Monday, July 18, 2022

Cousins Week

Every year, around the first week of July, a group of cousins who live 3,000 apart takes a hike to a low, rocky outcrop in Franconia Notch, locally known as Mt. Baldy. It’s not a long hike, nor a difficult one, but the view from the top is sweet – and it has become, over the past decade or so, a family tradition. 

📷: Michelle McCarthy
Hiking Mt. Baldy has been at the top of my California nephew’s New Hampshire to-do list since one of his first visits here. Back then, the kids were all small, and the trek seemed a long journey for little legs. Now, our crew of teenagers makes it from the trailhead sign – where they somewhat grudgingly pose for the obligatory annual Baldy photo – to the top in mere minutes. This summer, the littlest cousin, who lives just down the road, made her inaugural cousins hike up Baldy, perched comfortably on her mother’s back. That littlest is now learning to walk, and I imagine on the next cousins hike, she’ll be ready to scramble along on her own.

Over the years, the week of activities on the list for Cousins Week has shifted a bit, as some things are added and others removed. But a few things remain from one July to the next: the Baldy hike, a trip (or two) to Chutters to stock up on candy and fudge, riding in the back of the pickup through the woods road, and loading up kayaks and lunch to drive out to Long Pond and search for salamanders and loons. In recent years, we’ve added trips to favorite breweries, a few hot laps on mountain bikes along a wooded route, and a backyard fireworks display, since the visit generally falls around the Fourth of July (and backyard fireworks are not allowed in dry California).


My kids talk about the cousins visit throughout the year, and in the days before the Cali crew arrives, that talk is almost non-stop. While other summer mornings, if they are not working, they may lounge around and gradually get to breakfast and whatever comes next, the week the cousins are here, my kids are out of bed and pedaling their bikes up the driveway and around the corner to my folks’ house before I’ve poured my second cup of coffee. 


Cousins Week means Poppy pancakes for breakfast, card games on the porch, endless and intense rounds of badminton in the back yard. There are family dinners – where the youngest generation still sits at the kids’ table, even though they’re mostly grown-up size now. There is teasing (among both cousins and middle-aged siblings) and laughing and arguing over whether that birdie landed in or out on a court that has no boundaries. 


It’s the kind of togetherness that only happens when the parties don’t see each regularly, when they gather together only during this one stretch of days. 


None of us knows how many more summers we’ll have of this week together, as college looms and summer jobs require more time close to home and the kids phase out of, well, being kids. But however long they last, I’m guessing a cousins trek up Mt. Baldy will remain in the mix, right at the top of the list.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appeared as Meghan's July 7, 2022 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Team on Three ...

What happens when you take 18 kids from a half dozen towns and four different high schools and throw them together on a soccer field? Well, if you’re lucky – and if all the stars and personalities align – you get a team. 

This was the experiment we started back in March, although the conversation started well before then. I had two kids who wanted to play spring soccer, but had no team. Some of their friends were also interested in playing. My friend Mike – whose kids are friends with my kids – was game to help with coaching. And I had a connection with an established club who said if we could wrangle enough kids, they’d include a locally-based team under the club’s umbrella. 


Finding those 18 kids from a half dozen towns took some scrambling, and our group grew in fits and starts. Before we got to that soccer field, we started in a high school gym. It was the home school gym for several of these kids, and a rival gym for the others. And, indeed, before we started, many of these teenagers knew each other only as rivals – having faced off on opposing sides of the soccer field or basketball court a time or two. 


During the first couple of practices, only two schools were represented. Those sessions were pretty quiet, with awkward silences between drills and activities, and groups forming mainly along school allegiances. Then we added a handful of boys – and another coach – from a third school. 


Maybe it was some “Rule of Three” effect. Or maybe it was the timing of it. Probably it had a lot to do with personalities. Whatever the reason, by the time we headed outside in mid-April, this group of mostly boys and a few girls was goofing around, cracking jokes – often at a new teammate’s expense – and assigning each other nicknames. Sometimes, they were getting along SO well that we had to pause practice and wait for them to stop talking with each other.


When you grow up in a small town surrounded by other small towns, you spend a good portion of your childhood with the same bunch of kids. If you play sports, you probably have the same teammates (and some of the same opponents) from kindergarten through high school. If you’re lucky, those teammates become good friends, and maybe you figure out – early on or further down the road – how to work well together on the field. 


But every now and then, it can be really fun to mix it up. Play with different teammates. Compete against other teams. Listen to a different coach (or two). Learn to play a new position. And, well, make some new friends. 


By our first game, we had players from four different high schools on the roster. While we didn’t end the season with a winning record, the highlight of the spring was a tournament over Memorial Day weekend. The team won its first three games, including beating a team they’d tied earlier in the spring, and reached the tourney’s semifinals. For coach mom here, though, the best part of the weekend was seeing this group of awesome humans hanging out with each other and just having fun together.  


Our coaching goals for the season were to get the kids lots of touches on the ball, teach them a bit more about the game, help them learn to become better players. And they did – as individuals and as a team. The new friendships were a collateral bonus. 


This week, this crew of kids who didn’t really know each other a few months ago had their final game of the season. The next day, they got together one last time for a pickup session, which was as much about socializing as it was about soccer. For 90 minutes, they ran around a soccer field, laughing and playing and talking smack. 


Come fall, these kids will go back to being rivals on the pitch. But at the end of the season’s last gathering, they came together in a tight circle one more time, put their hands into the center, and gave their pre-game yell: “Team on three – one-two-three team!”

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's June 9, 2022 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

May Mornings

By nature and my own design, I am almost always the first of my household to rise. When the kids were little, I got into the habit of rising earlier than they did, no matter how tired I might be. Those early mornings were often the only time I could rely on quiet; I cherished that bit of peace, however short, to sip my coffee and prepare for whatever the hours ahead might bring. As a morning person, I am attuned to the light early in the day – and how that light ebbs and flows through the seasons.

As September spins into October, summer’s yellow-white light fades, too quickly, to a subdued gray and I lament the morning dimness. No matter how bright an autumn day may become, with fall sunshine and all the colors of changing leaves, the steadily darkening mornings clearly indicate that summer has gone. By November, I am feeling my way down the hallway well before sunrise, shocked into wakefulness when my bare feet hit the chill of the kitchen’s tile floor. 

Though I grow used to these dark mornings by the depth of winter – and even accept the coziness of the lamp-lit quiet, tucked warmly away from the snowy world outside – I wholeheartedly welcome the return of early morning light come springtime. Some morning near the beginning of March, I notice a faint glow through my window shades as I awaken, and I know that no matter how much snow there is on the ground or how icy the wind is outside, the light is returning. This happens not long before the bi-annual time change, which always seems like a cheap trick to me – to give me morning light, then snatch it away as a tradeoff for lingering evening brightness. 

Daylight “savings” aside, come May, the morning light glows through those window shades earlier and brighter. Each day’s first wash of light gradually flows across a landscape whose color is expanding by the day. The newly green grass grows greener, dotted by happy yellow daffodils and dandelions. In the field, the lupine leaves on their slowly stretching stalks hold dew that sparkles in the morning sun. The pink-hued flowers of red maple trees and cascading pale green of willows tint yards and hillsides as leaves prepare to unfurl. The leaf buds on the lilac bushes swell daily, and I think if I had the patience to sit and watch, I could probably see them grow before my eyes. The fragrant flowers of those bushes will bloom this month, as will the shadbush at the edge of the driveway and the sweet pink and white apple blossoms in the fields beyond.


May is when early morning reclaims its light, and it is not only the leaves and flowers and returning birds who take note and adjust. I return to my weekend ritual of early morning porch sits, absconding outside with a blanket, a book, and the day’s first cup of coffee. I return to occasional early morning walks through the woods or slow, backroads runs. Even before the sun is fully up, the sky is filled with light. 


Perhaps we morning people are, in a way, solar powered. This growing morning light corresponds with an exceptionally busy time of year for my family. These early May mornings allow me the bit of space and time – and brightness – I need to reset and recharge before I dive into each full day. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's May 5, 2022 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.