Monday, August 26, 2013

Back to school blues

Lined up and ready to go.
Three days after school ended in June, I could hardly wait for this day. It was a bumpy transition from organized days and end-of-school-year busyness to the laidback anarchy of summer vacation. I struggled to fit work into fleeting by-myself moments as the kids, left with free time stretching from morning into afternoon into long evening into weeks of no school – all of it spent in sometimes painfully close proximity with each other – filled a good bit of the emptiness with bickering. By the third day out of school, I was reaching my wit’s end (which, really, seems a daily occurrence for me, but this was beyond normal limits).

Then summer happened.

We adjusted to lazy mornings spent in PJs, hours each day of playing outside, a week-long visit from cousins, another week spent at the ocean, trips to the beach, hot afternoons at the pool, visits to a variety of ice cream joints, and later-than-normal bedtimes. There was still bickering, to be sure. My work and home chores to-do lists have grown long, and it will take me many days of the kids at school to catch up.

But this year was as close to summer bliss as I’ve been since I was a kid.

Alas, this morning I will drop my children off at school and come home to an empty house. I have packed favorite foods into new lunchboxes and zipped up the backpacks for the first time in two and a half months. I have started prioritizing my to-do list and hope to tackle an item or two today. But my mind will undoubtedly wander often to my children, as I wonder how their first day of the school year is going. Are they nervous? Are the other kids being nice to them? Are they being nice to the other kids? Are they happy?

The littlest one is excited to return to preschool, where she will be one of the “big kids” this year, where she knows the routine, the lay of the classroom and playground, and where she adores the only two teachers she’s known. She has been asking me every day for a week or more if she gets to go to school today, and this morning she will finally get the answer she wants.

The older two start first grade today, with a new teacher and endless new things to learn. My daughter is nervous about being in a new classroom with a new teacher and a longer day. But they’re both excited to be with their friends again and to return to art class and phys ed and music and chocolate milk at snack time. At drop off I expect to see other nervous kids, along with parents who will range from tearful (with the knowledge that this day marks one more year of the they-grow-up-so-fast movement) to giddy with joy (at having regained some freedom in their days).

We filled the last week of summer vacation with plenty of fun. We camped in the backyard. We picked as many berries – the season’s everlasting blue and the newly ripened black – as we could. We rode bikes and went swimming, roasted marshmallows and played mini-golf, visited with friends and soaked up all the sunshine and fresh air and unscheduled time we could.
We’re all hoping for more summer, a few more days of hot sunshine and cool water to jump into, a few more berries picked fresh for breakfast, a few more hikes and bike rides. But it won’t be the same as summer vacation. So, it’s a good thing we filled up with the sweetness of summer while we could.

Today begins the weekday shuffle of getting everyone up and out of the house early. Soon we’ll have soccer practice and dance class and homework to add to the after-school schedule. I guess it’s fitting that this morning the sky – so bright and sunshiny yesterday – is gray and raining. It suits my back to school blues.

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

Friday, August 9, 2013


For the past 17 years I have lived in places where other people vacation – a tiny town surrounded by tall peaks in Colorado, then a seashore village in the west of Ireland, and finally settled into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. For many years I did tourism-based work: waitressing, guiding horse treks, retail jobs in ski stores and gift shops. And like most anybody who lives in Vacationland, I have occasionally been frustrated by visitors who drive too slowly while looking at the view or ask questions bordering on the absurd (“At what elevation do the deer turn to elk?” is among my favorites).

It was a refreshing role reversal, then, to travel to another Vacationland last week, exchanging the quiet mountains of home for the sandy beaches, busy ice cream shops, and whimsical mini-golf courses of Cape Cod. Here, I became the rubbernecking, out-of-town driver, peering first to the landscape of the sea and salt marshes, then to the perfectly picturesque Cape houses with their neat cedar shingles and hydrangea hedges ranging in hue from pale pink to cornflower blue and deep purple.

On the Cape in summertime, it seems the tourists outnumber the locals, but it’s easy to pick out the houses where year-round residents live. There are nameplates on the doors, sprinklers set on timers to water small lawns in the wee hours, plastic-wrapped Cape Cod Times tossed onto driveways each morning, and neat fences containing backyards with patios and swing sets.

At our home in New Hampshire, surrounded by an untamed apple orchard and wild berry brambles, we are regularly visited by moose, deer, and bear – the wildlife tourists to the area often hope to see. The week before our Cape Cod vacation we had one bear, looking for some discarded cooking grease, spend a bit too much time a bit too close to the house. We’ve also had bear cubs in the sandbox and a juvenile moose in the perennial garden.

By these large animals, my children are unfazed. But the small, lightening quick eastern cottontails of Cape Cod were fascinating. We looked for – and often found – them everywhere: the mini golf course, the back yard, on the way to the beach, on evening walks through the neighborhood. Each glimpse of brown ears and fluffy white tail elicited gleeful exclamations of “Bunny!”

An even bigger treat was the seals we spotted in the waves off Monomoy Island, where we happily traveled with friends who have a boat. The seals seemed as curious about us as we were about them, their round, black heads staring at us from the shallow water before ducking into the ocean and popping up again a few waves over.

Wading through tide pools, the kids found hermit crabs, a starfish, huge snails, mermaid’s purses, rocks in all sizes and colors and rubbed smooth by the ocean, and more shells than would fit in their plastic buckets. These things may be as common to Cape Codders as bear and moose sightings are to us, but for my New Hampshire kids, the treasures of the sea are new and wonderful and will be remembered fondly until our next visit.

This was our third annual trek to Cape Cod, and it’s become a week my children look forward to all year. For them, it’s a chance to sleep in bunk beds, play in the waves, and go for a boat ride or two. For me it’s a cherished family tradition and happy change of pace. Salt water and sea breezes are good for the soul, in the same way that clear mountain air and vistas are, or paddling along a lake where loons sound their wild cry and sunlight glints off quiet water.

No matter where you find Vacationland, a change of scenery and break in routine can be refreshing, invigorating, recharging. I count myself lucky to live in a place where a breath of fresh air is available any time from the front porch, the windows frame a stellar mountain view each day, and you’re more likely to be delayed talking with a neighbor at the post office than stuck in a traffic jam.

Still, it’s nice, sometimes, to get out of town. It was a joy to spend a week at the beach. And it was a blessing to return to the mountains, a Vacationland for many, but simply home to me.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul and posted to her Blog: Writings from a full life. This essay also appears in the Aug. 9, 2013 edition of the Record-Littleton.