Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Our hearts are broken. Our hearts are full.

On Friday afternoon, I read the horrible, unimaginable news about the school shooting in Newtown, CT. Like so many others across the country, I struggled to keep it together, to keep from breaking down in front of my own three children, two of whom had just returned home from their own elementary school, which is not unlike Sandy Hook, not unlike elementary schools in small towns all around the country.

At one point I withdrew to the bathroom for a few minutes, to cry and then compose myself. I didn’t want my children to ask what was wrong. How do you explain to two 5-year-olds that 20 children, hardly older than they are, had just been killed? How do you explain to a little boy who loves to play with toy guns, but has no real understanding of death, that someone with real guns just shot up a first-grade classroom? How do you explain evil to a child?

There is no explanation, of course, no matter how old we are.

With the sadness and confusion of Sandy Hook still in the back of my head, we went about our weekend business. We helped my parents find and cut a tree to set up on their porch and decorate for Christmas. We went to the town Christmas party and saw Santa. We went skiing and watched the Frosty the Snowman movie and attended a holiday party with friends and acquaintances, nearly all of whom have children in elementary school.

I hugged my kids a little tighter over the weekend, sometimes struggling to keep myself from smothering them with love. I was more patient than I often am, speaking more gently even when I had to repeat, ‘Please don’t jump on the couch,’ or ‘Stop singing at the dinner table and just EAT,’ for the umpteenth time. In my head I thanked god and the universe and my lucky stars over and over again that I had my children to love and to scold, and I wept inwardly for the parents and the children of Sandy Hook.

Monday morning the opening of school was delayed by wintery weather, so we ate breakfast at a leisurely pace and wrapped Christmas presents. Sandy Hook was not on my mind until I pulled into my children’s elementary school. It’s a small school – just over 100 kids from three towns in seven grades. Everyone there – students, teachers, parents – is familiar. And, so, it feels safe. It is supposed to be safe, this school for young children in a small mountain town.

I don’t know if it was the realization Monday morning that nothing is safe, no place is safe, that nearly sent me into a panic. More likely it was the thought that I was doing what 20 other parents had done last week – what millions of moms and dads do every weekday – dropping my kids off at school and telling them I’d see them in a few hours, that I love them, to have a great day. Even that simple act of normalcy now seems a huge leap of faith.

I know other parents – and teachers – felt the same Monday, and probably will for a long time. I read that Newtown students returned to school this morning, and I can’t begin to imagine how scary that must be for them, for their parents, for their teachers.

I don’t want to dwell on the horrific news of Sandy Hook. I don’t want to think about the man who killed those children and their teachers. And yet I can’t stop thinking about it. I’d like to say I read instead about the children lost that day and the adults who protected them as well as they could, but even that is too much. It is too much to bear even here, two states away, with no personal connection to Newtown, CT.

And so I put on my holiday face and finish writing out the Christmas cards. I sing Christmas songs with my kids and wrap their presents and go through the regular pre-Christmas scramble. But amid all the joy of the holiday season, I find myself often on the verge of tears.

Tears of sadness and bewilderment for Sandy Hook. For the children there who loved horses and singing and playing dress up and dancing, just like my own three children do. For their parents, who surely have Christmas presents wrapped and placed carefully under the tree, gifts that will never be opened. For their friends and siblings and teachers who have to somehow find a way to carry on, when so much has changed.

Tears of frustration and of powerlessness to make any useful changes. How do we prevent anything like this from happening again? Stricter gun control? Better care for people suffering from mental illness? Both seem insurmountable challenges.

Tears of gratitude and love for my own family. As news of the shooting broke, President Obama said, “Our hearts are broken today.” Yes, our hearts, all of us, are broken over Sandy Hook. There is no silver lining to the senseless killing of 20 first graders and the teachers and administrators who died trying to protect them.

What there is is a reminder of what really matters in this world, the things it’s easy to forget amid the hustle and bustle of every day.

And so I hug my kids and worry about them. I relish the beauty in the everyday things that mean so much – the uninhibited laughter of excited children, the Christmas lights twinkling through the darkness of a dreary December day, the first-thing-in-the-morning hug from my 3-year-old, the calming act of breathing fresh air deeply, the beautiful smile of my little girl, the magnificence of the mountains outside my window, the dancing joy in my little boy’s eyes, the promise of snow and of brightening days.  

My heart is broken. And, yet, my heart is full.

Friday, December 14, 2012

O Christmas tree

It is the center of the holiday decorations, filled with baubles big and small and memories of Christmases past. Even with the wreaths hung outside and the mantle decorated in garland and wintery figurines, it is the Christmas tree that brings the holidays home – somehow, it just doesn’t seem like Christmastime until there is an evergreen in the living room, its sweet piney scent permeating the house, tiny lights twinkling from its full branches through the darkest days of winter.

When I was a little girl my family would, some Decembers, tramp into the woods at the edge of our back yard and cut a “Charlie Brown” tree to trim. Being outside in the quiet woods, the chilly air turning cheeks and noses rosy, added to the joy of bringing home the Christmas tree. Knowing the specific spot in our little piece of forest from which the tree came made it a bit more special.

In college, a several hours drive from home, I set up a tiny plastic tabletop tree in my dorm room, decorating it with small ornaments. That little tree was a reminder that soon I’d be at home, with all its comforts and a real Christmas tree adorned with familiar ornaments.

Since then, I’ve trimmed trees from gas station or grocery store stands, or cut with a permit from National Forest land, or – lately – picked from a local tree farmWhat once was a simple annual selection has turned into a family affair, as our three young children run gleefully from fir tree to fir tree, shouting, “This one is perfect. Ooh, look at this one!” until we settle on a tree just the right height and shape.

My most memorable Christmas tree was the one I found at the edge of an isolated back road in Colorado, during a snow storm, with some friends I’d run into after work. We took a detour on the way home, and one of the friends produced an old saw from the back of his beater truck before we waded through deep, powdery snow to lop off the section of evergreen sticking above the snowline. We returned to town in the winter dark of late evening and carried the tall, scraggly tree to the corner of the living room. My roommates humored me, and the tree was lit and decorated and remained a part of our household through the holidays. It was beautiful.

Through the years I have carted from place to place a box of ornaments gathered, one at a time, over my 39 Christmases. My husband has a similar collection. Our tree is not trimmed in some elaborate color theme or similarly-styled ornaments. Instead, we fill it with the decorations from our childhoods and with those now garnered each Christmas by our own children, who clamor to find and hang their own special ornaments.

Our tree holds many reminders of Christmases past. There is the small green and red baby boot from my first Christmas, a toy soldier from my husband’s boyhood, and the Old Man of the Mountain ornaments given to us the year New Hampshire’s famed profile collapsed. My favorite ornaments are the three circles of plaster hung by silky red and green ribbon. Into each is pressed one precious imprint of my children’s infant hands.

Christmas present fades quickly, the holiday racing toward us, then gone in a flash of happy excitement and crumpled wrapping paper. But the Christmas spirit lingers as long as the tree remains in its stand in the living room, the lights twinkling until it’s time to pack the ornaments away for Christmas future.

This essay appears in the December 14 edition of the Record-Littleton. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

First Snow

It was a snow globe kind of morning. We woke to a welcome cover of white across the front yard and big, lazy flakes floating softly to the ground. The season’s first snow.
We had a few flurries a couple of weeks ago, which turned the high mountain peaks a dazzling white against a bluebird sky and garnered enough excitement to start the kids begging to ski. But this was the first snow to stick in the yard and cover the grass, and it beckoned us from the warmth of inside to the exhilarating snowy landscape outside.

The kids donned snow pants and boots, mittens, and brightly colored winter hats and dashed into the transformed landscape just beyond the front door for the season’s first shoveling, snow angels, sledding, and snowballs. The dog bolted exuberantly outside to roll in the white, remembering the thrilling chill of snow in fur.

As I followed the kids and their laughter into the yard, I embraced the joy of first snow. The whisper of fat flakes on cheeks and eyelashes as you lay back to sweep snow angels into the cold ground. Footprints crisp against the fluff. Chickadees puffed up against the cold and looking right at home in the snowy branches. The soft thump and accompanying poof of white as a snowball hits its target.

Most of all, the first snow is the promise of wintery fun to come: of snowmen still to be created and fast runs on the sledding hill and (best of all) sweet powder days on skis.

It’s not really winter until it snows. And even if the first snow arrives a month (or more) before the solstice, once the white is on the ground, the warm colors of fall are forgotten, and it is winter in our hearts. The first snow is a joyous and quintessential rite of childhood winters and of the arrival of the best season to all lovers of winter, regardless of age. Welcome, winter. Hello, Jack Frost. Bring on the snow!

Posted by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul

Friday, November 9, 2012

Helping those who help others

The ballroom at the Mount Washington Hotel filled last Friday evening with firefighters, police officers, emergency first responders, and residents of communities throughout the region, all dressed to the nines for the fifth annual awards dinner of the North Country Public Safety Foundation.

The dinner is a way to thank these professionals and volunteers – who are, essentially, always on duty – for their service to the community. Throughout the evening a slideshow played behind the stage, showing these folks at the work they do. One photo was of Jose Pequeno, former police chief of Sugar Hill. He is smiling in the photograph, sitting behind a desk, with photos of his family lining the wall. That photo accompanied a 2005 article I wrote about Jose, then Sugar Hill’s only police officer, just after he was called up by the National Guard for a tour of duty in Iraq.

Jose had earned a reputation as a good guy, quick to smile, always ready to offer a helping hand. The day I took that photograph he was both apprehensive and happy. He worried about leaving his wife and three young children (now teenagers) behind as he went halfway across the world to war. He was proud to be fulfilling his duty as a soldier. He was ready to serve and confident that he would return home safely.

There is no certainty in life, even less in war. In March of 2006, about a year after I took that photo, Jose was devastatingly injured in an explosion in Iraq. As news of his injuries reached home, there was an immediate effort to “Bring Jose Home,” and from that effort emerged the North Country Public Safety Foundation

I was in the newsroom the day word came from Iraq of the explosion that killed National Guardsman Christopher Merchant of Vermont and injured Jose. Both men were 32 at the time, the same age as me. Eventually we learned that Jose’s injuries were severe and included a debilitating head injury from which he has never recovered.

A month after the explosion in Iraq, as Jose remained at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., friends and neighbors gathered for a fundraising dinner and auction at the Sugar Hill Meetinghouse to kick off the Bring Jose Home campaign. That night, the community raised over $22,000 for their police chief and his family.

The effort eventually garnered more than $120,000, enough to build the Pequeno family a wheelchair-accessible home in Lisbon. “This has been a project that has meant a lot to a lot of people,” Sugar Hill Fire Chief Allan Clark said the day the house was finished. “It was more than helping our police chief, but a statement of helping those who help others.”

For a series of complicated reasons, Jose did not come home to New Hampshire. He lives in Florida with other family and access to regular medical care. But the North Country Public Safety Foundation has grown from the initial Bring Jose Home effort, raising nearly $1 million in its six years, money that goes directly to helping those who help others in our communities.

Throughout the ceremony last week, speaker after speaker told of the cooperation and collaboration these professionals and volunteers share, from community to community, between departments, and across specific occupational lines. I was honored to share a table with a few of these folks, including Sugar Hill Police Chief Dave Wentworth and Assistant Fire Chief Doug Glover, who both worked with Jose, knew him far better than I did, and surely think of him often as they do their work.

I imagine I’m not the only person who wishes things had been different, that Jose and so many others did not have to go to war, that we could again see the smile he had that day in the photograph. We also hope that we will never need the services of firefighters or EMTs, law enforcement officers or search and rescue volunteers. But it is a comfort to know they are standing by, just in case. 

This essay appears in the November 9, 2012 edition of the Record-Littleton.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A princess, a purple unicorn, and a knight in shining armor

She’s been a Halloween princess for three years running. First came the purple, butterfly-winged princess. Last year was the soft, silvery snow princess, which brought with it a Halloween snow storm. This year my 5-year-old daughter will be a straight-up princess in a midnight blue dress adorned with fluttery sleeves and plenty of woven golden bling – and a jewel headdress to boot. To a girl who loves to don anything sparkling and glittery, Halloween is a day of blissful dress up opportunity.

Trick-or-Treat! 2011
The dressing up, after all, is what makes Halloween a favorite for kids – and plenty of grown-ups, too. Sure, the candy is nice. But it really comes down to this being a day where anyone can dress up as just about anything, adopting an alternate persona with a wig, a costume, some stage makeup, whatever it takes.

I have never been one for configuring creative costume ideas. For the past two years I have simply, lazily slapped a witch’s hat atop my noggin and headed to the town’s short Halloween parade with my three Halloween kids in tow. With the exception of the year I joined forces with a few girlfriends to go out on the town of Crested Butte, Colorado, as the Spice Girls (I was a redhead back then and, therefore, Ginger Spice), my get-ups in that costume-loving town were pretty abysmal. Crested Butte loves a party, but it loves a costume party even more, to the point that residents have invented their own holidays, just to have an excuse to dress up. A plain old Halloween witch doesn’t cut it.

Anyway, these days my children, thankfully, seem to fall into their own identities as Halloween approaches. This year, the gilded princess will be joined by her little sister, the purple unicorn, and her twin brother, the knight-in-shining-armor. Magical all around.

The princess dress came from the grandmother who loves dress up as much as her grandkids do. That’s how the knight-in-shining-armor (he is not simply a “knight,” but demands the entire title) started, too, with a play sword and shield from Gaga’s collection. Alas, both of those developed cracks, and so a new, complete knight-in-shining-armor costume was ordered and will be on display on Halloween.

The purple unicorn was deeded to us as a hand-me-down from friends. Although it is about two sizes two small, it was an immediate favorite. The littlest one has worn it to preschool, the grocery store, the post office, and anywhere else she could find that needed a purple unicorn. It is named Uni and sleeps tucked into the bed with her at night. Just about everybody in town has already seen the purple unicorn costume, but to suggest a different option is akin to blasphemy as far as my 3-year-old is concerned.

And so we will head downtown this afternoon, my costumed crew and I, with a feathery mask that is no better than an old witch’s hat, but at least it’s something new. For about 20 minutes, traffic will be stopped on Main Street as an escort of fire trucks and police cruisers ushers a parade of ghosts, clowns, pirates and faeries through downtown Franconia. Parents and grandparents will line the street, and workers will emerge from downtown businesses to cheer the Halloween kids.

Then we’ll rest up for Trick-or-Treating and the town bonfire. I imagine the princess, the purple unicorn, and the knight-in-shining armor will return home in some combination of sleepy and sugar buzzed. It’ll probably be tougher than usual to rouse them from bed the morning after. But I bet at the breakfast table the discussion of next year’s Halloween costumes will begin.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Talk about the weather

Storm a' brewing over the mountains last spring.
There’s nothing like a big storm a’ brewing to stir up excitement and get folks talking about the weather. All around town this morning, Hurricane Sandy has been the topic of conversation and uncertainty. How windy will it get? Will the storm blow back out in time for Trick-or-Treating in two days? Will we lose power? Did you hear about all the schools closed in Massachusetts and the roads closed in Connecticut?

Everybody, it seems, loves a storm… as long as they know they’re out of harm’s way. And that if the power goes out, it’s only for a day or so. In the relative safety of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the anticipation of a big windy storm is more welcome now, in this otherwise weather-boring time of year, than during the frigid winter (unless the winter storm brings lots of powder snow, of course). No need to worry about frozen pipes – or frozen toes. As long as your loved ones and your home are safe, it’s something awesome to behold the power of nature from the safety of your living room.

At our house, we have the pots and the bathtub filled with water. The flashlights and candles are ready to go. There’s a fire set in the fireplace just in case. The cupboards are filled with peanut butter and pasta enough to last days, and I have the reserve coffee-making system in place (my priorities are clear).

I think it’s a sense of self sufficiency that makes us feel as giddy as we do nervous when a storm is brewing. It’s sort of fun, in an adventuresome kind of way, to lose power for a few hours, or a couple of days – as long as you’re prepared. It feels romantically old-fashioned to eat by candlelight and gather quietly in front of the fire. Reading by flashlight in a quiet house is better than watching the crap on television, anyway.

We know, however, that when an entire region loses power, it’s the folks up here in the boonies who have it restored last.

When our oldest two children were infants, our electricity went out for a few days in April. We gathered in the living room, blocking off cold drafts from the rest of the house with blankets hung in the doorways. We slept snuggled together on the floor, waking every couple of hours to feed the fire – or the two babies.

In those short few days, trapped inside, I read more than I had read in months. There was little else to do, with the rest of the house shut up, unable to run the vacuum or the washer, no power to boot up the computer, and two babies who needed very little entertainment. By day four it was getting a bit tiresome to keep the babes and their mother clean without running water. And then the sun came out, the power came back on, and we went outside to enjoy the rain-washed landscape, the sounds of the chirping birds of spring mingling with the chainsaws of the line workers still clearing trees to restore electricity to neighbors.

This morning, only an hour south of home, schools were closed for the impending storm. Just over two hours’ drive away, Boston, according to news reports and Facebook postings, was virtually shut down today. But here, the other parents I spoke with this morning as we dropped our children at school were hoping to see some form of storm, something to shake up the day-to-day routine just a little bit, an excuse to unplug and gather the family close.

Everybody loves a storm. But I hope my friends to the south are safe; I hope things stay safe here, too. And if the power goes out, I hope it’s not for long; the novelty wears off after a couple of days.