court. Mom is pretty sporty and later became an adept skier and tennis player – and, in her retirement years, a golfer – but that skirted basketball team was her only option for any sort of organized sport during her growing-up years. Boys and girls did not play together.

I grew up during the Title IX era, when the doors of opportunity in sports had been thrown open to girls across the country. I played lots of different sports – sometimes with co-ed teams, sometimes with girls-only teams – and harbored Olympic dreams, like sports-playing kids everywhere. Those dreams, however, did not include playing soccer – my favorite – beyond school. Because there was no such thing as women’s soccer in the Olympics until 1996, the year I graduated college. The first Women’s World Cup was played in 1991. The U.S., led by legend Michelle Akers, won. But I didn’t watch, because the game wasn’t televised.

Last Sunday my children and I joined some 16 million television viewers across the country (and many millions more tuned in via live streaming) to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team win a record-breaking fourth World Cup title. Several million more fans watched around the world, not just this game, but every game of the four-week tournament. (Nearly 90 percent of all homes with televisions in the Netherlands – the U.S. opponent in the final – were tuned to the game.)

My kids will watch soccer whenever they come across a game on TV – women’s soccer, men’s soccer, college, professional, MLS, WNSL, Bundesliga – if there’s a soccer game on, they’ll find it.

They have played soccer since before they were in school, starting with kicking the ball around the yard, then moving into the organized rec program as kindergarteners. While larger towns and programs with more children sometimes separate boys and girls right from the start, my kids have played on co-ed teams most years.

My girls think nothing of stepping onto a field that includes boys. My boy thinks nothing of stepping onto a field that includes girls. That is how it’s always been for them, and for the boys and girls they’ve grown up playing with. Sometimes the fastest, most skillful, toughest players on the field are boys. Sometimes they’re girls.

As far as I can tell, the kids I have coached over the last seven years don’t treat me any differently than they would a male coach. This generation – at least the kids around here – is simply used to both boys and girls playing, and to both moms and dads stepping in to coach.

Now that my kids are middle school aged, their teams are often split by gender. But when my daughters occasionally helped out my son’s travel team this spring, nobody treated them any differently than they would treat male players. This weekend, my younger daughter will play in a tournament on a co-ed team.

Are there differences, in general, between boys and girls? Of course, and these are more noticeable as the kids get older. Still, those differences vary as much by team and age as they do by gender and individual personalities. I know that some girls don’t like to play sports with boys. And I guess there are some boys who don’t like to play sports with girls.

I think the important thing is that they all get to play – the boys and the girls. I remember, as a soccer-loving kid, learning about Pele and Maradona, watching their moves, aspiring to be even a little bit like them. Eventually I learned about Michelle, then about Mia and Julie and Christine and the rest of the group that came to be known as “the ’99-ers” – the women who won another World Cup and inspired a whole generation to take to the soccer field.

Some members of that inspired next generation just won another World Cup. There were little girls – and little boys – watching all over the country, all over the world.

Now, girls don’t have to stay on their half of the court and wear a skirt to play sports (although skirts are fine). Now, girls everywhere can dream of playing soccer on a world stage. My daughters have dozens of soccer players who could be their idols. They study Tobin’s killer moves on the field, watch to see how Becky controls the back line, aspire to be like Alex and Megan and Rose – and Christen and Carli and Julie.

Then they go out to the yard or the field and play with whoever else is there – boys or girls, it doesn’t matter, as long as they get to play.

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 12, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Summer Blessings

Summer’s arrival was tardy this year, kept at bay by the cold and wet of a lingering spring. But the season of heat and color is here, at last, and the delay has made these first hot days – and the gifts they offer – even more welcome.

After so many long weeks of waiting, as spring’s lilacs fade away and summer’s roses bloom, the blessings of this season seem many.

Fields of lupines flow in a sea of purple from the house toward the woods on one side and the mountains on another. Though they were late to bloom this year – like everything else – this June has brought more lupines than I’ve seen in our fields in years. I guess they, at least, liked the chilly, wet spring.

One afternoon, as I walked through the mowed path in search of a lupine photo, our neighbor called to me that one group of the local bears was out. After grabbing the dog by her leash-less collar and getting her safely inside the house, I spent a good chunk of time observing mama bear as she kept watch by the base of a giant white pine. Her three small cubs scampered high up the tree – 30 feet or more – and spread out along one long limb to nap, one curled up where the branch met the trunk, the other two sprawled along the branch, their fuzzy legs dangling toward the ground, heads on a pillow of scratchy bark.

Beyond the excitement of bears, when I pause outside, I hear the buzzing of bees and of hummingbird wings, where they hover to feed on the flowers we have planted on the porch.

Buttercups, like fields of gold, have turned whole swaths the landscape into its own form of sunshine.

The very air is sweetness, with its mingling scents of roses and sunscreen and freshly-cut grass. And the light now lingers long past dinnertime, inspiring the kids to go out and play later than usual.

We have taken family drives through the protracted twilight and seen other bears in other fields and summer-sleek deer, shed now of their duller winter coats, gleaming deep amber in the fading light. One night we were happy to spot a yearling moose not far from home, all elongated snout and gangly-long legs as he lumbered clumsily along the road in front of us before turning into a field of wildflowers abloom.

From the window or the porch, I watch the soft glow of colors in the sky as it fades slowly from bright summer day to short summer night – and the way the mountains fade gradually into the growing dark.

We’ve enjoyed long porch sits after twilight fades, when the reward for loitering among mosquitoes is the enchanting sound of the hermit thrush trilling somewhere near the forest’s edge, frogs singing from wet places all around us, and the magical twinkling of fireflies through the dusky fields

I know this season will fly by. It always does. I'm savoring summer's sweetness while it lasts.

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 28, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Farewell, Lafayette

Today my two older children will walk into their elementary school for the last time as students. This afternoon they officially become middle schoolers.

For the past seven years, they’ve traveled the same hallways of Lafayette Regional, selected books from the same library shelves, eaten lunch and had PE class and sung during concerts in the “Multi-Purpose Room,” and – for the most part – seen the same teachers around the school.

I’ve found myself reflecting throughout the closing school year on my children’s progression from tiny kindergarteners to confident sixth graders – and of my progression through those years as their mom.

Like parents everywhere, no matter the age of their offspring, I have often wondered at the quick passage of time – this year, perhaps, more than others. (And I empathize with the parents of the kids who were 6th graders the year mine were in kindergarten; those former 6th graders graduated from high school last week!)

I have a distinct memory of entering Lafayette on the kids’ first day there, of standing nervously to the side of the lobby toward the kindergarten classroom while the principal held Morning Meeting, of noticing how BIG the 6th graders seemed – and how tiny my kindergarteners in comparison.

Now, those once tiny kindergarteners are the big kids. The ones moving on in a couple of months to another school, where they’ll again be the youngest. Until they are – suddenly, I’m sure it will seem again – the oldest, the ones ready, once more, to move on.

There were many things they’d looked forward to as they entered sixth grade: helping the 1st graders with Halloween pumpkin carving and holiday gingerbread houses, working on robots for FIRST LEGO League, and most especially the end-of-school-year Festival of the Arts.

The sixth graders run this much-anticipated event, starting on the planning back at the beginning of the school year, selecting a theme (kept secret until the day of FOA), designing various stations of crafts and sports, writing and producing a skit they perform for the entire school, and running the whole show when the big day arrives.

My children still remember their first FOA, as kindergarteners, when the theme was Super Heroes and they came home with shields and masks they had made, with help from “the big kids,” along with lots of stories about the day.

This year, as the morning of FOA arrived, beyond the excitement, they were both feeling the pressure of being part of a group in charge of something. Their class did an amazing job. In part, that’s because it’s a great group of kids. In part it’s because their teachers, the ones who have guided them from kindergarten right through sixth grade, whether in the classroom or in some integral support role, are awesome.

This culminating year at Lafayette has been one of lasts for my older two children. It started with their last first day of elementary school back in August and has ramped up the past few weeks to include several others: last spring concert in this school, last “normal Friday” at Lafayette, last Festival of the Arts, and now the last day.

Amid all the lasts of the past several weeks, several firsts have also been sprinkled in. The Lafayette 6th graders have met their Bethlehem counterparts, who will be their classmates over the next six years of schooling. They’ve visited Profile and met their middle school teachers – who, my kids report, are also awesome. They’ve put in their requests for elective classes and signed up for fall soccer.

For probably the first time in their young lives, my kids are experiencing the weird emotional juxtaposition of sad and excited. Excited to be moving on to middle school – new building, new teachers, new opportunities for learning and sports and friends. Sad to be leaving a place that feels a little bit like home and a staff that seems a little bit like family.

Both kids have been talking lots about the memories they have of their elementary school years. For me, a couple of good ones come to mind.

The first is of the holiday concert their kindergarten year. That year, my daughter – despite her love of school – cried every morning at drop-off, struggling with that daily separation from me. She was shy and mostly quiet. But the evening of the concert, she stood, front and center on the stage, and boogied for all she was worth to the Penguin Polka. It made my heart sing – even if that dang song still gets stuck in my head. (This year she was thrilled to be the emcee of the talent show and to get back on stage for the FOA skit.)

A few years later, my son wanted to read a poem during Poetry Night. His teachers have always encouraged the children to participate in Poetry Night and the annual talent show and any other chance to stand up and perform, to show a bit of themselves to the audience of other kids, teachers, parents and grandparents. While far from the class clown, my boy has a sense of humor that is subtle, but sure. He selected Shel Silverstein’s “Warning” to read. If you don’t know the poem, look it up – and beware the sharp-toothed snail who lives inside your nose.

Back then, 6th grade seemed far away, and middle school was a glimmer on the distant horizon. Now, here we are. They’re ready. They’ve been preparing for this step since that first day of kindergarten. 

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 14, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

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


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.