Friday, August 6, 2021

A Tale of Two Summers

Last summer opened with a good bit of trepidation; in the midst of the pandemic, we brooded about not being able to travel far, worried about what was safe and what was not, and lamented the disruption of cherished summer traditions. As we approached this summer of 2021, conversely, things were looking up: the kids had made it through a strange school year, our family was fully vaccinated, and it felt like we’d return to a carefree summer of freewheeling fun.  

Now, as we enter these waning weeks of the summer (I know it’s only early August, but I always feel that whoosh of time flying when I turn the calendar from July to August), it seems that the tale of these two summers wasn’t quite what we expected it to be. This summer, it turns out, wasn’t better than last summer – or worse. It was just different.

Despite the pandemic – or maybe, in some strange way, because of it – our summer of 2020 was pretty great. Yes, it was weird to eschew cookouts and gatherings. We were bummed to not fit in a trip to Cape Cod with my folks, and even more disappointed to miss the usual visits from far-away cousins. We missed the spring soccer season that spills into summer. We missed family sessions of mini golf. We missed impromptu trips to – well, anywhere, really.

By necessity, we embraced local wonders more than ever. And one of the huge perks of the summer of 2020 was that all our local friends were here; nobody was traipsing off for a week at the beach, trips out west or abroad, or time away at summer camp. Instead, we’d gather by our favorite swimming holes late in the afternoons, the kids splashing around and jumping off rocks and downed trees, the moms soaking up the sun and catching up. We refurbished forgotten mountain bike trails in the woods by our house and created a couple new ones. We paddled around in kayaks, looking for turtles and sliding into the water to cool off.

And through the month of July, the kids and I hiked. Sometimes it was just the four of us on the trail, but often one group or another of our hiking friends joined us. From the first day of the month to the last, we crossed eight of the state’s 48 4,000-footers off our list. We even added a couple of overnights – my kids’ first ever backpacking adventures, and my first in a good long while.

This summer, though, we’ve hit the trail only a few times. I don’t know that we’ve had a single lazy afternoon by the river with friends. And the kayaks have been loaded into the truck and slipped into the water only one time so far.

The start to our summer was partly consumed by the tail end of a competitive spring soccer season of busy weekends. The two teenagers in the family started their first jobs in June, which made spontaneous hikes and river trips and anything else nearly impossible. The weather has been weird. And fitting in hiking trips or other outings with friends has proved difficult, with other teenagers working and other families taking vacations at different times.

Instead, this July opened – very happily so – with a visit from my California brother and his family and wrapped up with a visit from the Tennessee contingent. There was tons of cousin time, late nights of visiting and kids running around, and short visits from more extended family thrown into the mix. These cousin visits are among my children’s most cherished summertime traditions, made even sweeter this year by last year’s hiatus.

Another summer tradition returning this year: our pilgrimage to the sandy shores of Cape Cod and the beaches my brothers and I visited when we were kids. Summer may be fading faster than I’d like. But I’ll get my toes in the sand before it goes. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's August 5, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

Friday, July 2, 2021

The Beautiful Game

When my kids were in kindergarten, I started coaching their soccer teams through the local recreation department. I love soccer. Loved playing it as a kid, then in college, then out in Colorado, and for one summer on a ragtag team of women from teenaged to middle-aged in Ireland. So of course I loved coaching it, too. It was gratifying to see the kids – my own and their classmates – progress from kindergarten all the way through elementary school, at which point I moved to the spectating side of the field.

It was a bit of a bummer last fall when my youngest and her classmates missed out on their last year of rec soccer – and their last chance to vie for the coveted Halloween Cup, that annual end-of-the-season tournament, played on the home field, right next to the playground they’ve all been swinging and sliding and climbing through since they were toddlers. My friend Mike and I still got to coach the kids in practices and intrateam scrimmages, but it wasn’t quite the same without the competition of playing against other teams. And while I sympathized with the kids, I also felt a twinge of my own remorse for missing out on this last year of coaching.

Still, I hesitated this spring when I was asked to help with my youngest daughter’s club team. Just having two of my kids playing spring soccer was a big time commitment, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to add one more thing to my plate. But in the end, I figured if I was going to be sitting at practices and driving to games anyway, I may as well help out – as long as I didn’t have to be in charge of planning practices or any of the administrative stuff. Basically, I agreed to be there to follow someone else’s lead.

In all the years I’ve coached (both soccer and skiing) I’ve been lucky to have some strong leads to follow. I’ve learned from the people I’ve coached with – and from watching many of the coaches who have guided my kids’ athletic endeavors when I’m on the other side of the field (or the ski slope) with the spectators.

This spring’s coaching experience was different than coaching fall soccer. Many of the kids, I met for the first time in April, when we started kicking the ball around inside. Some of them I knew from two years ago – pre Covid – when they’d first played on the same team with my daughter. The only one I’d known since kindergarten was my own. One of the perks of coaching, though, is that you get to know the kids differently than when you’re a parent on the sideline. And this group of girls was super fun to get to know. They are silly while still being competitive. Smart. Sometimes a little sassy. Tough. And supremely coachable.

Scott, whose lead I got to follow this spring, is one of those coaches who has an innate ability to connect with players. If you’ve ever had a good coach, you’ll know what I mean here. They exude good energy. They’re almost always positive. They expect you to play to your potential and will tell you – in a constructive way – when you can do better. When you have a coach like that, you always try your hardest, always want to play more, play better.

These girls worked hard and had fun through the season, whether it was 90 degrees and oppressively humid or 45 and raining. Girls who early in the season told me they simply couldn’t kick the ball with their left foot were, by June, making defensive clears, attacking crosses, and even a goal or two – with that left foot. Girls who had been timid during the first games became confident. Girls who hardly knew each other off the field somehow connected on it – learning which passes to send and which runs to make and how to work together.

Sometimes, on the sidelines during games, we coaches meted out tactical advice. Often, we just watched the girls play and relished their love of the game. Who knows where soccer might lead them? Onto a high school team, maybe, or even college. To a team in a Colorado ski town, or a village in the west of Ireland. Perhaps, someday, these girls will be on the coaching side of the field, guiding the next group of youngsters through the beautiful game.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's July 1, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Home Grown

I swear it wasn’t that long ago that I had three kids under the age of 3. Sometimes it feels like it was just a few short months ago that I had a toddler wrapped around each leg and a baby in my arms. Only a couple of weeks back that all three could still climb into my lap together for a bedtime story. Just the other day that they were learning to pedal tricycles, ski down the bunny hill, and sound out words.

But somehow, now, my oldest has to bend slightly to hug me, and next week my not-so-little littlest wraps up her elementary school days in a place that’s been a part of our family’s life and daily routine for most of the last decade. She’s ready to move on – the kids always are by the time they’ve progressed from small kindergarteners to almost-teenagers. And I’m calmer about this milestone than I thought I might be, but I’m betting it’ll take a while before I get used to turning the other way, toward a different school, at the bottom of our hill for the daily drop-off and pickup.

I remember standing in the elementary school foyer on the first day of kindergarten for my older two children. Back then, I was used to preschool-sized kids who couldn’t quite pronounce their Rs and were still learning to tie their shoelaces. On that morning, as my two 5-year-olds stuck close to my side, a bit anxious about their first day in the “big school,” the 6th graders seemed enormous and so grown up.

Now, of course, my perspective has shifted. I am used to (although sometimes still surprised by) the still-growing stature of my daughter and her 6th grade classmates, who are all approaching or have already surpassed my height. But those kindergarteners seem so tiny – even if it sometimes seems like last week that my own kids were that small.  

The end of each school year is one of those times when it’s easy to contemplate the changes in our children. Some are moving on from preschool, others – who, really, were learning their shapes and letters in preschool not so long ago – are graduating from high school or (gulp) college. So, their growing up offspring is at the top of many parents’ minds.

When your children are babies, it seems as if everyone – parents of older kids, strangers in the grocery store – tells you to “enjoy every minute,” that it passes quickly. And, on some level, you know they’re right. But then you’re also in the midst of changing diapers and cutting food into tiny pieces and being woken at all hours of the night. It’s exhausting.

All that exhaustion fades into the background, however, when a small human, whose world literally revolves around you, hands you a bouquet of dandelions or blows a kiss from the outfield in a t-ball game or snuggles in with a favorite stuffy for a cuddle – or says in a voice impossibly sweet, “I love you, Mama.”

And the next thing you know, they’re asking for the keys to the minivan so they can go out with their friends. OK, OK, so we’re not quite there yet. But judging by how fast these years seem to go, we’ll get there next week. Or tomorrow. Or five minutes from now. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's June 10, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.