Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Holiday Traditions

Earlier this week I spent a couple of hours playing elf at the local elementary school’s annual Recycle Sale. Each year, every child in the school gets to peruse a hodgepodge of new and used items and select holiday gifts for immediate family members, all for the price of a quarter per present. The kids look forward to the sale each year, and for the past nine years, I’ve been lucky enough to be there on Recycle Sale day to help wrap the treasures they find.

This has been a favorite holiday tradition for my children. We sort of figured it wouldn’t happen this year, given the pandemic and all. But the staff and volunteers figured out a way to make the sale work. I’m particularly glad, since this is my family’s last Recycle Sale; next year I will no longer have elementary school-aged kids.

Of course, we’ll have to shift or do without lots of traditions this year. There was, for instance, no holiday school concert this December. But I’ll long remember my children’s first, when my now-8th graders were in kindergarten and happily hopped around on stage doing the Penguin Polka. (I can still sing that song, so often did they practice it at home!)

We won’t have our annual sit-down dinner and present-opening extravaganza at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve. Instead, we’ll settle for an abbreviated visit, all of us spread out across the long room, rather than gathered together at the dining room table. I feel lucky to be able to do that, different as it may seem, given that many people won’t see their loved ones at all this Christmas. Likewise, what has become a tradition of Christmas morning brunch and more presents at my in-laws’ will likely be considerably more subdued this year.

Since my kids were babies, we’ve always hosted Christmas dinner for extended family on both sides, cramming borrowed chairs around two tables pushed together. There’s not a lot of elbow room at those tables once everyone sits down, but the house is filled with good food, conversation, discarded wrapping paper, and plenty of love. It will seem strange to have Christmas dinner with just the five of us, at our regular table, without the noise and bustle of nearly a dozen extra people.

But there are some things that will be the same. We’ll still make a mess of the kitchen while baking and decorating Christmas cookies. The kids and I will still sit together on the couch before bedtime on Christmas Eve to read ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. They no longer fit in my lap or believe in flying reindeer that land on the roof with “The prancing and pawing of each little hoof,” but reading Clement Clarke Moore’s poem set to Jan Brett’s whimsical illustrations remains a night before Christmas must.

On Christmas morning, the kids will still be up earlier than the grownups would like. And I’ll still make them sit on the top step for a photo before they come down to check out their presents. They know, now, who really brings those presents, so there’s less magic in that moment, perhaps, than there once was – but just as much joyful anticipation. While so much looks different this year – and this Christmas – I’m thankful and grateful for all that remains the same. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's December 24, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Snow Fix

A few inches of snow. That’s what it took to adjust my attitude toward winter this year. For as long as I can remember, I have loved this season of white – it’s filled with Christmas magic and snowy woods and skiing. But this December, I just wasn’t feeling it.

This year, I held tighter than ever to summer, lamenting its passing in a way I never had. Summer had provided a bit of a respite from the pandemic, as we spent the long days mostly outside and often with friends – hiking and splashing in the river or just sitting together. Here in the more northern realm of New England, it felt as if we were in a germ-free bubble of safety. Autumn arrived with colors as brilliant as ever, but also with the kids returning to school, less opportunity to gather (safely, outdoors) with friends, shorter days and continued uncertainty.

While visions of powder days and wintery wonderlands normally fill my head once the leaves drop from the trees, this winter took shape in my mind as an endless stretch of cold, dark days. Even the thought of skiing didn’t excite me. I couldn’t – and still can’t – picture a ski season without the banter of the coaches’ room in Ernie’s Haus, the young kids I coach sharing candy at snack time, my own kids goofing around with their friends and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at lunchtime.

Rather than bemoaning the lack of snow, as I would normally do, I reveled in the warm weather that lingered into this strange December, in long walks through the woods, and in the extra time of unexpected free weekends due to a delayed start to the season. It didn’t feel like December or ski season or Christmastime. It felt like endless November, and despite my normal disdain for that month, this year I didn’t mind.

But Saturday afternoon, the steady drizzle turned to snow, and Sunday morning, we woke up to a landscape transformed to white. The tree limbs, long bare of leaves, were sheathed in snow. The mountains were covered. The plows once again prowled the back roads near home.

My son pulled the old toboggan out of the depths of the garage and we trudged through the snow to my folks’ house to visit (outside) and help with the shoveling. After lunch, we rallied some friends and a cousin, and the kids spent a couple of hours tramping up, then sliding down the long hill of my in-laws’ yard.

It was an afternoon of laughter and rosy cheeks and snowballs lobbed at passing sledders. It felt almost normal. It felt good.

Back home, the lights of the recently-trimmed Christmas tree twinkled against the early dusk outside. Our familiar hodgepodge of holiday decorations occupied their regular December spots along windowsills and across the mantle. The skis, hauled out of their summer storage place just the day before, were waxed and ready – for whatever this season will look like.

It still doesn’t feel like all is right in our little piece of the world, and maybe it won’t for some time. Our anticipation of the season is tinged, in this year of 2020, with anxiety. But a little bit of snow went a long way to remind me that I really do love this season – and had me embracing winter again, at last.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's December 10, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Giving Thanks

Some years ago, when the children who are now as tall as I am were still small, we established a family routine of sharing “thankful things” around the dinner table. In part, this was a replacement for saying grace, which my family did when I was a child. But really it is more an act of focusing, even for a few minutes, on some of the good things in our lives, no matter what kind of day we’ve all had.

Some evenings it is easy to spout off a list of thankful things. Others, of course, this practice is more challenging. On this week of traditional thanks-giving, near the end of a year that has been challenging in many ways, it seems more important than ever to focus, even for a little while, on the good things.  

Thanksgiving is next in 2020’s this-year-it-will-look-different lineup. Since the middle of March, most things have been a bit – or a lot – out of whack. School has been different. Work has been different. Grocery shopping, soccer, visiting friends, going to the doctor, getting a book from the library – all different.

We’ve all adjusted, to varying degrees, to the shifting normal. I no longer forget to don my mask when I head into the post office (although it still feels a little odd). My kids have grown used to longer class periods in school and lunchtime spent six feet away from friends. Last weekend, my family celebrated my dad’s birthday with a woods walk and hot cider sipped around a fire, rather than a sit-down dinner and cake with candles. (I do wonder if I’ll ever again be comfortable eating birthday cake after the guest of honor has blown across it to extinguish candle flames.)

But holidays are different, and I think many of us are feeling a tinge of sadness at traditions set aside, for now, as we head into the first of a string of holidays that normally brighten a literally dark time of year.

My crew is lucky to live within a few miles of lots of extended family. My kids have grandparents around each corner, aunts and uncles down the road, and a cousin across the street. Normally, holidays are a time for blending the local McPhaul and McCarthy branches of the family, with the odd additional out-of-town guest or local friend adopted for the day – and the feast. Our average holiday dinner guest list is usually between 12 and 20, generally tilting toward the higher end.

Our normal gathering place for this particular holiday is my in-laws’ house, which we can reach – literally – by walking over the river (a brook, really) and through the woods. This year, though, along with most other folks, we’ll be marking Thanksgiving in our own homes, without any large gathering.

I bought a Thanksgiving turkey over the weekend for the first time – ever. The kids and I sat down about a week before Thanksgiving to plan out our own dinner-for-five menu. The main event, of course, is the bird. But also included are Gaga’s famous sticky rolls and a dish my kids call “glop,” along with Nana’s Swedish apple pie. While the setting and the company will shift, my kids insist the menu should stay as close to “normal” as possible.  

One tradition we’ll maintain, especially on this day of thanks-giving, is to share our thankful things with each other. In this year of feeling regularly uncertain and unsettled, I’m thankful for many things, including that my children have these family traditions, which will continue to evolve – even if, like most other things, they look a little different this year.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's November 25, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.    

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Planting Hope

The day before the second snowstorm of the fall we planted bulbs: two dozen daffodils and about 50 crocuses, placed here and there through the perennial bed. This is the garden we completely overhauled in the spring, when COVID reshuffled our regular weekend routine of soccer-soccer-soccer, and we found time on Saturdays and Sundays freed up for other things. Months later, with the pandemic raging more strongly than in those first confused and uncertain days – and with the presidential election finally upon us – my children and I tucked papery-brown bulbs into the cold dirt.

I often think that gardening – whether it’s planting vegetable seeds in the spring or flower bulbs in the fall – feels like hope. That couldn’t be any truer than during this year.

I am no big fan of November – the dark days and barren landscape of that in-between-sun-and-snow month. And while I love winter, this year my anticipation of it is more apprehensive than eager. I wonder how we will manage if the kids return to remote schooling (indeed, we already know my older two will spend most of December and the first half of January learning remotely), and whether we will be able to celebrate holiday traditions – and winter birthdays – with family and friends.

The continuing unknowns of 2020 can seem overwhelming sometimes. 

In March, when my work and the kids’ school switched from in-person to remote, literally overnight, we gradually settled into a routine of daily walks, study time, late afternoon family soccer games. Then, the days were lengthening toward summer. The green shoots of flower bulbs planted in autumns long past were poking through the warming earth, and I was contemplating what seeds to sow in the vegetable bed.

Now, of course, we’re heading toward the long nights of winter rather than the promise of spring.

We planted bulbs this fall because in our re-do of the perennial garden, we discarded many things – an abundance of weeds, along with perennial roots and, yes, years-old daffodil and crocus bulbs. And because I have a feeling this winter will seem long. That there will be joy, but also frustrations, more milestones missed, and normal activities canceled or rearranged.

Folding those bulbs into the soil on the cold and blustery first day of November was an act of planning for spring blooms, yes, but it was also a gesture of hope. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's November 12, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.     

Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Season Not Lost

Soccer season, like so many other things over the past seven months, did not go quite as planned this year. On the day that would have, in a non-pandemic world, held the annual Halloween Cup, we woke up to four inches of heavy wet snow, with more falling fast. I guess the silver lining is that we didn’t need to worry about cancelling due to bad weather and slick roads, since Covid had already canceled the event for us.

In the grand scheme of things, whether kids get to play soccer or not may seem trivial. But any semblance of normal these days is a big deal for them – for all of us, really.

For most of the summer, we weren’t sure if the kids – high school, middle school, kindergarten – would get a soccer season at all. While my older children have had something like a regular season in middle school, my 6th grader’s team (which I coached with a friend) was restricted to practices and intra-squad scrimmages. No games against other towns. No joyfully-past-their-bedtime Under the Lights tourney in Littleton. No Haverhill Cup.

But for a few hours each week the kids were on the field, together, kicking the ball around and learning the game a little bit better. Two days a week, they made their way through stretching and wind sprints, skills work and tactical talks, all without the potential reward of earning a W or raising a trophy. They listened and worked hard. And out there on our home field, we all smiled. A lot.

In this year of so much weirdness, I think soccer was a happy highlight for the kids. I know it was for me.

One player showed up to the first few practices in a cast-like boot to protect a still-healing broken foot. He did as much as he could, so hampered, then jumped in full steam as soon as the doc cleared him to lose the boot. Another kid arrived one day complaining, in a charmingly happy manner, that he hadn’t had time after school to change out of his restrictive “school picture day shorts.” A few of them boogied mid-scrimmage one afternoon to music playing from a nearby field. Once, a quick, furious downpour left the kids soaked – and scrimmaging under a brilliant double rainbow.

At different times throughout the season, my daughter and I lamented some of the differences of this year compared to other soccer seasons. She missed the challenge of competitions, the power of playing good defense, the thrill of scoring goals. I missed thinking about which lineup would work best on any given day and watching the kids figure out this “beautiful game” little by little.

Last October, her team made it to the Halloween Cup final only to watch the opposing team’s players lift the candy-filled cup at the end of the day. It was my third time in five Halloween Cups coaching a runners-up team. Maybe next year, I told my daughter then. This year’s tournament would have been her final Halloween Cup, and mine, too.

Alas, this October there would be no penalty kick shootouts and dedicated fans, no games played just after dawn and just before dark, no triumphant wins and disappointing losses. This October, there was no gathering of teams from throughout the region, no gaggles of kids running around the Dow and swinging through the playground between games, no concession stand stocked with baked goods and crockpots of warm food, endless pots of coffee and countless volunteers.

Instead, our season finale was just 15 kids and two coaches who love soccer, on the field together. We ended the season with a long scrimmage session. The kids passed the ball and made some moves and scored a few goals. They took some hard knocks and helped each other up. There was less intensity than the normal end-of-the-season competition, but more laughter.

Probably, if someone asked, I’d say I wish it had been a normal soccer season. I wish these kids who are moving on to middle school next year had their chance to be the big kids on the small field. I wish I’d gotten to coach them through one more tournament. But in a year that has often involved seeking out silver linings, we still managed to find plenty of them on the soccer field. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's October 29, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.    

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Sunrise Solace

On most days, I am a morning person. This is in part by nature and in part by habit. When my now-teenagers were babies, I started rising before the sun to have an hour of time to myself – to work or read or simply sit with a cup of coffee and the quiet of early morning. Lately, though, I’ve become a weekend morning slouch. While I’m still up-and-at-’em early through the week, I’ve taken to lazing around an extra hour or two on the weekends.

So when my youngest asked if we could go for a sunrise hike this weekend, I weighed the luxury of sleeping in with the idea of pre-dawn trail time with my daughter. The second choice was the clear winner. This daughter – like youngest children everywhere – has been dragged along on many adventures at a younger age than her older siblings were.  

When they were already toddling along gentle trails, she was carried in a kid backpack. When they were scrambling over rocks as preschoolers, she was working hard to keep up. When we hiked our first big mountains together, they were 9 years old, and she only 7. And on our inaugural backpacking treks this summer, she carried the same gear and weight in her pack as her two-years-older, several-inches-taller siblings did. (My older kids will point out that the youngest also benefits from certain perks – like getting a phone, or staying up later – at a younger age. It’s a balance.)

Sunday, though, was an adventure just for the two of us. With the pre-dawn sky at home cloudy enough to block our view of Franconia Notch, we weren’t sure how much of the sunrise we’d see. But the moon was clearly visible high in the sky, and the hot cocoa was already packed in the thermos and ready to go, so we took a chance and headed down the road toward one of our favorite little hikes with a big view.  

There were a few cars in parking lot at Baldy, and several more at the Echo Lake lot. I’d seen a slew of photos from the day before of bumper-to-bumper lines of cars streaming through the notch, presumably filled with people looking for foliage that was already past peak. But we’d spent the summer successfully avoiding the crowds, and I hoped we’d be able to find a quiet spot up on Artists Bluff so early in the morning.

Alas, there were close to a dozen people there when we arrived, including two photographers with tripods already in place and a couple of 20-somethings continually posing for Instagram shots (much to my tween daughter’s combined amusement and disgust). Still, we found a spot away from everyone else and took in the colorful scene around us. The sky was beginning to lighten in a prelude to the big event. The trees below still held lots of color. And Echo Lake was like a giant looking glass, reflecting the mountains on either side.  

After about 20 minutes of relative quiet, though, the crowd had more than doubled in size. And although drone use is prohibited in Franconia Notch State Park, three of them buzzed annoyingly just off the ledge. Our peaceful sunrise adventure was turning into a rowdy circus. We decided to move.

Back on the trail, it was quiet again, and bright enough now to hike easily toward what my family calls Mt. Baldy. “Will the sun already be up when we get there?” my daughter asked as we rounded the last corner of the trail and emerged at the base of the familiar rock scramble. We soon had our answer. 

Climbing above the gnarled trees, we looked toward the big mountains across the notch. There, from behind a cloud cloaking the tip-tops of Lafayette and Garfield, the sun was just peeking into the sky. Patches of fog dotted the landscape below us and made the valley toward home seem a sea of white. The moon, just past full, glowed in the western sky. We spent the next several minutes delighting in the golden hues of fall, discussing how glad we were to have this low rocky summit to ourselves, and taking pictures.

At one point, my daughter, on a ledge below me, exclaimed, “Mom, stand right there!” and snapped a shot of the dog and me silhouetted by the rising sun. I think that one gets the artsy award from the morning. But my favorite images from our sunrise adventure are of my daughter standing quietly on the rocks, looking out over the hills and peaks of the place we are lucky enough to call home – from a spot where we managed to get away from the crowd. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's October 8, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.   

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Sad so-long to Summer

Sunday morning dawned 20-something degrees. By the time I ventured onto the front porch, the temperature had creeped above 30, and the sun made it feel warmer than that. I am not ready, yet, to give up my weekend morning porch-sitting, coffee-drinking, reading-writing ritual. Of course, I’m not ready to give up many of summer’s bright spots. Alas, I can clearly see the writing on the wall – or at least the white of morning frost on the grass.

Two nights of that frost over the weekend, just before the Autumnal Equinox, did the garden in. Friday afternoon I picked all the green beans I could find, plucked one more cucumber from the vine, and harvested the last two small zucchinis. I cut all the zinnias in bloom and put them into a mason jar, where their colors have allowed summer to persist for a few more days.

On Sunday, I pulled frost-wilted plants from the vegetable garden, tilling the soil and pulling weeds. The garden looks tidy now, but barren, with only the green, frilly tops of carrots still standing. This year, the chore of putting the garden to bed seemed especially melancholy; in a year of so much strife and uncertainty, I’ve come to appreciate the colors and tastes of the garden more fervently than in past summers.

Saying goodbye to summer seems especially hard in 2020. But time stubbornly marches on.

Gone now are the bright early mornings; it’s dark these days when I wake, and the light fades soon after supper. Gone are the veggies picked fresh each day as needed. Gone are the lovely summer blooms, both cultivated and wild-growing, whose array of colors brightened the yard and our dining room table for months. Gone are the days of flinging windows open wide to sunshine and warmth.

I’ll make the transition, resistant as I am, to Fall. To cozy evenings and hearty soups, wrapping up in soft blankets and sipping hot cocoa, donning warm socks and extra layers against the chill. But I’m not quite there yet, not quite ready.

I’m holding out on putting the flipflops away. I’m hoping for a few more shorts-and-t-shirt days. And I’ll keep up with my weekend morning porch sitting for as long as I can. Here, the sun still warms me, even if I can see my breath in the chill morning air. The view of the mountains, now transitioning through Autumn’s ever-changing colors, still soothes and inspires. The birds – different ones now from spring, touching down briefly as they migrate from one place to another – still provide a welcome backdrop of sound. The dog, as always, keeps good company, making her daily rounds through the yard before settling at my feet and keeping watch for squirrels and other natural offenses.

Somehow, the coffee tastes better out here, and the news I read seems less jarring when taken in from my porch perch. I’ll pull my long down coat on if I must, and close the storm door behind me, then turn my face toward the sun – and the season that has, inevitably, arrived.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's September 24, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.