Friday, October 25, 2019

Soccer & Community

The population of Franconia swelled to about three times its normal number last Saturday as several hundred young soccer players – and their entourages of family and fans – from towns throughout northern New Hampshire and Vermont descended on the Dow fields for the Halloween Cup.

This annual tournament has become a traditional end to the soccer season for kids in grades 3 through 6. It’s one last chance to show off skills, play with friends, and hang around eating tournament food and goofing off on the playground between games. For the Lafayette communities of Franconia, Easton, and Sugar Hill, it’s also a big fundraiser for the local recreation department.

Although the focus of the day is soccer, the underlying theme is community. Pulling off an event this big truly takes a village – or, in this case, three villages. Each year, at the end of that third Saturday in October, I find myself feeling proud of and thankful for our community, which is small in number but big in heart.

It was still dark when I arrived at the soccer field with two of my kids in tow Saturday morning – and dark again when we left, more than 12 hours later. The lights of the new pavilion – built in part with past Halloween Cup funds – shone through the dimness of pre-dawn, revealing a crew of friends and neighbors already at work.

Throughout the day, I saw an array of people filling shifting roles: parent-food server-coach, teacher-fan-referee, sibling-grill master-former player. Among the volunteers were a multitude of soccer moms and dads, selectmen, retired teachers, the local elementary school principal, and coaches and teachers from the high school. At least one first-year college student came home for the weekend to help out, and there were others on the sidelines.

My son, after his own four years of Halloween Cup competition, became a timekeeper, score runner, and trash collector for this year’s event. He also made his first foray into refereeing, sharing officiating duties for a handful of 3rd and 4th grade games with the principal of his elementary school.

He marveled at how small the Halloween Cup players seemed, even though he was playing on that same 3rd and 4th grade field only three years ago. And he seemed as happy – or happier, even – as a Halloween Cup worker as he’d been as a player. His highlights of the day were filling the Halloween Cup trophies with candy before most people had arrived at the fields, and blowing the shrill airhorn to mark the beginning and end of several games.

For me, the best parts of the day were varied, broken down by time and responsibility.

I spent the morning with the 5th and 6th grade girls team I’d helped coach through the season and was proud to see them play their best soccer of the year. These girls built their own sort of community through the season – coming together from two different rec programs (Bethlehem and Lafayette) to form one team. They are an awesome bunch, and they earned a spot in the Halloween Cup finals Saturday, where they narrowly missed winning the candy-filled trophy.

That afternoon, my focus shifted to the 3rd and 4th grade fields, where I joined the ranks of volunteer referees to call handballs and offsides and remind these younger players to keep their feet down during throw-ins. As my focus has turned gradually toward middle school and high school soccer, it was fun to see these smaller, newer-to-the-game kids – including a few I coached last year – play their hearts out on the field.

Later, as the sun sank below the trees, we watched the Lafayette team play in the boys’ finals, on a field lit by temporary lights and emergency vehicles. Around us was a crowd of others who’d been there for hours, watching, coaching, working, cheering.

Among the spectators was a group of high school boys who had reffed games earlier in the day. Not so long ago, these boys were the ones on the Halloween Cup field. On this night, they celebrated the home team’s winning goal as if the younger players had just won a high school championship.

Somewhere along the way – whether in 3rd grade or high school or beyond – I hope these kids recognize the sense of community that encompasses these events and this place. Because after the trophy is presented and the victory candy shared, after the lights are turned off and the fields are cleared, that community remains. We help each other, cheer each other on, pick each other up after the tough games, and celebrate the victories. Together. Because there are many times, far beyond the soccer field, when it really does take a village – or three. 

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 25, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Apple Path

When our children were small, my husband began mowing paths through our field, grassy lanes that allowed little legs to maneuver more easily through the landscape of home. We still mow the paths – one up around the front field, another down to Big Rock, and “Auntie EB’s Path” toward my sister-in-law’s house. The one that gets the most use, though, is the Apple Path.

This one wends between what were, perhaps, once neat rows of apple trees. Long untended, the trees now are in various stages of wildness. Some have fallen over in recent years, their old trunks twisted and gnarled. Others, left unpruned for too long, have grown unruly, like wild-haired beasts, with shoots flying upward from branches at all angles and varying heights.

Some years ago, as winter merged to spring, I made an attempt to prune a few of the trees, cutting off new shoots and sawing away tired old branches. I vowed to get to each tree – nearly three dozen in total through the front field and the back one – over the course of a year or two. But it was hard work after so many years of neglect; I was indecisive in which limbs to prune and which to keep. And so the orchard remains mostly wild.

While some of the trees are gangly and awkward, others are tall and full – vastly larger than the neatly, purposefully trimmed trees of commercial orchards. Those trees are tended to optimize fruit production. Ours are simply a familiar part of the topography now, changing just as the other wild trees – the maples and pines and birches – growing, breaking, altering their shape through the course of weather and nature.

The woman we bought the house from told us these were Prohibition trees, planted to grow fruit for making hard cider. The house was built in 1929 – near the tail end of Prohibition – and I wonder if the trees were here before the house, tended by some thirsty farmer down the road.

Whenever it was planted, and despite our neglect of the trees, we have watched many seasons shift through the old orchard.

In mid-spring, the trees transition from bare, twisted limbs to a glorious display of pastel blooms. At first, the small, tightly-whorled buds of palest pink appear, then a few blossoms unfold here and there, until suddenly the field explodes into a sweet-smelling froth of white and pink flowers. The bees buzz through the apple trees then, happily seeking the nectar there.

By the time the flowers have gone, the landscape around the apple trees has greened toward summer, and our attention shifts to other things. But come fall, the apple trees stand out again – no so much for their foliage, which, frankly, is rather blah, but for the abundance they hold.

Some of the trees have red fruit, others yellow. The apples don’t grow large, and they tend to be spotted, but they are ample in number. Some years – mostly when the kids were little and unencumbered by homework and soccer practice – we have gathered enough to make cider (not the hard kind) and apple sauce.

Mostly, though, our apple trees feed the wildlife. We have seen – either in live time or through images captured by the game camera – an array of animals traveling the Apple Path: turkeys, bears, deer, foxes, porcupines, coyotes, squirrels, crows. This year, there is a distinct, well-trodden trail pressed into the grass along the length of the Apple Path, leading from the densest cluster of apple trees down to the forest beyond our field.

The game cam is on the fritz, so I can’t know for sure who has made the trail. But I suspect the regular travelers include the mother bear and three cubs we saw often through the summer, the cubs growing from tiny, black fuzz balls to what I imagine is teenage-hood for bears – which likely means those cubs are constantly hungry now.

Several years ago, when my own cubs were still tiny, we had a mother bear with four cubs in the neighborhood. When we inadvertently startled them one evening, she sent all four up a lanky apple tree just behind the vegetable garden. While they peered out from the branches, she remained calmly on the ground below, noshing on windfall apples.

Now, in the thick of autumn, many of this year's apples have fallen to the ground. Past experience tells me the deer will continue to eat the apples as far into the winter as they can, ambling along the Apple Path and scratching through the snow to reach the fruit that remains long after it ripened and fell.

When the snow becomes deep, the deer keep to their sheltered, hidden places. The bears, too, will have hunkered down by then, hopefully well fed on fall’s bounty. Winter’s starkness will again reveal the bones of the trees and lead me once more to thoughts of pruning – someday.
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 11, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

September Hodgepodge

September marks one of those in-between seasons: no longer full summer, but just reaching into fall. The kids have returned to the classroom, but they are still settling into the new school year routine. The days might feel steamy-hot, but they can also be wear-a-coat chilly. The flowers are mostly gone, but the leaves are popping with new color. This time of year is sort of a mashup of different things – a little of this, a little of that.

Between seasons (a few years ago).
The other day I went out to the garden and picked a handful of Brussels sprouts. Given the cabbage-worm-eaten look of the giant leaves, I’m guessing these might be the only Brussels sprouts I get this year, at least from my own garden. There are a few carrots left to pull from the ground, but the bulk of summer’s bounty has been plucked and consumed.

Last week’s frost did leave a few veggies unscathed – or at least didn’t damage them past the point of recovery. The leaves of my last two rows of green beans browned in the cold of those two consecutive frosty nights, but the beans themselves survived to be eaten. And while the older leaves of the sprawling zucchini plants have wilted with time and chilly temps, there is still new growth – bright green against the shifting colors of fall – and a few more squash to be picked.

The berries are gone, and the apples are abundant. The perennial bed has yellowed and waits to be cut down for the winter, and the fields are mostly straw-colored now as growing things fade away – except for the tall purple asters, whose vivid color seems bright even against the glow of changing red and orange and yellow showing from the trees.

The kids still head outside to play after school, but they’re coming to terms with the reality that there is not much light – or warmth – lingering after dinnertime. And there is homework to do now, and earlier bedtimes to match the earlier mornings. Weekends, too, are a mix – of persisting summer chores and preparing-for-cold-weather tasks, of regrouping from the busy weeks and keeping up with the weekend events, of slowing down and hurrying up.

My own work right now is also a bit of a jumble of wrapping up loose ends and chasing new leads, as I work to cross that bridge between the writings of one season and the stories of the next.

Between work and chores, soccer practices and dinner prep, family time and outside obligations, I remember to take in the shifting colors of this early fall – in the yard beyond the garden, on the hillside behind the high school soccer field, along the rivers and roads, as I make my way between seasons.

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 27, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.