Thursday, October 7, 2021

Twenty Years Home

Twenty years ago this month, I landed in Franconia. This place was already familiar, as I’d spent all of my childhood winters skiing at Cannon and rare summer days splashing in the cool Ham Branch and climbing the mountains nearby.

But it wasn’t home.

I arrived in Franconia late on a mid-October night after a cross-country drive with my mom, who’d flown out to Colorado to make the long trek back East with me. Except for a few boxes of stuff I’d shipped, everything I owned – including my somewhat neurotic cat, Fiona – was crammed into my little Subaru.

I was 27, fresh off a six-month stint guiding horse treks and waiting tables and getting pretty close to blending into a small town on the west coast of Ireland, where I was known alternately as “the horsey girl” or “the Yank who plays soccer.” The five years prior to that I’d spent in Crested Butte, Colorado, working ski town jobs to live a ski town life of sliding through snow all winter and hiking and riding my mountain bike all summer.

I could have stayed in those mountains forever, but I didn’t. I thought – twice – that I was on my way to grad school. Instead, I decided to return to Ireland, the place of my ancestors and where I’d spent a summer during college – a place I’ve seen in my dreams all my life.

Now, here I was, five years out of college, adrift. I’d spent the better part of the past week saying goodbye – first to the craggy coastline and my friends in Renvyle, then to the tall mountains and my Colorado friends. I had developed some sort of hybrid accent during my six months abroad, so even my voice seemed strange. All of my worldly possessions were crammed into a small car. I was essentially homeless and jobless – and broke.

If you had asked me then where I thought I’d be in 20 years’ time, I guarantee the answer would not have been, “Franconia, New Hampshire.” This was just where I was going to crash for a while, staying with my parents, until I figured out the next thing. I thought I’d end up somewhere bigger. Portsmouth, maybe. Or Portland. Or Concord. Definitely somewhere in northern New England, much, I believe, to my mother’s relief.

When I went west to Colorado, my folks thought I’d be gone a season, maybe a year. When I told them half a decade later that I was heading to Ireland, I think they thought two things – one, that I had lost my mind (or at least my drive), and two, that I was never, ever coming home to New England. I may have considered those two things in my own mind, too.

But in that funny way that life has of nudging us in unexpected directions, it was my time in Ireland that led me back to New England. I loved Crested Butte, and for five years that quirky little town nestled into big mountains was home. But I knew I was done waiting tables and working retail and helping to take care of the very expensive, very big houses of people who spent a few weeks a year there. I’d grown tired of the job prospects (or lack of), and of the new crop of 18- to 22-year-olds who arrived in town each fall, even if I’d been one of them not that long ago.

Renvyle had also felt like home. I had friends and work buddies and my soccer teammates. I had green fields and wild hedges of gorse and fuscia and the smell of the sea almost everywhere I went. But I did not have a work visa and was therefore limited in my ability to make a living. I stuck to my original plan of staying for six months, which meant I boarded a plane just weeks after 9-11. I cried miserably at the airport gate and felt as if I’d landed in another world – not returned home – when I arrived hours later in Denver.

Sometimes, those years in Colorado and the months in Ireland seem like a different lifetime. But my time in both of those places, the experiences I had there, the people I knew have become a part of who I am, of the way I think, of how I view my world.

And yet, it seems, I am a New Englander through and through. Sure, I grew up in a different part of New England, in a different sort of town – one with several main highways passing through it, with fast food joints and a real downtown and traffic lights (and even a good old New England rotary). But the landscape of my heart includes old houses and white-painted steeples, farms and forests, mountains and lakes and the sea. I would be lost without apples and colorful leaves in fall, snow in winter, mud and pastel blooms come springtime, and the heat and humidity and sprawling green of summer.

When it was time to set down roots, I did it here, in a place that had not quite been home, but was close. Franconia is partly the sort-of-home of my childhood and fully the one I chose as an adult. It is here that I have spent a large chunk of my life – more years than in any other place – building a career, raising children, growing vegetables, finding a community.

For years, when people would ask me where I was from, I’d hem and haw and give some roundabout answer about growing up in Massachusetts, childhood winters in New Hampshire, college in upstate New York, time in Colorado and Ireland. Now, though, if someone asks, “Where’s home?” the answer is easy: Franconia, New Hampshire.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's October 7, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

Out With a Fizzle

Monday morning, the alarm clocks went off early in our house, and three bleary-eyed kids rolled out of bed and into their first-day-of-school outfits. In the kitchen, they jockeyed for counter space as they packed lunches and assembled breakfast. Binders and notebooks and freshly-sharpened pencils were packed into backpacks, along with lunchboxes and soccer gear – and maybe a little bit of first day anxiety.

And then – after the obligatory photos, of course – off they went, to another new school year.

Each year it takes me a while to adjust to that first-day quiet: the calm after the storm of back-to-school prep and the bustle of getting out the door early in the morning. When the kids were little, the first day of school set me to melancholy; the start of each school year was another reminder of how fast they were growing, and I lamented moving from the easier pace of summer days to the more scheduled – and busier – days of the school year.

This year, though – despite the shocking fact that those once-little kids are now in high school and middle school – I’ve been ready for the return of the school year. The past two summers, and all through last year, I’ve been working remotely. I’m thankful that I’m able to do so, but even with kids who no longer really need me for the day-to-day nitty-gritty, it’s been a bit of a grind. Those just-one-quick-question interruptions, times three kids, times multiple “quick” questions each – well, let’s just say that while I’ll miss the kids, I’m happy to return to my not-so-many-interruptions workday atmosphere.

This summer also went out with more of a fizzle than a bang. We returned from a week on the Cape to trade in flipflops and sand for soccer cleats and lined fields. At least the kids did. I mostly fit in work around driving this one and that one and the other one to practices, which were somehow almost always at different times and places. The high schoolers started with double sessions two days after our arrival home. The littlest started a week later. Throw in annual physicals, back-to-school haircuts, a dentist appointment, outfitting everyone with clothing and school supplies, and a day at the vet for the dog, and the last two weeks of summer were hardly footloose and fancy free.

I’m not sure the kids were quite ready for summer to end. But they’ll get into the school swing of things soon enough. And while I’m fully aware that the school year family logistics will be no piece of cake, I’m happy to be back to the relative calm of that 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. part of the day.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's September 25, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

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.