Thursday, December 24, 2015

Holiday Missives

In our ever-increasingly high-tech world, I tend to be on the low-tech end of many things. I don’t Instagram or Snapchat or Tweet. When I called a friend the other day to get directions en route, his response was an incredulous, “Don’t you have Google Maps?” I still write appointments into a paper daytimer, which sits on my kitchen counter and is in no way synced to my phone and laptop.

This low-tech-ness extends to my method of sending Christmas cards. You won’t find me mail merging from a fancy Excel spreadsheet or printing tidy labels from an organized list. Nope. I still use my trusty spiral-bound address book. Judging by some of the names scribbled within, I’ve had the book a good 20 years. Probably longer.

Sorting out the Christmas card list is always a trip down Memory Lane anyway, a journey enhanced by the physical act of turning the pages of my slightly tattered address book. With an electronic list, updates are made with a few keystrokes as friends move or fall out of touch. My little book, which sits idly by the phone for the rest of the year, reveals names of Christmases past – and many other adventures.

I can see clearly which friends have moved several times, because their old locales are scratched off and rewritten wherever there was room. Sticky notes with other address changes poke out in a multi-colored array from the worn pages. Married friends with changed last names often have two entries – with their original names and their newer ones – and I have to take care not to send multiple cards to these twice-entered pals.

I pause, at least inwardly, often as I address the envelopes, wondering what old friends in Colorado or Massachusetts or across the Atlantic have been up to in the months since we last exchanged Christmas cards, trying to figure out how old children I once babysat are now. (I am always surprised when their family cards arrive and reveal these children I hold in my mind as toddlers or grade schoolers are now driving or attending college.)

Many times I can picture the places where I am sending the cards – the view of Paradise Divide from Crested Butte, the happily cluttered house of my one-time soccer coach in Old Harlow, the craggy shoreline and green-gray sea of the Renvyle Peninsula. As my pen puts numbers and street names onto paper, I recall times spent in these places.

If I were to print labels from an electronic address list, I’d lose that conjuring up of the past, which is the best part of sending cards. My method takes longer and can certainly be a bit disorderly, but I like it anyway.

Some of the names in my address book I’ve not written onto an envelope in many years. There are college buddies with whom I exchanged summer letters long ago, before the dawn of email, when notes were sent from mailbox to mailbox year-round, not only at Christmastime. Their names are still in the book, but their addresses have likely changed many times since we last corresponded.

For years I sent a card to the nervous Irish couple I lodged with during the summer I studied at university in Galway. I no longer send the annual missive to their address on Carbry Road, nor have I received one from them in several Christmases. But that entry in my address book evokes memories of my first journey to Ireland, which I spent seeking some insight into my Irish heritage, struggling to learn an ancient language, and embracing legends and fairytales I’d never heard as a child.

There are other names from that summer, too, mostly people I’ve fallen out of touch with in the 20 years since, but a few who still receive a Christmas card from me each year. There are high school friends within those pages, too, and old soccer teammates, former co-workers and longtime family friends. A few of the names in my book belong to people who have died; as I turn the pages, I remember them, too, and our shared stories. It seems right to have their names still written there.

For many of the people on my Christmas card list, this annual exchange by so-called snail mail is our only correspondence. Others I see often or occasionally. Many pop up on my Facebook feed, so I feel as if I have some sense of the goings-on in their lives, even if we haven’t spoken in years.

Some of their cards come with newsy letters of recent events, both happy and challenging. Others are store-bought cards, hastily signed. Many include photos of growing children, beloved pets, and adventures from the past year. Before I open each envelope, I try to discern the sender from the handwriting or the postmark. I am happy to receive each card, each glimpse into the world of the sender, whether casual acquaintance, favorite cousin, or dear old friend.

Sometimes I receive a card from someone who has moved since their last holiday missive. I tear the return address from the envelope and tuck it into my address book where it joins other similar scraps, old notes and letters I’ve saved, and many treasured memories. All stowed away until next year’s Christmas mailing.

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 24, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Frightful Weather

Oh, the weather outside is … hardly frightful. Unless you’re trying to operate a cold weather-dependent business, or you actually like snow in winter. In that case, the spring-like weather this December is downright scary. We had a short-lived snowfall last week, which set my kids scrambling to get outside. But the first snowmen of the season have melted into crusty lumps of dirty snow, soggy hats, and wilted carrots. It’s safe to say Jack Frost isn’t nipping any noses lately.

Poor Frosty.
I know there are plenty of people enjoying the balminess, but it’s a major headache for ski areas and other businesses – and their employees – who rely on cold and snow to function. Springtime weather in December means fewer people are skiing, which means fewer ski area employees are receiving paychecks. And if you’re a Nordic ski area or snowmobile-related business, well, you’re plain out of luck.

I know I’m not the only one suffering the no-snow December blues. We East Coast skiers are a hardy bunch. We are eager to ski a strip of manmade snow in the early season, if that’s what our option is. We add as many layers as it takes to combat well-below-zero temperatures, and we learn young to lean into icy gusts of wind, lest we lose our grip on the snow. We are not put off by the hard stuff – blue ice, boiler plate, death cookies; call it what you will, we’ll ski it. Many of us have even resorted to donning refurbished Hefty bags to make skiing in the rain of a January thaw less, well, wet.

But when it’s 34 degrees and pouring rain the first week of December, or when the forecast calls for temperatures pushing 50 two weeks before Christmas, or when all that hard-earned snow-making effort is melting right back into the snow making lake – well, it’s hard on a skier’s psyche.

Each morning, as I sit down with my first cup of coffee and my keyboard, I peer out the window, seeking the distant lights of groomers shining through the darkness of pre-dawn: tiny beacons of hope. When the morning sky brightens, I look for the upward plumes of white along the ski trails at Cannon Mountain, signs that it is cold enough, at least, to make snow.

Most Decembers those manmade snow clouds rise in a steady march up the mountain, as the white stuff is pumped skyward to sift down onto the trails, the lifeblood of early season skiing in the Northeast. This year the snow guns have been shutting down by mid-morning most days, if they are fired up at all. It has been too warm to do much beyond laying down a narrow ribbon of white, building it up on cold nights so that it can survive the persistent onslaught of too-warm weather.

Still, my kids were beyond excited to get on the hill last weekend for their first ski outing of the season. They went to bed with visions of snowflakes pirouetting through their little skier dreams and woke Saturday morning raring to hit the slopes, limited as those slopes are at the moment. Instead of worrying about frozen toes and frostbitten noses, we shed layers as the temperatures climbed, and got a preposterously early start on our goggle tans.

It felt good to be skiing again after a long hiatus, and we’re ready for more: more snow, more skiing, more winter. Alas, the forecast remains more suited to April than December. The snow guns are idle until cooler weather returns. And I might have to dig out a Hefty bag for skiing before I don the down jacket.

Yes, the weather outside is frightful, indeed. 

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 11, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Daddy's Girl

My father turned 80 this week, which has meant celebrating with friends and family, lots of funny stories and old fart jokes, and perusing eight decades of photographs. These snapshots are moments and memories preserved through the years: a curly-haired little boy in knee socks and pressed white shorts, a teenaged hockey player, a collegiate soccer athlete, a young professional dressed neatly in a suit for a formal portrait, a happy-go-lucky 20-something laughing with friends in a convertible, a dapper groom, a fun-loving dad, a beloved grandfather.
Dad and me, circa 1980.

Known as Red, Billy, Uncle Bill, Coach, Mr. M, and Poppy, my father has been many things to many people. To me he is, simply and perfectly, Dad. He is the first man I ever looked up to and the first one I ever loved. He’s been one of my favorite people for all the time I’ve been alive. I am, and have always been, a Daddy’s girl.

Dad has always seemed sort of timeless to me. He’s been a responsible adult for a long time, but he’s also maintained a youthfulness and joie de vivre you don’t always find in responsible adults. He is a teller of stories, an athlete, a funny-face maker, a handyman, an exuberant dancer – the kind of guy everyone loves. He is one of the most patient people I’ve ever known and has both the mischievous humor and sensitivity of an Irishman, the mind of an engineer and the heart of a poet.

My dad grew up in a series of tenements in Springfield, Massachusetts, where his grandparents had settled when they arrived from the old country of County Cork. I doubt life in the city was easy in the years spanning the Great Depression and World War II, but to hear Dad tell it his childhood was nothing but happy. He played stick ball and kick the can and pond hockey with neighborhood kids and once got lost wandering Forest Park, causing his sainted mother a fair amount of angst before the local cop brought little Billy home.

This lost-and-found tale is one of the stories I loved as a kid, one my children have now heard many times. Another favorite is the time Dad and his fraternity brothers in the 1950s were told they needed to class up mealtimes in the dining room. They showed up the next evening in suit jackets and ties – but no pants. Poor Flora, the fraternity cook, got quite a shock.

Dad was the first in his family to graduate college, paying tuition by working his way through the summers for his father, a highway foreman for the city. Those days of wrestling a clattering jackhammer may have contributed to Dad’s less-than-stellar hearing, although this sometimes makes for really funny conversations. Like when my 8-year-old son announced he’d like to be a zoologist, and his Poppy made a funny face and said, “Why would you want to be a urologist?” Once the adults around the table recovered from the ensuing bout of laughter, we had to explain to the children what a urologist does. It is not a career path any of them care to pursue.

During Dad’s career of 30-plus years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he left the house each morning at 5:30 to beat the traffic en route to his office in a Boston suburb, starting his day early so he could be home in time for dinner with the family. He and Mom took my brothers and me skiing and hiking from the time we were babies, and on an epic road trip one summer to explore national parks and cool landmarks from New England to the Rockies. He (and Mom) coached my sports teams when I was a kid. He taught me to play cribbage and tried to help me with my math homework by showing me the “easy” way to figure the answers.

When I went to college, Dad often drove me out to school, six hours away, and he was my copilot when I moved to Colorado after graduation, driving cross-country in an old Bronco II laden with the possessions of a 22-year-old. During these long drives I heard more stories, gleaned bits of sage Dad advice, and realized my father had a full life that preceded his parenthood.

We all inherit something from our parents: the shape of our eyes or color of our hair, interests and life goals, sometimes the way we look at the world. From Dad I have gained a penchant for pancakes and a love of mountains, the habit of singing made up songs about random things and of tapping my fingers on the steering wheel as I drive, a sensitivity that causes my eyes to grow watery at anything mildly emotive, but also a quickness to laugh. His influence is why I endeavor to stay fit and active (even if I don’t listen to the advice he continues to share on the chairlift regarding my ski technique) and why I look for an elephant in the full moon. I have never once seen the illusive elephant, but Dad swears it’s there, so I still look.

As fun-loving as he is, Dad also has a strong sentimental side. The morning of my wedding he was visibly, and adorably, nervous. When my husband and I announced my first pregnancy, Mom literally jumped for joy, while Dad smiled through watery eyes. He tears up at the first note of “Danny Boy.” For 45 years he has written a poem, sweet and sometimes silly, in every birthday, anniversary, and Valentine’s Day card he gives my mother.

When my older daughter was a baby and wanted to always be in motion, Dad spent hours carrying her around the house singing a little ditty he made up just for her. When my youngest was born he sang Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (an Irish-American lullaby) to her, even if she wasn’t fussy.

My kids adore my dad as much as I do. They love his stories and his silliness and the way he sometimes laughs so hard he cries. For this momentous birthday, the kids wrote poems as gifts. One is an acrostic poem of POPPY, ending in “Youthful,” the other a haiku whose middle line is “You can always make me laugh.”

Here’s to laughter and love, family and playfulness, stories shared and memories made, and an everlasting youthfulness. Happy birthday, Dad, from your little girl.
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 27, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Separation Anxiety

Last year I bought alarm clocks for my children. The idea was that the clocks, set with a chirping bird alarm tone, would rouse the kids on school days, allowing me to evade the sleepy protests of, “I don’t want to get up yet. It’s too early.” That plan worked, most days. The other days I was calling upstairs to urge children from the covers, or going there myself to nudge them out of cozy beds and into school day routines.

Once upon a time... they all fit on my lap.
This fall, after a summer of lazy mornings, we left the alarm clocks idle and returned to the practice of me waking the kids, opening window shades to the weak morning light, bending down for quick kisses on slumber-drowsy heads. In the frenzied early morning rush, I breathe in the sleepy aura of my children before they fully emerge from their blanketed enclaves and feel my heart twinge a bit at how big they are becoming, how far away from the pillows their feet seem to be now.

How long will they let me do this, I wonder? Tuck them in at nighttime and wake them in the morning with a kiss? How many more years? How many more days?

My son, the tallest of my children, has grown higher than my shoulder. The littlest one is now up to my armpit. Two of my children will turn 9 years old in a couple of months, reaching that half-way point to 18, when they will likely fly the coop of home. I am becoming acutely aware that this magical time of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and easy innocent beliefs will not, actually, last forever. I find myself lately clinging for dear life to the fading smallness of my children.

They are at a point now where they are apart from me more than they’re with me. They are at school or with friends, exploring on their own or together, or simply holed up in their rooms with a good book and a hearty dose of imagination. They do not need to know, as they once did, where I am at all times. More and more, the stories they tell are accounts I am hearing for the first time, not things we have experienced together. I am thankful they still share these what-happened-today tales with me.

I remember, not so long ago, feeling a vague sense of relief as the children reached early milestones. When they first slept through the night. When they were potty trained and we, finally, no longer needed to order diapers by the case. When they figured out how to make their own toast in the morning or slap peanut butter and jelly between two slices of bread and call it lunch. When they could ski on their own, without me holding them, and ride their bikes without training wheels. When they learned to communicate in words spoken and write notes in perfectly imperfect child’s handwriting and read words from a page all on their own.

Those were all liberating – for me and for the children. That is, after all, a main objective of parenting: to encourage independence in thought and action and to help children, gradually, achieve their ownness – their own voice, own path, own happiness. Even as my heart aches at how much and how quickly my children are growing, it fills, too, as they continue to discover and embrace their own personas, always reaching toward the next milestone.

The truth is that at some point my children’s paths and their happiness will be far less wrapped up in mine. Someday, if I do this right (and probably even if I don’t), my children will go out into the world without me. They will, essentially, no longer need me. But for now, they still do, even if it is not as complete a need as it used to be.

We have progressed through many changes, including bedtime routines. First there was rocking to sleep with the nighttime feeding. Then reading bedtime stories with three children nestled, somehow, together on my lap. For a while the children wanted lullabies and happy things to think about and exactly five Mama kisses before they drifted off to sleep. The littlest one still requires a spider check before she is tucked in, to ensure there are no creepy-crawlies lurking in the corners of her bedroom, and she often requests extra hugs and kisses and invents reasons to prolong the tucking-in process.

Most evenings, we all still read together, although the children sit around me now; they are too big to occupy my lap anymore. Then off they go to their own rooms and their own books to read. The older two are often so engrossed in whatever they’re reading that they are reluctant to pause for a bedtime hug. But I sneak in there anyway, maneuvering between child and book, pilfering all the hugs I can, for as long as they’ll let me do it. 

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 13, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Dance of the Seasons

A mid-October snow storm laid a thick layer of white across the Presidentials and left Lafayette rimmed in frost while I was away last weekend. What little snow fell in the yard was gone by the time I returned home Sunday afternoon, receding in sunshine barely warm enough to nudge the temps above freezing.

Sunday’s snowy painting of the peaks was the third time this fall they’ve turned white. It’s likely the snow there will fade again, at least for a while, before it settles in for the long months of winter. This is the dance between the seasons: Winter takes one step forward, then two steps back as Fall makes another pirouette. I find myself caught up in the dance, back in that familiar place between eager anticipation of Winter and a wistfulness for fading Fall.

I drove north Sunday along the back roads of Vermont and New Hampshire through a golden shower of wind-born birch and sugar maple leaves, which rose up from the road as I passed and swirled around the truck before falling again, tumbling along the pavement in the wake of my passage, then settling to await the next car and take flight once more.

Most of the leaves have fallen now, although there’s one big sugar maple between my desk and the mountains still clinging to its yellow foliage, and the oaks and beech trees will hold their russet leaves a little longer. Once the leaves have gone completely and left the trees irregular skeletons of trunk, branches, tapering twigs, I am ready for snow. There seems little point to me in cold, leafless days without snow, and am anxious for Fall to give in, finally and completely, to Winter.

Still, there are things left to do as the seasons twirl around each other. We accomplish the work of shifting seasons in fits and starts – clearing the garden of its withered remains, stacking firewood, pulling hats and mittens and warmer coats from the closet only when we finally need them – moving more frantically when the weather turns toward Winter, and unhurriedly on those still-warm, brighter days.

Last week, between the fall’s second whitening of the peaks and the weekend’s snow, I made a pre-winter outing to the top of Mount Lafayette. The last time I made that hike, I think, was during high school, and I’d been wanting to get back to the summit for several years. Thursday was too good a day, too late in the season, to pass it up.

The summit showed white as I drove toward the trailhead, and the temperature hovered right around freezing as I set out, but the upward trek soon warmed me. As I climbed above treeline, a stiff wind with mingled with the October sunshine, the chill of one cutting into the warmth of the other. The white I’d seen from below turned out to be only rime ice, clinging in stubborn, frosty feathers to the high alpine vegetation and boulders, but already melting from the sunny side.

From the summit, bundled up in winter gear, I could see pockets of fall color lingering in the valley. By the time I returned to the relative warmth of the valley floor and looked back toward the summit, the white had receded from the peaks of the Franconia Range. One step forward, two steps back. At least until Winter finds its beat and dances on past Fall.

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 23, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Killing Frost

There are a few carrots left in the garden, their still-green tops rising from the soil like a final beacon of the growing season. The frost last weekend left the rest of the vegetable garden a ruin of tired brown stalks, drooping vines, and wilted leaves.

Our September was lovely and warm, sometimes downright hot. It was easy to believe, despite the shortening days, that we were still in the happy midst of summer. Even the trees seemed reluctant to begin their annual display of showy color. But the killing frost and the date on the calendar have forced me to accept the changed season, and this weekend I began the process of cleaning out the garden for its long winter’s rest.

Tucked away somewhere I have a photo of my older children helping me with the fall harvest. Only toddlers then, they already knew the joy of pulling carrots and digging potatoes, that thrilling suspense of each turn of the soil, waiting to find treasures revealed by the spade, reaching into dirt and hauling out food we could eat. The children loaded the garden bounty into their Tonka dump trucks and happily rolled it up to the house.

The kids still love digging potatoes and pulling carrots, plucking green beans and popping peas straight from the pods into their mouths, peeking through the garden foliage to find cukes and zukes and to check on the pumpkins’ growth. Weeding they don’t love so much, and who can blame them?

I feel a bit the same way about fall cleanup as I do about weeding: it’s a necessary process, but not my favorite.

The clearing-out of the garden happens in stages. Since early summer, we’ve gone through several plantings of lettuce, pulling out each row as it started to bolt and moving on to smaller, newer greens. We long ago consumed the first yield of shell peas and tugged the withered vines from the ground and from the fence they’d twined around and through and up during their green life. We dug the potatoes a row at a time, taking only the spuds we needed and leaving the others until two weeks ago, when we gathered all the remaining ones and carried them to the house – now in a 5-gallon bucket rather than yellow Tonka trucks.

Still, there were some veggies left before the frost – a row of beans, two sprawling zucchini plants, a few straggling cucumber vines – along with scattered old weeds that needed pulling before the soil could be tilled by hand and left to rest through colder days.

Putting the garden to bed, really and truly – yanking out the dead remains, pulling the last weeds, tucking the newly-cleaned dirt back into neat rows – is like starting the garden in reverse. The actions of pulling out rather than putting in are opposite, of course. But I am also in an opposite state of mind: in spring, relishing the promise held by freshly planted things and the strengthening warmth of the sun after months of cold; in fall, savoring the last of the home-grown goodness, soaking up the sun’s rays as they start to fade, and lamenting the loss of picking a bit of dinner from the garden.

There is joy and hope in the hard work of putting a garden in. The pulling it out is more of a melancholy chore. With frost threatening each evening of this week, we cut the few plump, green pumpkins from their withered vines and brought them to ripen (we hope) in the sheltered light of the front porch. I ripped out the drooping tomato stalks (along with their stakes), pulled up the cold-blackened basil, uprooted the newly dead squash plants.

The garden is mostly tucked in now, back to fairly tidy rows of bare dirt. In springtime those rows, surrounded by the burgeoning green of the fields beyond the garden, hold promises. Now, the garden furrows betray memories – of hot days in the sun and the taste of home grown goodness.  

Only the carrots are left, and it is a sad day indeed when the last one is pulled from the dirt, brushed off, and eaten fresh: the growing season’s grand finale. For now, their fringed, green tops are a lingering sign of good things still to come amid a garden mostly put to bed, waiting for the promises we’ll plant next spring.

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 9, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Apples in Abundance

Everywhere I look this fall I find apples: hanging from the gnarled trees in the untamed orchard of our back field, clinging to the branches of the spindly old apple trees along the back roads of my regular travels, beckoning from gone-wild trees encroaching the parking lots of downtown stores. More apples in more places than I remember from past autumns. They taunt me in their numbers, and I feel a slight desperation to pick as many as I can, lest they all go to waste.

This is the reason I sow only two zucchini seeds in my garden each spring, and plant only a few tomato seedlings. This is why in August I had to make myself ignore the wild blueberries still so copiously ripening in a field we passed nearly every day. There are only so many ways to eat zucchini. I’ve never been much good at making tomato sauce. We ran out of room in the freezer for blueberries – and my children grew tired of my endless, insurmountable desire to pick berries in the hot sun when there was cool water just around the bend.

I have a hard time letting the extras go.

So I have been making applesauce and apple crisp and apple muffins. There is comfort in the scent of warm apples mixed with cinnamon wafting from the kitchen on a fall day, when the air is crisp but not cold, when the leaves are changing but have not yet left the trees bare of color, when the grass still needs mowing but is sometimes crusted with frost in the morning.

I have tucked apple muffins into lunchboxes this week and apple sauce into the freezer. We have feasted on apple crisp, spiced and warm from the oven and topped with melting ice cream. I feel as if I could – and should – keep processing apples until the pantry and freezer are full. Even then, the trees this year would still not be emptied of their fruit.

The apple trees around our house, planted in some long ago time, are a hodgepodge of long-forgotten varieties. There are about three dozen trees, some scattered without any apparent plan, others in wavering rows still evident if you look closely enough. I’ve only begun learning how to prune the trees, tackling a few late last winter, and so they are overgrown, triple the height of commercial orchard trees, with branches twining every which way. Some lean awkwardly off-kilter. Others have fallen or split and decayed and been finished by the chainsaw and added to the woodpile.

The apples growing through the field and in the side yard are green or red or pale and golden. These are not the large, perfectly formed apples of a professionally-tended orchard, nor do they hold the unnatural sheen of polished grocery store fruit. Most of our apples are not great for eating plain; they have good flavor but chewy skins, or the tartness is too biting. But they are great for sauce and for baking.

The animals we share this space with seem less picky about the flavor, the toughness of the skins, the spotted imperfections of our apples. Game trails wind through the fields, narrow swaths parting the tall, yellowing grasses and still-blooming asters, leading to the wild creatures’ favorite trees.

One tree, just beyond the back garden and at the edge of the forest, holds small, yellowish-green apples, not much to look at, and too high for us to reach. The bears love that tree. When my own children were too small to climb trees, there was a mother bear eating the windfall apples on the ground one day while her four cubs clambered around in the tree above her, each one clinging to a different branch.

Last winter, a gray fox made regular visits to the apple tree behind the clothesline, her dainty paw prints pressed into the snow all around the tree’s trunk. Not long ago a porcupine spent the morning in the branches of the apple tree closest to the house. Days later, another, larger porcupine settled below the same tree, reaching up casually every few minutes to grab an apple from a low-hanging branch, then sitting back on his haunches to enjoy the snack. Moose, deer, raccoons, turkeys: we’ve seen them all noshing on the apples, from late summer into frozen winter.

No, these apples won’t go to waste. Not with such a wild menagerie to finish them off. Still, I feel an obligation to do my part to lighten the trees’ heavy fall burden. I keep picking the apples in small batches, sometimes with the help of my children, filling coat pockets and shopping bags to carry these small treasures to the kitchen. We pile them there, like a promise, waiting until there’s time to fill the house again with the sweet tang of apples mingling with cinnamon. 

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 September 25, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Accidental Pumpkin Patch

It’s hard to tell how many pumpkin plants are growing in the tangle of thick vines and giant, prickly leaves at the west end of the vegetable garden. I didn’t plant any of them. At least not directly. The vines, just tendrils at the start, really – delicate and green – sprang from the compost pile after the potatoes and zucchini, eggplant and cucumbers, green beans and carrots had been planted. Those curling shoots, dainty as they were, stood in unruly contrast to the tidy rows of seeds and seedlings tucked into the spring garden.

At first I wasn’t sure what was growing from the fertile pile of discarded greens and kitchen scraps in varying degrees of decomposition. Could it be summer squash? Cucumbers? Certainly something in the Cucurbita family. As the leaves grew wide, and huge, orange flowers unfurled, it became clear these were pumpkin vines, no longer delicate, but thick as my thumb and growing fatter by the day.

From a multitude of flowers emerged a single pumpkin. A baby: no bigger than a gumball, streaky green, and clinging serenely to a swelling vine.

I struggled through recent memory to figure how a pumpkin ended up growing from our garden compost heap. I remembered the deer – our Winter Deer, we called her – who frequented that heap from first snow late last fall until the drifts got too deep to traverse from forest to garden. It was the discarded Jack-O-Lantern, chucked into the compost, that initially attracted the Winter Deer; we first spotted her near dusk as she nosed through the wire fence at the frozen, orange shards. Soon she was visiting several times a day, leaping into and out of the garden, and ruining the fence in the process.

But the inadvertently planted pumpkin seeds would have arrived earlier in the fall, before the ground had frozen, when we carved farm-bought pumpkins and tossed their slimy, many-seeded innards atop the compost pile.

Comprising the discarded bits of many fruits and veggies, the compost heap often sprouts haphazardly with volunteer plants during the summer. I am always amazed these seeds can lie dormant through the frigid winter and soggy spring and still germinate come warmer weather. I regularly pull unplanned potato plants, stringy tomato seedlings, and opportunistic onion greens from that corner of the garden where we throw the scraps. But something inspired me to leave the pumpkin vines be.

At first it was mere curiosity, a desire to discover what was growing there. When the tiny pumpkin appeared, I figured we’d watch it for a while to see if it would survive – and whether other tiny green orbs would swell from the vines.

Our lonely pumpkin has grown steadily through the summer and is now beach ball-sized and almost completely orange. Its size and near-perfect shape seem fitting for a midnight transformation into Cinderella’s carriage, if only we had a fairy godmother in the neighborhood.

For weeks it seemed that was the only pumpkin we’d have. The vines stretched beyond the deer-wrecked garden fence into the yard, across the blueberry bushes in the garden, over the first row of potatoes (which I was thus inspired to dig early), and on toward the beans. Scores of flowers opened, and I peered through the lush leaves at each new bloom, looking for that little bump that would mean another pumpkin. (I do, after all, have three children; one pumpkin is not going to cut it.)

Alas, the pumpkin remained alone, one giant squash amid all those leaves and blooms. Until last weekend, when I noticed one more small, green, baby pumpkin on a section of the vine twisting through the fence and onto the lawn. Then I saw another, and another. I counted a dozen new pumpkins: late bloomers in this early September heat wave, but there nonetheless.

It seems unlikely they’ll all grow large and ripen before the air turns frosty and everything remaining in the garden withers to brown. Despite this week’s heat, after years of New England life experience I know the temperature may plunge any day now. But the new pumpkins are growing fast. Some of them are already nearly the size of tennis balls.

Perhaps our accidental pumpkin patch, sprung from last year’s Halloween remains, will yield this fall’s Jack-o-lanterns.

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 September 11, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Ready or Not

I am a girl who loves a list. I find great satisfaction in the finality of crossing an item out, marking it completed, checking it off the list. But I have given up on tidy lists these last days of August and started moving items to a jumbled to-do inventory for September, hidden in my day timer by the turn of a page.

No page is thick enough, however, to hide what is written at the top of next week. School starts Monday. I am not ready for this. And, yet, I am so ready for this, for a return to something like normalcy after a summer of tumultuous fun. Ready or not, here it comes.

Since becoming a mother, I’ve felt more often than not that I am flying by the figurative seat of my pants. My husband would guffaw at this. He knows I like to have a plan – along with a list. But with kids, you kind of need both: a plan of action and the willingness to amend that plan as it is implemented. In short, my plan is no longer so firmly in my control; sometimes we have to alter the course mid-plan to make a wardrobe change or clean up a mess or bandage a scraped knee.

I am getting better, by necessity, at going with the flow. At least sometimes that is true.

Right now, with the first day of school looming on the very near horizon, I feel as if I should have a plan. But I don’t, not really. I’ve been too frenzied to make one. Sure, my kids’ backpacks are hung from their hooks in the kitchen, filled with the supplies their teachers have requested for the first day of school. I have given some half-distracted thought to the snacks and I will pack into lunchboxes that first day. Everyone has sneakers that fit and a selection of clothes first-day-of-school suitable.

But I still feel like my world is spinning with summer diversions, sporadically completed work, and the household chaos that comes with having three kids home constantly – at least when we’re not out playing or exploring. The front porch is a jumble of beach towels and drying bathing suits. There are tennis racquets and golf tees thrown into the car, bikes and soccer balls and forgotten gardening tools strewn about the yard. Legos and art supplies and books litter every room of the house, mingling with my notes for this story or that, scribbled on scraps of paper and misplaced in the wake of activity.

There is no planning amid such chaos, and any list I manage to jot down is soon lost.

I am waiting for that time when the kids are in school, that stretch of hours each day, to regroup. Then I’ll take a good, hard look at my untidy list on that hidden page and figure out what to do first. I keep telling myself that once I can return to a normal schedule, I will have plenty of time to catch up – on the work that’s been piling up, on the clutter that has creeped into every corner of the house, and on making a plan for getting it all done. Of course I’ll also have to plan for homework help and dinner prep and how to keep two dozen kids interested and learning and having fun at soccer practice.

Next week we jump from wavering summer plans to more rigid fall ones. From barefoot soccer in the yard to shin guards and cleats and lined fields. From pure pleasure reading to homework assignments. From mostly hanging with the kids to packing them off in the morning and returning to my coffee and my keyboard – and an impossibly quiet house.

No matter how well packed the backpacks are and how carefully selected the First Day outfits, my children’s return to school always hits me like an accidental punch to the gut. Somehow I’m never quite ready for how much older they seem that first day of school than they did the year before, and how lonely it is returning home without them.

That quiet house is what I need to get back to crossing things off the list, but I’m also, just a little bit, dreading the quiet. I know from past first-day-of-school experiences that I’ll get used to it again pretty quickly, that soon I’ll settle into the school year flow. On that first day, though, I’m never quite ready. No matter; school starts Monday. Ready or not, here it comes.

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 August 28, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Swirling August

The summer my youngest was a baby and the older two clumsy toddlers, it rained. A lot. Nearly every day, for weeks. I finally sent the 2-year-olds outside, wearing nothing but rain boots and giddy grins, to play in the giant mud puddles on our driveway, while I sat on the front porch with the baby, glad they were, briefly, occupied.

Back then summer seemed to stretch toward an impossibly far horizon, with no swimming or bike rides or hikes – and plenty of sleep deprivation and diaper changes. I loved being with my children, but there was lots of space to fill around nap times, and that vast stretch of time often felt formidable. As one person told me, “The days are long, but the years are short.”

Now it seems the days fly right by, and summer is a whirlwind of activity. When we flip the calendar to August, I can feel summer swirling toward the final whoosh that will suck us into September.

One part of me is looking forward to returning to my regular work routine, having time to catch up on all that I’ve neglected these last two months. I spend a good portion of the summer figuring out how to meet deadlines with approximately eight dedicated work hours per week, plus daily coffee-fueled, early morning sessions. If you’ve ever tried to research a project or draft correspondence while attending to the endless (and beautiful) curiosity of an 8-year-old, handling (not always patiently) repeated requests for snacks from a constantly ravenous 6-year-old, and alternately admiring how nicely the children are playing together and breaking up squabbles over the most inane issues, you can relate to my summer work challenges.

Another part of me dreads the coming frenzy of September, with its return to school days and homework, soccer practice and schedules. In these waning days of summer freedom, I try to lock into my mind forever the image of my daughter running through waves, dancing with the summer sun. Of my son peering seriously into the water, his swim goggles pushing ears out at goofy, endearing angles. Of the littlest one, bright-eyed and squirming with delight as a hermit crab scuttles across her outstretched palm.

If you’ve ever lingered on the hot sand or in the cool river of a child’s summer, watched as they made some new discovery or conquered a new skill, tried to hold on to the enchanting and uninhibited giggles of children playing, you know the aching joy of watching – and helping – kids grow up. Too fast. Always too fast. The years, indeed, are short.

I am thankful that my work and my husband’s work allow me to spend so much time with my children, to have these summers for as long as they last. I know there are only so many more years when my children will want to share their adventures so wholly with me, when we’ll be mostly free to play and explore and make the summer days up as we go along.

At the start of the season, my kids were bursting with ideas of fun, summery things to do. Outings to rivers and ponds, new hikes and bike rides and old favorites, trips to the ocean, lots of ice cream. In June we jumped from school straight into soccer camp, which overlapped with a week of adventures with the California cousins. We spent July adjusting to these long days of changed timing and responsibility, closing out the month with our annual pilgrimage to Cape Cod, and returning home to wild days and late nights with the Tennessee cousins.

Now, in August, we are in the full swing of summer, but we know these days are numbered. Already, twilight arrives earlier each day, mornings hold a coolness they didn’t two weeks ago, and there is a telling twinge of fallish color creeping into the hillsides.

We’re cramming as much as we can into these last weeks before school. Camping out in the back yard, with the Milky Way wandering through the sky above our tents. Exploring new bike paths and swimming holes with friends we won’t see much once school starts, and venturing out with school friends we don’t see so often during summer. Wandering through the woods near home with the dog. Impromptu Lego sessions on the living room floor. Trips to the library. Soccer in the front yard. Maybe one more visit to the ocean, another hike, a few more swims in the river before it gets too cold – or we are distracted by other, non-summer, things. Before we shift from carefree summer back to the routine of fall.

I’m expecting that shift to be brutal this year, in part because my children, for the first time in their young lives, have taken to sleeping in this summer. We have essentially abandoned any pretense of a regular bedtime during these days when light hangs in the sky well past their school-year tucking-in time. Most days there is no pitter patter of not-so-little-anymore feet coming down the stairs until 7 o’clock. Some mornings closer to 8. There is no rush to eat breakfast or get dressed or put down the good book that kept someone up later than I know the night before.

I think we’re all in for the rudest of awakenings when their alarm clocks chime at 6:42 a.m. one Monday morning coming soon, marking the start of the first school day of the year and the end of summer. I keep thinking I should ease the kids into that first early rise, start getting them to bed earlier so that first day is not so harsh.

But these summer days of childhood are so sweet, so ephemeral. September will be here soon enough, with all its structured activity and responsibility and early mornings. Maybe it’s better to let the kids soak up all the sunshiny freedom they can, linger in bed a few more mornings, hold on to summer right to the last moment.

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 August 14, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Swimming Holes

It’s one of the great joys of summer: splashing in a clear, cool river on a hot, hazy day. At the advent of the season, when kids can almost taste the freedom of school’s final release and ice cream shops are readying for customers, regional publications put out their lists of favorite swimming holes – the most secret, most scenic, most secluded ones.

Yankee magazine has done a swimming hole list. New Hampshire magazine has, too. Heck, even the BBC published a short list of Vermont swimming holes a few years ago. There are entire websites and Facebook pages dedicated solely to swimming holes. I guess some people are well-traveled connoisseurs of these refreshing summer haunts, but I like the old familiar ones best.

There’s a swimming hole down the road I’ve visited since I was a child, where I return now with kids and dog on the hottest, muggiest days – or just when we need something easy to do away from the house. It’s not the deepest or the most beautiful, and it’s certainly no secret. But it’s conveniently close to home, and it offers endless cool fun on the long, hot dog days of summer.

My brothers and I splashed in this same spot when we were kids. For us, who came to the mountains mainly during winter, the river was a summer wonder. We were used to crossing the small bridge spanning the Ham Branch when its current was concealed in thick layers of snow and ice, a mere silvery sliver of moving water visible through all that white.

Sometimes, though, we found our way north in the summer. On hot days we’d make the short trek down from the house to find the river transformed in its summer color. We built dams and watched tiny fish swim through the water, threw rocks just to see the splashes they’d create. All things kids at rivers have probably always done. Things my kids at this river do now.

Some days we come to the swimming hole prepared with towels and snacks and snorkeling masks for peering through the moving water to see what’s below the surface. Often there are cars parked along both sides of the road, with sunbathers, splashers, and swimmers strewn upstream and down. Sometimes we have the spot all to ourselves.

The best swimming is right below the grated metal bridge, which hums with the occasional passing rumble of car or pickup truck tires. We wander the rocky river islands seeking flat stones for skimming and throw sticks into the deepest water for the dog, who prefers the crispness of winter to the heat and biting bugs of summer. I think swimming is summer’s sole redemption in the dog’s mind.

The spot where my brothers and I used to pile rocks as big as we could carry in a futile attempt to alter the water’s flow is a bit wider now than it was 30 years ago. But someone – or, likely, a series of someones – has extended the dam. Rocks are added and removed probably with each visitor. My children consult with each other as they work on their own renovations to the dam, placing fist-sized stones in the larger breaches, handfuls of pebbles to fill the gaps between, sand and clay to cover it all until the next rain and rising current.

The river flows through anyway, a comforting gurgle of water moving easily downstream.

Other times our swimming hole outings are brief. We stop by on the way home for a quick dip, or run down after dinner to cool off before bedtime. On one such evening venture a couple of years ago, as we stood with our toes in the water, my brother and sister-in-law came floating down the river in inner tubes, along with a pair of friends and a cooler (in its very own tube) ferrying refreshments. Cool rivers on hot nights are not just for kids and dogs, after all.

I’ve visited other swimming holes, of course. There’s one a bit further upstream where we happily slip and slide down gentle, flowing waterfalls, like river otters playing in the waves along the worn-smooth boulders. We sometimes go south to the Pemi, finding cool pockets of water pooled in smooth rock basins carved deep by eons of flowing water. We have found bullfrogs and thousands of tadpoles swimming in shallow concavities near the edge of the Pemi and huge, juicy blackberries nearby.

I have dipped into the deep, perfect pool at the base of Bridal Veil Falls, a sweet reward for a not-too-strenuous hike. One summer during college I leapt from cliff ledges along some Vermont river into the cool expanse below. I have waded into the almost unbearable chill of high alpine lakes in Colorado, enveloped in solitude and impossible beauty.

I am, like most of us probably, part intrepid explorer and part contented homebody. I love to wander to new places and experiences. But often I find myself returning to the familiar, to the places of my good memories. Places like my old standby swimming hole. It’s not the most scenic or secret or secluded. But it’s a darned good place to be on a hot summer day.

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 July 24, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Telling Time

My watch broke the second week of my first summer in Ireland. Somehow I survived the initial panic of not being able to tell the time with a quick glance at my wrist and adjusted to scanning the city landscape for one of the many clock faces towering above the streets – on churches, government buildings, and in the ivy-ensconced courtyard of the university I was attending.

The Dow clock in 2012, before its facelift.
That was in 1995, and I haven’t worn a watch since. My innate need to be always on time has remained (sometimes aggravatingly) intact, which is, perhaps, unsurprising considering the sheer number of clocks in the world. My phone serves as alarm clock, stopwatch, and timer. My car has a clock, as do the kitchen stove, the microwave, the DVD player, and my computer screen.

Surrounded by the bright, blocky numbers of digital clocks, I prefer old fashioned timepieces, which contain much more character – and, perhaps ironically, a sense of timelessness. We are lucky in Franconia to have one of these in the center of town, smack dab between Main Street and the mountains that define our southern horizon. The clock on the former Dow Academy building, which has told time for the community since 1903, has recently resumed its chiming after a hiatus of a couple of years. When the wind is drifting the right way, I can hear the old clock bell tolling even at my home, two miles away.

The resonating clang reaches me while I am at my desk or in the yard, sometimes causing me to pause and consider what needs to be done at this hour. On summer nights the echoed chiming floats with the breeze through the open window as I read, serving as a not entirely welcome reminder that it’s time to put the book down and turn off the light. In the early mornings, when I linger in half-sleep, the clock’s bell mingles with the distant fluting of the wood thrush from the edge of the forest, the singsong conversations of robins in the yard, and the relentlessly repeated cackle-call of some bird I have not yet identified.

Hearing the ringing of the Dow clock again has made me realize that I missed its sound in the silent interval while the clock was being repaired and restored.

When my children were very young, we made regular forays to the playground in Franconia, where the clock tower stands like a stalwart friend above the swing set and twisting green slides. I became used to marking the time with an upward glance at the clock. How long until lunch? Or naptime? Or a meeting with friends?

Now the children play t-ball and baseball and soccer on the adjacent fields, and I had missed the convenience of telling the time from the large hands and Roman numerals of the Dow clock. I’m happy now for both the return of that convenience and the tolling of each hour, which is somehow reassuring: time marches on, no matter the weather, the activity, the day’s challenges.

When I wore a watch – a habit I picked up when Swatch watches were all the rage and continued until that fateful day in the west of Ireland – I looked at it often, especially if I was running late. The closer I was to the time I was supposed to be somewhere, the shorter the interval between glances. It was maddening.

My son, who is 8, has inherited this need to be on time. Actually, we both prefer to be five minutes early whenever possible. On school days, he looks often at the digital clock over the stove in the kitchen, counting down the minutes until we have to leave the house, impatiently imploring his sisters to finish breakfast and reminding me how much time I have to complete the morning chores. In the car, on the way to games or appointments or dates with friends, he watches the clock, remembering to subtract four minutes from the time displayed because that clock runs fast.

It’s probably a good thing, then, that it was not my time-fixated son, but his twin sister who received a watch as a gift from their grandmother this summer.

It is this child of mine, the one who is much less concerned about what time it is and hardly ever considers the potential ramifications of being late, who has become our family’s official teller of time lately. Her watch is purple and pink and green, its band bedecked with daisies, the analog numbers multi-colored, and the seconds marked by the ticking of a flower.

Telling time is a skill my daughter is still developing. Sometimes when I ask her what time it is, she gives me an answer that is so far off I can tell she has mixed up the minute and hour hands, or become distracted by that ticking flower. Other times she is spot on.

Either way, after so many watch-less years, I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what time it is. I know we’ll get to wherever we’re going when we get there. Still, I often can’t help racing the clock, even if it’s no longer on my wrist. Chances are, wherever we’re going, we’ll be early.

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 July 10, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Summer's Full Bloom

My children have taken lately to gathering small bouquets of flowers from the garden and the wilder realm beyond. They carry their colorful collections inside, placing them into a diverse assortment of vessels and filling our house with happy little bursts of summer.

This morning the dining room table sports a jar spilling over with sprays of lady’s mantle, purple clover, sunset-orange hawkweed, and a stalky yellow flower I cannot name. The mantel over the hearth holds a tall vase with a single winding shoot of baptisia, long and purple and complemented by three wide hosta leaves. A stunningly fuscia peony blossom, large as my outspread hand and rescued the other day from a deluge of rain, rises from an antique milk bottle in the living room window.

We rarely have cut flowers in the house during the cold months, only in the brief season we can pick them ourselves. So summer seems an extravagance of living colors and vibrant life, inside the house and out.

It all starts with the apple blossoms in May, when cold and snow are barely a memory. Not long after the leaves have unfolded, we watch the small flower buds swell, compact clusters full of promise, some pure white, others tinged in pink. One day, when the conditions are just right – warm enough, but not too warm, sunny, but not too dry – the old orchard is suddenly abloom, filling the back field with puffy, tree-born clouds of flowers. White as snow, abuzz with busy bees, heavy with the sweetly intoxicating scent of spring.

The lilacs are next, their emergence overlapping briefly with the apple blossoms’, their fragrance taking up the mantle from the apple trees, their purple bursts the first big color of spring. By lilac time, of course, the crocuses and daffodils are also blooming. These smaller flowers, the year’s earliest, are lovely and welcome, but not so big as the lilacs, not so fragrant as the apple blossoms, not so ostentatious in their opening. They’re more a cheerful whisper of the coming season than the actual bursting forth of summer.

The hues become bolder as spring pushes bravely ahead to summer. To black flies and mosquitoes, muggy afternoons, the magic of fireflies blinking through nighttime fields, and a billowing swell of color and fragrance. Now, just past solstice, seems the biggest, brightest show of the season around our home.

The lupines have been prolific this year, turning the fields into a sea of purples, undulating in waves of various shades toward the mountains. Lovely as they are, the lupines’ subtly musty scent sends me into fits of sneezing. Their many-flowered stalks are just starting to go to seed now, as the garden is bursting into its height of color.

A few flag irises linger along the wall at the back of the perennial bed, bright indigo against the gray stones. The Stella D’Oro lilies are opening in myriad pops of sunshine yellow. The feathery spikes of astilbe are just starting to show pale pink along the garden’s front edge. A host of tall, orange lilies, transplanted two years ago, rises along the west wall of the house, their long flower buds ready to open just outside the windows.

And the roses are blooming. The roses are my favorite, always have been. The house where I grew up had a long row of rose bushes at one edge of the yard. From my bedroom window I could see them and smell their heady aroma. They were true roses in various hues, not like the ones we have now, which are of a wilder variety. I cannot pass a cluster of roses without stopping to smell them. Such intoxicating perfume.

When we bought this house, there was an unruly swath of rosa rugosa – known commonly as beach roses, although we are more than a hundred miles from the nearest ocean – growing along the driveway and around the back of the perennial garden. We uprooted the bushes behind the garden as we transformed the untamed field beyond into what now passes for a lawn, and the family soccer field.

But we kept a thick row of not-too-wild roses along the curve of the driveway. The bushes are nearly as tall as I am and probably five feet across. Song birds flit in and out of their dense, thorny tangle throughout the year, and we sometimes find nests within when the foliage has gone in the fall.

The roses have been blooming the last few weeks, hot pink with golden centers. Their scent is like summer embodied: both sweet and spicy, like warmth and sugar, delicate strength and powerful beauty wrapped up together in a perfect, vibrant package. That scent wafts through the summer air, greeting us as we approach home, finding us as we work and play in the yard, floating up to my bedroom window just as the aroma of those other, more cultivated roses did when I was a girl, embracing me in summer’s full bloom.

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 June 26, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.