Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer reading

People have been reinventing the way we tell – and hear – stories since there have been human stories to share. The petroglyphs on the cave wall gave way to stone tablets, which evolved to ink and paper. Stories told around the fire turned to families gathered around the radio, then the big screen of the movie theater, and eventually the television in every living room. Now we can stream movies through our laptop computers and read books on our smart phones.

No matter the medium for telling them, there are some stories that become favorites. It is these we turn to again and again, whether cherished family tales or literary classics.

I have told my children stories and read them books since their earliest days. When the older two were babies, I would plop them into their reclined, bouncing baby seats and position myself between the two, a pile of books within reach. Looking at the bright pictures in those books kept the babies quiet for good chunks of time. No matter that my back ached from sitting awkwardly, or that several years later I can still recite, from the memory of sheer repetition, every wildly colored page of the silly, rhyming tale “Giraffes Can’t Dance,” stories were comforting to us all.

We’ve moved on to other favorites, and those babies last week completed kindergarten, where their teacher read aloud each day at snack time. She started with “Charlotte’s Web,” written more than half a century ago by master storyteller E.B. White, one of my favorite writers – both for his beloved children’s classics and his skillfully composed essays.

Each day on the way home, the kids tell me what happened at school – what games they played at recess, what cool project they did in art class, what they wrote in their journals. When they started “Charlotte’s Web,” that story was added to the mix: “Mama, today in ‘Charlotte’s Web’ they went to the fair,” or, “Charlotte laid her eggs,” or, sadly, “Charlotte died.”

When the kindergarten class moved on to the “Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, my mother dug out the books I’d had as a child so I could reread them as the kids were hearing them in school. They loved that I was reading the same story they were. I loved revisiting a favorite from my own childhood and found it just as engaging, entertaining, and educational as it had been decades earlier during my first read of “Little House.”

The after school conversation evolved from, “Mama, today in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ they lost their dog Jack, and when then they found him Laura thought he was a wolf,” to, “Mama, did you get to the part where Pa saw the wolves?” Instead of the kids telling me what had happened, we were experiencing the story together.

My children have started to read on their own. It’s hard work, learning to read, but the reward is great. As with all good stories, “Charlotte’s Web” and “Little House on the Prairie” offer glimpses into another world – the farmyard and country fair of a half century ago and the dense forests and wide open prairie land of the frontier days. Sometimes the kids make up their own stories, from the pictures in books or the depths of their limber imaginations. When they are tired or bickering with each other, hearing stories read to them still soothes them – and me. Selecting a bedtime story is a cherished part of the day for each child.

Finding knowledge and wonder within the pages of a book is a familiar part of life for my kids, and I hope it always will be. Some of my happy memories of childhood are lazy, hazy summer days spent swinging on the hammock, book in hand, or holed up in my room on a rainy day with a stack of Nancy Drew mysteries for company and entertainment.

I still like my stories best from the paper pages of a real book, and as summer starts, I wonder what stories I’ll discover in the coming months. We’ll all begin together, my children and I, with “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” picking up where their kindergarten teacher left off, leading us into our summer reading.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings from a full life. This essay also appears in the June 21, 2013 edition of the Record-Littleton.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Lawn and Gardens: Divide and Conquer

There are some things that my husband is simply better suited to do around the house than I am, and vise versa. This is not a man-woman thing. It’s more personal than that; the yin and the yang of keeping house and maintaining the yard makes me glad that we’re in it together.

The vacuum cleaner, a relatively simple machine, baffles my husband. He cannot figure out which button controls the power and which releases the hand-held hose. This confusion is confounded by the vacuum’s quirky electronics, which include its sporadic tendency to turn itself off.

Loading the dishwasher is also my job. My husband has learned that even if he tries, I’ll just reload it the way I want it done. Sick, I know. And laundry – that’s me, too. He puts too many clothes into the washer and too much soap, and he can’t figure out which shirts and socks belong to which kid.

Mowing the lawn, however, is clearly his department. In his brief absence recently, I attempted to take over the mowing. The lawn has been his responsibility since we moved in together nearly a decade ago. (Vacuuming was not always mine, not until we got the new vacuum about six years ago. Incidentally, that’s about the same time we started having children, and I started constantly worrying about what was on the floor that they might ingest.) Beyond the sneezing fits freshly cut grass triggers for me, I am not adverse to lawn work. Not really.

As a kid I happily rode the old red mini-tractor that was the family lawn mower around the 2-acre plot of the back yard. My brothers will say they spent far more time than I did using that mower, and they are probably right. But I mowed sometimes. For two of the summers I spent in Colorado, one of my jobs was mowing and weed-whacking the square, green yards of the second homes of absentee owners from Texas and Oklahoma. Our crew was myself and another 20-something woman, and we did good work.

These days I’d rather be in the garden, especially the vegetable garden. I like the satisfaction of growing a bit of my dinner, if only for a short couple of months. Even the perennial garden is OK. At least it provides beautiful flowers to brighten up the yard along with the copious weeds that need nearly constant rooting up. But mowing the lawn – I can take it or leave it.

We’re all probably better off if I leave it. I had to ask my 6-year-old son how to start the mower and steer it. When I finally got it going, I couldn’t believe how zippy that thing is! Definitely different than the old red tractor of my girlhood and the push mowers I used in Colorado. I took a few easy passes on the large rectangle of lawn out front before attempting anything tricky.

Apparently the straight lines made me overconfident, because as soon as I tried to swerve with the contours of the perennial garden, I jammed the old granite garden post firmly between the back wheel and the mower deck. I figure that takes a real talent, but I’m not the one who had to get it unstuck. I left that to my husband, who returned home the next day and took over mowing again.

For our wedding, some friends gave us a large garden cart and stenciled on its tailgate “McPhaul Lawn & Gardens” and the date of our marriage. It was a practical gift and has been well used in the years we’ve had it. Mr. McPhaul can have the lawn. The missus prefers the gardens.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul and posted on her Blog: Writings from a full life.