Friday, December 26, 2014

Winter Love Affair

I pity the people who live here and don’t like winter. Those six months from November through April, when snow falls and ice builds up and winter winds whip through the yard, must be excruciating for those who loath this long season.

Mind you, while I feel pity for the winter haters, I certainly don’t sympathize with them. If you choose to make your home in New England, especially northern New England, you’d best embrace winter and all it brings. I’ll admit that in November I miss the long, warm days not long past, and come April I am often beginning to tire of snow. But from December through March I am in winter’s thrall.

My love affair with winter has been lifelong. There was little seasonal distinction, when I was a child, in the parental directive to “Go play outside!” In fact, playing outside was encouraged and modeled by our parents year-round, but extra effort was made in the winter. From just before Christmas to sometime around Easter, each Friday afternoon we’d load up the family car with kids, ski gear, and sandwiches for dinner and hit the road for a three-hour drive north. After two glorious days of skiing and playing in the snow, we did the trip in reverse Sunday afternoon. This was repeated every weekend from the time my brothers and I were babies until we all left for college and beyond, and my parents retired to the mountains and gave up the weekly commute.

Skiing has always been a central player of my winter days, but it is only one of many things I love about the season. As I write this, a few days before Christmas, the forecast is calling for rain: a four-letter word of the harshest variety for us snow lovers. But the weather prior to this meltdown, at least north of Franconia Notch, has created a winter wonderland this mid-December that rivals any I have seen, showcasing the season’s enormous beauty. We can only hope that winter’s return is swift and plentiful.

On the best of wintry days, snow falling in big, fluffy puffs or intricately dainty flakes transforms the landscape to sparkling. Views obscured by foliage in summer are opened up when the trees are bare. Those bare branches covered in a crystal-clear skim of ice or the festive white of winter are quite literally dazzling – the stuff of winter storybooks.

Beyond winter’s beauty, if you embrace the cold and snow of the season, the opportunities for entertainment really are endless. There are hills to sled and snow angels to feather into fluff. Snowmen and snow animals to create. Snow forts to construct, with tunnel entrances and high walls and snow benches. Skating on the pond or at the town rink. Snowshoe treks through the forest, where the tracks of myriad woodland animals – along with cross-country skiers and their dogs – crisscross the snowy ground. And when the sky is clear, the early dark of winter eve266nings allows for stargazing just after dinner.

Best of all, in winter there is skiing. For this, I drive with my family along the snow-covered-tree-lined roads of my childhood to reach trails on the same mountain where I skied as a kid. The expectation now, in my family, is the same as it was when I was a girl: on winter days we roll out of warm beds to a morning-cool house and prepare for a day of skiing. There are glades to explore and fast runs on groomed trails, chairlift conversations with friends, and the thrill of speed, wind in your face, and the pure joy of being alive.

When we come home in the afternoon, with the chill of the day lingering on rosy cheeks, sometimes we light a blaze in the fireplace and sip hot cocoa. Sometimes the kids are content to nestle into a nest of blankets and read a book or watch a movie. Often, though, they are soon back outside, building jumps for their sleds or shoveling a new feature into the snow fort. There is simply too much to do, too many adventures to find and fun to be had, to stay inside.

We are on the brighter side of the winter solstice now; the days are slowly lengthening. The abhorrers of winter have that small glimmer to cling to. The winter lovers among us, however, know the fun is just beginning.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the December 26, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Recycling Treasures

Of all the cool things that happen at my kids’ elementary school, I think my favorite is the annual Recycle Sale in December. Judging by the happy buzz resonating through the school during Recycle Sale day this week, that sentiment is shared by the 100-plus students there.

Amid a season when children make wish lists for presents and send letters to Santa, the Recycle Sale offers a chance for these youngsters to embrace the giving – rather than the give me – part of the holidays. For a quarter per gift, the kids are able to select one Recycle Sale item for each immediate family member.

I remember trolling the mall or the Bradlees department store down the road as a kid, meager allowance in hand, seeking the perfect-yet-affordable-for-a-child gift that would bring Christmas smiles to my mom, dad, and brothers. I can’t remember how many bottles of cheap perfume I gave my mother (who doesn’t wear perfume) or how many neckties my father unwrapped over the years, and goodness knows what I found for my brothers each Christmas.

The Recycle Sale allows the children to give gifts with plenty of thoughtfulness, but little of the hassle that often goes with gift-buying. Watching their faces light up when they find that perfect gift – the princess beanbag chair for a little sister, the sparkly earrings for Mom, a Red Sox logo-emblazoned anything for Dad – is purely priceless.

Each year families, other community members, and businesses donate items from toys to housewares, jewelry to books, items that are brand new and others that have been used but have lots of wear left – along with the boxes, paper, and ribbon to wrap it all. My children like to add toys they no longer use to the Recycle Sale pile, and I know others do, too. In this way, one kid’s discarded plaything becomes another child’s Christmas morning treasure. It’s sort of like recycling joy.

For months these items are left in the school foyer and sorted and stored away by a few dedicated volunteer parents until the Recycle Sale arrives. The day before the sale, the school’s own brand of holiday elves haul the boxes out of storage and lay items out by general category – younger kids, older kids, moms and big sisters, dads and big brothers – on a dozen tables in the school cafeteria.

This year’s elves included a handful of moms, the school principal (whose now-grown-up sons shopped at the Recycle Sale once upon a time), the newly-retired teacher who helped start the sale some 25 years ago, and the school’s administrative assistant and her daughter (who was shopping here as recently as a few years ago and seemed captivated by the setting up process).

The morning of the Recycle Sale, more helpers arrive, donning red and green elf hats and felt antlers and turning up the holiday tunes as they prepare for the onslaught of kids giddy with holiday cheer.

For four hours during the Recycle Sale, children from kindergarten through sixth grade file happily into the room, meandering the maze of tables to peruse stuffed animals and games, puzzles and books, sporting goods, table linens, picture frames and more. Even the cheap perfume and neckties are there. The Recycle Sale elves help children match gift items to recipients, then wrap each present in crisp boxes and bright paper.

This is my family’s third year of Recycle Sale giving. The event has yielded many treasures opened on recent Christmases past: glass candle holders, which had to be immediately added to the holiday table; a notebook with someone else’s name on the cover, which my youngest daughter has happily filled with drawings and scribbles; a zippered bag for my husband’s golf shoes; a kit to make personalized birthday cards; various jewelry; a small stuffed horse; and an awesome toy fire engine that was easily worth 100 times its 25-cent sale price.

Far better than the gifts, though, is the children’s joy at giving them. On Recycle Sale day my kids came home and jubilantly placed their presents – the first of the year – under our freshly trimmed Christmas tree. Unable to contain their glee, they each whispered to me what they had found for each other.

This enthusiasm for giving outshone the excitement over what they may themselves receive on Christmas day. The gift conversation has moved from really, really, really hoping that Santa will bring what they’ve asked for to utterly excited anticipation of their siblings and parents opening the gifts carefully selected at the Recycle Sale.

At the end of the day of the Recycle Sale, the children leave school with stacks of carefully-selected, colorfully-wrapped presents for the people they love most in the world. They leave behind a jumble of leftover Recycle Sale treasures, ribbon ends and paper scraps on the floor, and cookie tins overflowing with quarters.

Those quarters will add up to a couple hundred dollars, which the school donates to a local charity selected by students. And so the joy of giving is recycled in more ways than one. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the December 12, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, November 28, 2014

From Giving Thanks to Sharing Joy

The march to the holidays beyond Thanksgiving seems to start earlier each year – Christmas decorations appear in stores in October, holiday music plays on the radio in mid-November, and Black Friday deals are hawked well before Thanksgiving. It seems Thanksgiving – this day set aside for gratitude, for gathering with loved ones and sharing food – gets short shrift in the hurrying to what comes next.

The rush to Christmas and the relentless barrage of spend-centric advertisements is my holiday pet peeve. I love the holiday season, including Thanksgiving, and I will buy a good few presents in the coming weeks. But I will not join the shopping hoards hopped up on caffeine and consumerism during Black Friday or Cyber Monday or any other cutesy-monikered days following Thanksgiving.

I don’t like shopping, or crowds, on a normal day, and the two together are soul crushing for me, which negates the joy of finding presents to give to loved ones. I’d rather hold on to the feel-goodness and relative calm of Thanksgiving for another few days.

I understand, of course, that these days and weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are crucial to the bottom line for many stores, both the big chain outlets and the Main Street boutiques. I realize that Christmas and Chanukah are holidays in which people traditionally bestow gifts upon friends and family members. But bestowing thoughtful gifts is not the same as simply buying more stuff, even if the sales are incredible.

Whether we are religious or not, whether we celebrate Christmas or Chanukah or both or something else, whether we are surrounded by family or far from home, this season is meant to celebrate hope and peace, love and light, helping others and sharing joy.
With three children in the house, it is easy to embrace the joy of Christmas. My kids are at the sweetest age for holiday magic, for baking cookies and decorating the house and visits to Santa. Come Christmas morning, they will find presents under the tree and stockings brimming with goodies.

I know that these – the brimming stockings and pretty presents and, most importantly, the excited children – are among my family’s many blessings. And I try to carry the spirit of Thanksgiving into the holidays beyond so that gratitude is mixed with the sometimes chaotic joy. Surrounded by gift-touting grandparents and aunts and uncles, my children know Christmas to be a time of plenty – plenty of love, plenty of good food, plenty of presents to unwrap.

Sadly, there are many children who do not know a world of plenty, and this lack of abundance must be exacerbated during a season when joy-filled advertisements of colorfully-wrapped gifts abound. I cannot imagine what it is like to wake up as a child to a Christmas morning without presents.

When I was a kid, my family picked a tag or two each year from the Giving Tree at our church. We kids would help choose a child, nameless to us, based on age and the few other details we could ascertain from the clothing sizes and toy interests listed on the small tag. We were always amazed that there were kids, just like us, who may not have presents to open on Christmas day.

A few years ago, when my own children were young enough that the boxes and wrapping paper were more fun to play with than the gifts they concealed, we chose a tag from a similar Giving Tree effort. All three of my kids were small enough to ride in the shopping cart as we looked together for warm boots and clothes and a few toys we hoped the unknown child would love. My kids were too young then to really understand what we were doing, and to my great chagrin we have not picked a Giving Tree tag since.

This year, moved by a friend’s efforts on behalf of a Giving Tree child, I am inspired to again choose a name with my children and to endeavor together to provide a bit of holiday joy to another child, who is probably not so different from my own.

My friend, as she was shopping for clothes for her Giving Tree child, sought advice from the sales clerk. When he learned of her mission, the clerk told my friend that people like her were responsible for the gifts he woke up to on the Christmas mornings of his childhood. He told her how much that had meant to him, and that it would mean more than my friend could realize to her Giving Tree child, too.

If that’s not clear testimony that these efforts to share a bit of holiday magic are worth it,
I don’t know what is.

My children are older now than that first year we picked a Giving Tree name. They’re old enough to wish for certain coveted things under the tree on Christmas morning. They’re old enough to understand that not everyone has a holiday season filled with family and hugs and happy surprises. They’re old enough to know that a kind act, no matter how small, can sometimes make a big difference in helping another person feel good and loved and happy.

It seems a good lesson to remember, no matter how old we are, during this season of hope and love and joy – and of giving thanks. Kindness can come in many forms. A smile from a stranger on a dreary day. A heartfelt compliment from a friend. A hug during hard times. And the simplicity of gifts to open on Christmas morning.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 28, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Embracing November

November is not my favorite month. October’s colorful brilliance culminates in the pageantry and sugar high of Halloween, and then we wake the next day and it is dreary old November. It is dark, the landscape devoid of color, the air damply chilly. It is too cold (at least for me) to ride a bike or embark on an enjoyable jog, yet it’s not quite ski season, and the twinkling lights and joyful chaos of Christmas seem still far away.

Embracing November with friends.
Many people of adequate means and time flee their northern homes during November, heading south to warmer, brighter locales. The rest of us dig out our extra layers, lament the shortening days, and muddle through this in-between season.

At least, that’s how I’ve viewed November in the past: an in-between time to be endured. This year, however, I am determined to embrace November.

Instead of decrying the loss of color from the hillsides and light from the days, I’ve made a point of noticing the intricate subtleties of the season, looking more closely at the gifts of nature that exist beyond summer’s flamboyance and fall’s color explosion, enjoying the downtime that comes between seasons.

With the mixed bag of weather typical of any time of year in northern New England, I’ve managed to take advantage of a few of the warmer, brighter November days outside. The kids and I spent an afternoon tending to some final gardening, pulling out the remnants of our late planting of sweet peas and harvesting the last row of cold-stunted carrots.

In our final homage to growing, blooming things for the year, we dug cylindrical holes into the garden outside our large living room window and dropped the papery bulbs of daffodils and crocuses there. These, we hope, will evade hungry deer and rodents looking for a cold-weather nibble and burst forth in happy spring color next year.

The day after our bulb planting, the mountains in view from that window garden were snow-capped, earning their White Mountains moniker. The high-elevation blanket of white was a reminder that on the other side of in-between November comes winter, with its glittering holiday shine and snowy splendor.

We’ve also visited friends a short drive south this November, exploring new fields and woods, passing old cellar holes and their long-forgotten stories: a hike with a different view and good company. We’ve wandered some familiar trails close to home, too, with other friends – a posse of kids happy to be out of school on a sunny day and oblivious to the scarcity of color and the fact that it is dark these days at 5 o’clock. Happy oblivion, it turns out, is contagious – at least for an afternoon.

Even on the gloomy-sky days, when I need a break from sitting at the keyboard, I have headed into the woods out the back door with the dog, who is always willing and good company. With the trees denuded of their leaves, the landscape, though stark, is more giving. Without a canopy of foliage blocking the way, woodpecker excavations are revealed, formerly hidden birds’ nests exposed, and various hollows visible high in the trees. I speculate some of these may house the barred owls we hear calling, “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoooah,” back and forth in the dark of night throughout the year.

Amid the austerity of November’s backdrop – that dullish palate after leaf fall, but before snow fall – the season’s sparing color, if you look closely, is like a gift before winter. Deep crimson blackberry canes rise vividly at the edge of the tawny field. The tiny, scarlet tips of “British soldiers” lichens show bright atop their gray-green base on boulders and logs.

Faded gold beech leaves cling resolutely to their branches to provide a bit of muted color and an almost cheerful rustling in the late fall breeze. The black-splashed trunks of white birch pop through the drab backdrop. Sulfur-shaded tamaracks, whose summer green blends inconspicuously into the surrounding forest, stand out now in their late-fall yellow.

Our spindle tree adds a little bit of lovely to November.
The brightest bit of color, reminiscent of summer’s endless and cheerful hues, is from a small tree at the edge of our porch. A European spindle tree, I think it is, planted long before we arrived at this house. From its branches, which still hold their red-tinged leaves, hang small, bright pink, vaguely heart-shaped lobes, each surrounding an impossibly orange orb. These, I’ve learned recently, are the tree’s seeds: lovely, but poisonous.

I pass these unlikely bits of brilliance each November day as I come into the house from my various travels. It seems odd to find such warmth of color when I am shivering in my thick coat. Beyond their splash of pink and orange lies the field in its pale November shades of worn brown and faded russet, and beyond the field stand the mountains and their white peaks: summer color and the winter that will soon envelop us in white, both bordering on November’s in between.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 14, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Motherly Musings

The other day, in a moment of motherly musing, I was remembering how my son used to call me from another room or a different part of the yard when he would realize I was out of his sight. “Mama?” he’d say, the slightest twinge of anxiety edging his voice. When I’d answer, he always gave the sweetest response: “I love you.”

He was just making sure, in all those queries, that I was nearby, and I figured the “I love you” was the fa├žade of a growing-up boy who didn’t want to announce outright that he was nervous when he lost track of where I was in relation to him. He doesn’t do that anymore, and, like most bits of my children’s growing up that fade until I suddenly realize they are gone, I don’t know when he stopped.

It seems to happen in fits and starts, this growing up process. One day I’ll look at my son, and he seems abruptly three inches taller, or my daughter’s face appears unexpectedly mature and I wonder where my little girl has gone, or the littlest one decides she doesn’t need me to walk her into the classroom each morning.

Now my son, who once needed to know where I was at all times, wanders confidently through his familiar domain. He goes on regular solo expeditions, wandering far into the fields beyond the yard, although he often convinces the dog to keep him company. He has even ridden his bike to his grandparents’ house around the corner without me realizing it until he appeared again at my side and I thought to wonder where he’d been.

At social gatherings and school events, all three of my children are now generally comfortable running off to play with friends. Some children, I’m convinced, do that from the first moment they are independently mobile, scampering out of their parents’ grasp as quickly as possible. Not mine. It seems just a week or two ago they were constantly hovering at my side, and I was endlessly trying to shoo them away to play and leave me with a few inches – and a few welcome moments – of personal space.

As I’ve watched my children gradually gain independence, I’ve come to appreciate both the freedom to move and converse without a child or three clinging to my leg and the moments when they come back to sit with me. I used to be able to hold all three at once to read stories; now, when one of my children climbs onto my lap, it is all long legs and pointy elbows until they settle in. But the settling in is as sweet as ever. They are, all three, still young enough that when we are walking somewhere – down the driveway, through the woods, along a sidewalk – someone (or two) will hold my hand.

There was a time not so long ago that I took walks close to home with a baby strapped to my chest and a toddler gripping each hand. Now, hand-holding has become a test of how fast they’re growing up. As we walk together, I often put my hand out and spread my fingers, holding my breath as I wait to see what will happen. Thankfully, my hand is filled each time, still, with a smaller one to hold.

For that I am grateful, and will be for as long as it lasts, this hand-holding and couch-snuggling and bedtime-story-reading. Sometimes it seems I am the one who needs to be reassured of my children’s closeness. I am the one calling out to make sure they are still within shouting distance. I am the one seeking spontaneous hugs, sneaking in an extra squeeze, trying to store up all that closeness in my heart for the inevitable day when I will reach out my hand and they will be too grown up to hold it.

At ages 7 and 5, my children are at a magical stage where self-reliance and proud independence coalesce with the lingering attitude that Mama is pretty cool. They will entertain themselves happily for hours (except for the times when they’re harassing each other, but let’s focus on the good moments here). They are super fun skiing, mountain biking, and soccer-playing companions. They get themselves dressed in the morning, get their own snacks, brush their own teeth, and put their own laundry away. In short, I no longer have to do everything for them, but they still, usually, like having me around.

I have often heard my own mother say that a parent’s role is to foster in her children both roots and wings: a sense of place, of home, but also the confidence, skill, and knowledge to take off and fly to new heights, new places, new experiences. I am already slightly terrified that my children will fly away some day, as I did once. But I want them to be ready for that day when it comes. And I want them to know where home is, too, that when they need me, I’ll be here.

My son still calls to me regularly from the other room or across the yard or down the stairs. Only now, when he calls, it is often, “Mom?” instead of, “Mama?” And it is generally followed up with a question about something (“Where are my soccer cleats?”) or to share some glimmer of newly acquired knowledge (“Did you know that kinkajous are nocturnal?”) or seeking permission (“I’m going outside, OK?”).

As I answer each of his queries, I add my own, “I love you.” And still, thank goodness, the reply comes, “I love you, too, Mom!” as he bounds off into the world.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the October 24, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Leaf Leaping

On one of those beautiful fall days we had in that lovely stretch from September into the first bright days of October, with sunshine streaming through colored leaves and temperatures warm enough for t-shirts, my youngest daughter grabbed a rake and started making a leaf pile. In her sixth autumn, she already knows one of the best fall activities is leaf leaping, and for that you need a good pile of leaves.

Any type of leaves will do, really, but the bigger the pile, the better the fun.

By the time her brother and sister came home from school, that first leaf pile of fall was of sufficient width and depth for jumping, which the children set gleefully to doing. A running start is paramount for the best landing. Run. Jump. Giggle. Sometimes they’d intersperse that sequence with a good roll through the leaves or a few minutes lying still in the pile, completely covered, silent until some unassuming being – the dog, a sister, Grandpa – happened by and the hidden child would jump out to starling effect.

I can’t figure out the allure of jumping into leaves. I did it when I was a kid, too – it’s a beloved fall tradition for kids growing up wherever there are trees to drop leaves to rake into piles. But as I watched my children for several successive afternoons jump joyfully into leaf piles – often with hard landings, always with plenty of crunch, and ending up with leaf particles mashed into hair and clothes – I couldn’t remember why, exactly, that activity is so much fun.

Whatever the appeal, my children remained jubilant in their leaf leaping. As the week went on, the trees dropped more leaves, and the kids and I kept on raking until the piles were nearly as tall as the children. Orange and yellow maple leaves joined the red ones that had started the pile. These were interspersed with smaller golden birch leaves and not-as-pretty, brownish apple leaves.

Each leap and landing released a colorful confetti of leaves swirling into the amber light of an autumn afternoon. Rake in hand, I’d fluff the pile after every jump, prepping for the next leaping turn. I even took a leap. Alas, while I strive to embrace my children’s wonder of life, I think I’m too far beyond the magic of childhood to get that leaf-leaping thrill now. In motherhood, at least for this activity, I’ve been relegated to spectator and pile fluffer.

One afternoon we invited a few friends (and their spectating, pile-fluffing moms) to join in the leaf-leaping fun. By now, we had four huge piles of various autumnal hues. The children – nine of them, ranging in age from 2 years to 8 – gravitated to the largest pile, a colossal heap of orange maple leaves and yellow birch. Some of the kids jumped right in. A couple surveyed the scene first, mentally weighing the possibility of a hard landing against the potential for pure fun.

In the end, fun reigned.

Not content with mere jumping, the kids threw leaves by kaleidoscopic armfuls into the air and laughed as the wind carried them into friends, siblings, moms. Little feet kicked big steps joyfully through the crunchy piles. Occasionally, someone would lie back for a moment, looking up through the leaves still hanging from branches overhead to clouds skittering in white puffs across a blue sky.

After an hour or two of kicking, tossing, and jumping, the biggest pile had been diminished in heft by at least half, the leaves now thoroughly mulched and loftless. The children moved on to the other piles, happily scattering leaves hither and yon.

The next day, our calm and sunny fall changed, as Autumn found its bluster. The wind knocked down the remaining maple and birch leaves. Rain soaked the shrunken piles, which would soon be picked up and hauled away to the compost. Prime leaf-leaping season, at least in our yard, blew away on a gust of wind, leaving the song of children’s laughter in its wake, and a few leaves still dancing on the breeze. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the October 10, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Garden to Bed

It is a task I do reluctantly in the bittersweet transition from summer to autumn: cleaning out the gardens. Putting them to bed, some call it. It’s not that I don’t like the work. I do – being outside amid the changing colors of fall and the sounds of animals scampering about as they prepare for winter, digging in the dirt that has provided the bounty of summer, soaking up the fresh air and – if I’m lucky – a bit more sunshine.
Truckload of spuds

It’s just that the gardens stay abed for so long; emptying them of summer growth and goodness seems such a long goodbye.

After months of coaxing seeds, then shoots, then swelling plants to grow and bear fruit (or vegetables), after tilling and weeding and plucking off tomato suckers and thinning rows of baby carrots, it is a bit of an affront to pull it all out and throw the remains into the compost heap. Yet, there is something pleasing to restoring some semblance of order to the garden plots that have grown unruly since we sowed the first neat rows in springtime.

Last week’s frost killed anything that wasn’t covered, and a few things that were. The cold was a clear indication that it was time to set to work. The sprawling leaves of the zucchini plants, which had for weeks loyally provided a squash or three each day, turned black. The eggplants, which produced a multitude of pale purple flowers through the summer, but only one tiny fruit, withered to brown. The tomato vines drooped. The basil leaves, which had been a vibrant and warmly fragrant green only the week before, hung shrunken and brittle on brown stems.

I started with the small garden boxes in the side yard, which are easier to tidy than the large garden down back. Out came the wooden stakes that had bolstered the cherry tomatoes, and with them the frost-browned plants, whose vines and leaves and roots had grown intertwined with their neighbors through hot months in the sun. Even in their wasted state the plants were prolific, with tiny green tomatoes still clinging hopefully to narrow stems.

Out, too, came the pea trellis. The early peas have long since been happily consumed or packed into the freezer, but a few withered shoots still clung to the wire fencing. These I removed before rolling the trellis upon itself to store in the back corner of the garage through the long months of dark and cold.

Working around the row of small lettuces that may still grow big enough to eat, I tilled the little garden, breaking up clumps of earth compacted during the growing season, pulling out weeds that had flourished as they hid beneath the vegetables, dragging the long, white skeletal roots of tomato and pea plants from the dry, cool earth.

Occasionally one of my children would join me in the garden-cleaning effort. The youngest picked fallen cherry tomatoes in various hues from the dirt and chucked them into the field as she kept me entertained with a 5-year-old’s chatter and giggles. My son came down with his three-pronged weeder to help rake the chopped dirt smooth.

When I headed to the big garden with potato rake and spade in hand, all three kids trotted down to help with one of their favorite garden tasks: digging potatoes. Of all the magic a vegetable garden can provide for kids (and grown-ups), digging potatoes is probably the most fun: like searching for buried treasure.

As I pushed my spade into the soil, the kids stood by eagerly, focused on the turning dirt, seeking the pale yellow and red of spuds and racing each other to scoop them up. In keeping with our family’s potato-digging tradition, the kids placed the tubers into their yellow Tonka dump trucks, meant for the sandbox, but just as useful in the garden. So, while our potato crop this year was meager (and we had already eaten many of them), we still managed to haul two truckloads up to the house.

There are still lots of weeds in the potato patch. These I’ll yank out this weekend when the sun is supposed to regain some of its summer strength. I’ve left some green beans and cucumbers in place, but have become lazy in covering them against the nighttime chill, so they’ve nearly stopped producing and look more dead than alive. My late planting of shell peas has put out shoots and pods aplenty, but the peas within are slow to ripen in the shortening days. I have hope for the second and third crops of carrots, whose frilly green tops stand tall in the garden box with only a row of lettuce left for company.

Perhaps, then, we’ll pull a bit more goodness from the earth before the gardens are completely tucked in for the season, before we say our last goodbye to this year’s bounty and wait for the gardens’ awakening next spring.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the September 26, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Wood Work

A brief, but wild, storm tore two large branches from the main trunk of an old red maple in our front yard last weekend. The dismantled maple is one of three in a row along one border of our yard, offering shade in summer, beautiful color in fall, and a host of perches for the birds that flit through the fields year round. The tree is lopsided now, leaning away from the woods and toward the mountains, and since it’s in the middle of the group, that whole edge of the yard seems out of balance.

Regardless, the downed tree left us with a job to do, and Sunday morning was devoted to cutting, splitting, and hauling the wreckage away. While my husband used the chainsaw to cut log lengths from the large limbs, the kids and I filled the garden cart and lugged heavy loads of logs to the firewood pile.

It was a good day to be outside working: one of those perfect late-summer days that starts out crisp and warms to just right, puffy white clouds dotting a cerulean sky. As we worked, the neighborhood hawks screeched overhead wheeling on the breeze, and grasshoppers leapt out of our way at nearly every step. The kids grew bored soon enough and wandered off to play, but I reveled in a short morning of manual labor in the sunshine.

Funny how things change over time. When I was girl, about the same age my oldest children are now, I would disappear up the road to a friend’s house at the first sign that firewood work was coming. I dreaded the long hours of splitting and moving wood, the droning of the diesel-powered wood splitter, chucking the split logs down the plywood chute to the basement, stacking them into long rows there to await the persistent cold of winter, when the work would be mostly forgotten and we’d welcome the warmth provided by the wood.

We don’t heat primarily with wood now (although every time I get an oil bill, I wonder if we should), so have no need to stack cords of wood each year, which is probably why I enjoy small doses of firewood work. On Sunday, as my husband revved up the tractor to drag the remaining scraggly branch ends to the burn pile in the back field, I eagerly hauled the splitting maul and wedges out of the garage and set to work hacking the thickest logs into smaller pieces to burn in the fireplace some fall or winter day, when the morning chill lingers for months rather than hours.

There’s something satisfying in the thwack of the maul as it finds its solid target, the crackle of wood as a log starts to split, the agreeably aching muscles that come with working outside. I thought I’d get through a few logs and leave the rest for another day, but the splitting was a nice combination of work, exercise, and rumination. Heft, swing, slice. Thud, crackle, split. There were only a dozen or so logs to split, and once I found the rhythm, I wanted to finish the job.

In the ten years that we’ve lived in this house our woodpile has maintained a relatively healthy level, replenished occasionally with birch logs and apple wood from trees that have fallen in our fields and along wooded edges. Sunday we added maple to one end of the wood pile. The firewood we split and stack as it becomes available is used, eventually, in our fireplace.

It’s a good fireplace and throws a lot of heat into our living room, rather than sucking the warmth out of the house and up the chimney as some fireplaces do. On long winter days, when we’ve been outside in the biting cold, there’s little more welcoming than coming in to a blaze in the fireplace, gathering in its warm glow, where fingers and toes thaw and snow-wet mittens and hats are spread on the hearth to sizzle and dry.

It was an odd juxtaposition to be thinking of winter’s chill in the healthy warmth of an early September day. With the logs split and stacked, I headed inside to make lunch and plan an afternoon of more playful activities with the kids. My back was sore, my arms tired, and my hands stiff from gripping the maul. But the wood pile looked well stocked again. The front yard was cleared of branch rubble, the leaves of the remaining hunk of maple already dappled with red. And there was plenty of that perfect late-summer day left to enjoy.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the September 12, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sorting Memories

Over the past few months, I have been picking away at the colossal project of organizing my office. As I’ve taken to working on my laptop in more convenient (and less messy) locations, this third-floor room has lately become a dumping ground for various stuff. Old camping gear and mismatched picture frames were chucked haphazardly into one of the small closets. Files and writing clips and photographs for unassembled albums were stacked in every corner. To hide the clutter, I would simple close the door and pretend it didn’t exist.

But this summer I have finally taken it on. I’ve cleaned out many years’ worth of junk from the closets. I’ve sorted my children’s art work and other keepsakes neatly by year into individual storage containers. I’ve recycled hundreds of gift boxes, which I’m not sure why I saved in the first place, since I’m a lazy present wrapper who generally skips the box and goes straight for the paper.

Amid the muddled mess were several boxes of personal items returned to me when my parents moved into a smaller house. For four years, these have been sitting in a disheveled heap in the corner of the office farthest from my desk. Occasionally I’ve peaked into a box to find an old journal or photograph. Inevitably, I’d end up sitting on the floor, flipping pages and digging through memories until one of the kids called for me or I remembered there was something on the stove or an appointment to keep.

The boxes contained my high school and college diplomas, VHS tapes of school performances, college reports, old ski passes, and faded sepia photographs of my great-grandparents (which will someday be hung in the hallway, if I ever get around to painting it). Some of these relics from the past have been easily sorted into the throw away pile, others reorganized and packed away more neatly.

Then there are the letters.

Over the past several days I have sorted through thousands of letters filed into shoeboxes and Christmas cards bundled by brittle rubber bands. The correspondence stretches back a bit longer than 20 years – before e-mail, certainly before abbreviated text messages. Some of the letters came from friends, a few from people I don’t now remember, and many from my parents, who were loyal correspondents of the news from home during the decade I spent elsewhere.

There are graduation cards and wedding cards, 20 years of Christmas greetings and birthday wishes, dozens of congratulatory notes from when my children were born, thank yous from kids I coached or people whose stories I shared in newspaper articles. The majority of these letters and notes have found their way to the recycling bin. But before I toss them away, I’m reading each one, gaining glimpses into different periods of my life, difficult to recall as I make my way through the now.

The biggest collection of letters arrived in my college mailbox during my first year away from home. These letters from my childhood friends are filled with all the insecurities and anxiety of being away from home – and from each other – for the first time in our lives. Amid hastily scrawled lines of uncertainty are stories from college, of classes and parties, new classmates and potential romances.

Most of the news contained within these letters is irrelevant now, more than two decades later. But I have enjoyed reading them, trying to remember the girl I was then – one who had great friends, was crazy about soccer, and had some kind of cow fetish. (So many soccer books and magazines. So many cards featuring cows!) One hockey-crazed friend wrote the names of Boston Bruins players in the return address instead of his own. Another sent me 15 handmade birthday cards one year. Many called me by nicknames I’d long ago forgotten.

As we all grew more comfortable in our worlds away from home, the letters evolved from college angst to news of new friends, anticipation of graduation, then the beyond-college adventures of 20-somethings moving to cities or out west, tackling grad school or med school or new jobs.

By then, e-mail was becoming prevalent, and long letters became increasingly rare. (One exception was the blue air mail envelopes containing pages-long letters filled with the left-handed-slanting scrawl of my former soccer coach in England and all the news of what was happening across the ocean, along with newspaper clippings with the scores and standings of English soccer leagues.) But occasional brief notes and stacks of Christmas cards each December still arrived in the mailbox. Eventually the notes and cards contained word of impending weddings, professional achievements, the arrival of children.

In my parents’ letters, their excitement and joy at my accomplishments and adventures is practically palpable, as is their shared disappointment and worry during challenging or indecisive times. My mother caught me up on what my brothers were doing, which friends of mine she’d run into recently around town, and other day-to-day happenings. My dad’s letters are a bit shorter and generally a little goofy. These contained soccer advice, notes on my finances, and reminders to get the oil changed in the truck.

I’m nearly through the boxes now. The journals will be filed by date and tucked into one of the cleaned-out closets along with a few photographs I’ll save. The school reports have, for the most part, been discarded. Most of the letters that filled three good-sized boxes have been recycled, and those saved now fit into one much smaller box.

Sorting through so many memories has made me feel a bit older, sometimes melancholy, often contently nostalgic, and relatively stationary. For a decade after leaving the only town I’d ever called home, I moved – beyond the region, across the country, abroad. The items contained in those boxes documented each new phase: the college freshman thrilled at making the soccer team, the graduate heading to the mountains of Colorado, the traveler moving to the west of Ireland, and – eventually – the New England girl coming home, getting married, starting a family.

Now, I’ve lived in the same house for nearly 10 years – longer than I’ve lived anywhere other than my childhood home. My parents are around the corner. New friends have come into my life and others faded away, although I’m still in touch with many of those who wrote me letters a long time ago, before we turned to shorter e-mail messages, fleeting texts, and notes passed through Facebook.  

I’m not sure what compelled me to save all those cards and letters, or why I am content now to let most of them go. Perhaps I was afraid of losing track of where I’d been or who I was. Probably it was just easier to move the boxes than to unpack them. Either way, it’s been good to sort through the memories while cleaning house – to hold on and let go all at once.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. A version of this essay also appears in the August 22, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Picking Berries

"Can I eat them all?” my 5-year-old asked, staring at a large bowl of wild blueberries we’d plucked from low bushes along the side of a local road. When it comes to berries, this little girl is insatiable, and I
can’t blame her. After all, wild berries picked fresh from the vine or the bush are one of the great joys of summer.

Over the past few years, my family has a built a respectable list of secret and not-so-secret berry stashes: a thick patch of blueberries hidden amid the tangled brush of the southeast field, swaths of thorny blackberry bushes growing through the old apple orchard, and clusters of wild raspberries woven along the tumbledown, fern-ensconced stone wall at the far edge of the front yard.

If one berry spot is lacking, we move on hopefully to the next – the roadside pick where we found the blueberries my youngest was ready to devour last week, or the patch of raspberry bushes at the corner of our road, or the blackberry brambles at the edge of the woods in the front field. So far, our best crop this summer has been the raspberries growing through the thick hedge of rosa rugosa along the curve of our driveway.

“Berries!” called the littlest one (again) as we drove out one morning. I brushed off her claim at first, figuring she must have seen the rusty swell of rosehips within the prickly foliage. But she was persistent (as she often is), so I threw the minivan into reverse to check it out. Sure enough, the first pinky-red raspberries of the summer hung there amid the thorny rosebushes like tiny treasures. I picked the few I could reach and divvied them up between us.

That was weeks ago, and my daughter continues to visit that spot several times each day, reaching through the double thorns of  rose bushes and raspberry canes for each sweet prize, and beseeching the taller members of the family to pluck the berries that hang tantalizingly just beyond her reach.

I spent many a girlhood afternoon myself, once upon a time, scrambling through brambles to reach the berries that grew along the road near home. The scratches along bare arms and legs were a small price for the simple pleasure of wild berries eaten on the spot or saved for breakfast the next morning.

During college, I spent a summer in Ireland, studying history and literature and traveling around. While musing and wandering one day along a quiet lane just outside the village that had been home to my great-grandparents, I made the happy discovery of big, juicy blackberries growing in the roadside hedge. Their sun-warmed sweetness and the casual waves of passing strangers reminded me of home.

This summer, too, we have managed to find wild berries in our travels. During a visit with friends in Maine, we picked our way through some of that state’s famous wild blueberry bushes, located conveniently off the back porch. What the littlest one did not eat by the handful, we saved for breakfast the next morning. On our annual trek to Cape Cod, we discovered a small patch of blackberries just down the road from where we were staying. My children exclaimed at the find and spent 10 happy minutes plucking a colander full of plump berries, enough to last the week.

Closer to home, my children and husband and I keep watch on the berries each summer, looking first for the blossoms, then the bumpy green of unripe berries, and finally the succulence of the tiny, tasty treasures we’ve waited for. Then we set to picking.

While the kids prefer to grab blackberries and raspberries on the fly, before moving on to one of summer’s other distractions, my favorite to pick are the blueberries, tiny and low to the ground – and thornless. It is something like meditative therapy to crouch down in a quiet field and mindlessly plop small berries into a pail until it is full.

Each summer we bake our cache of wild berries into crumbles and muffins, blend them into smoothies, condense them into jam, pour them over pancakes, and package the leftovers neatly into the freezer for later. By far the best way to eat a wild berry, though, is fresh off the bush or the vine, juicy with sunshine, brimming with the sweetness of summer and good memories of past berry picking adventures.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears in the August 8, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.