Friday, July 2, 2021

The Beautiful Game

When my kids were in kindergarten, I started coaching their soccer teams through the local recreation department. I love soccer. Loved playing it as a kid, then in college, then out in Colorado, and for one summer on a ragtag team of women from teenaged to middle-aged in Ireland. So of course I loved coaching it, too. It was gratifying to see the kids – my own and their classmates – progress from kindergarten all the way through elementary school, at which point I moved to the spectating side of the field.

It was a bit of a bummer last fall when my youngest and her classmates missed out on their last year of rec soccer – and their last chance to vie for the coveted Halloween Cup, that annual end-of-the-season tournament, played on the home field, right next to the playground they’ve all been swinging and sliding and climbing through since they were toddlers. My friend Mike and I still got to coach the kids in practices and intrateam scrimmages, but it wasn’t quite the same without the competition of playing against other teams. And while I sympathized with the kids, I also felt a twinge of my own remorse for missing out on this last year of coaching.

Still, I hesitated this spring when I was asked to help with my youngest daughter’s club team. Just having two of my kids playing spring soccer was a big time commitment, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to add one more thing to my plate. But in the end, I figured if I was going to be sitting at practices and driving to games anyway, I may as well help out – as long as I didn’t have to be in charge of planning practices or any of the administrative stuff. Basically, I agreed to be there to follow someone else’s lead.

In all the years I’ve coached (both soccer and skiing) I’ve been lucky to have some strong leads to follow. I’ve learned from the people I’ve coached with – and from watching many of the coaches who have guided my kids’ athletic endeavors when I’m on the other side of the field (or the ski slope) with the spectators.

This spring’s coaching experience was different than coaching fall soccer. Many of the kids, I met for the first time in April, when we started kicking the ball around inside. Some of them I knew from two years ago – pre Covid – when they’d first played on the same team with my daughter. The only one I’d known since kindergarten was my own. One of the perks of coaching, though, is that you get to know the kids differently than when you’re a parent on the sideline. And this group of girls was super fun to get to know. They are silly while still being competitive. Smart. Sometimes a little sassy. Tough. And supremely coachable.

Scott, whose lead I got to follow this spring, is one of those coaches who has an innate ability to connect with players. If you’ve ever had a good coach, you’ll know what I mean here. They exude good energy. They’re almost always positive. They expect you to play to your potential and will tell you – in a constructive way – when you can do better. When you have a coach like that, you always try your hardest, always want to play more, play better.

These girls worked hard and had fun through the season, whether it was 90 degrees and oppressively humid or 45 and raining. Girls who early in the season told me they simply couldn’t kick the ball with their left foot were, by June, making defensive clears, attacking crosses, and even a goal or two – with that left foot. Girls who had been timid during the first games became confident. Girls who hardly knew each other off the field somehow connected on it – learning which passes to send and which runs to make and how to work together.

Sometimes, on the sidelines during games, we coaches meted out tactical advice. Often, we just watched the girls play and relished their love of the game. Who knows where soccer might lead them? Onto a high school team, maybe, or even college. To a team in a Colorado ski town, or a village in the west of Ireland. Perhaps, someday, these girls will be on the coaching side of the field, guiding the next group of youngsters through the beautiful game.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's July 1, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Home Grown

I swear it wasn’t that long ago that I had three kids under the age of 3. Sometimes it feels like it was just a few short months ago that I had a toddler wrapped around each leg and a baby in my arms. Only a couple of weeks back that all three could still climb into my lap together for a bedtime story. Just the other day that they were learning to pedal tricycles, ski down the bunny hill, and sound out words.

But somehow, now, my oldest has to bend slightly to hug me, and next week my not-so-little littlest wraps up her elementary school days in a place that’s been a part of our family’s life and daily routine for most of the last decade. She’s ready to move on – the kids always are by the time they’ve progressed from small kindergarteners to almost-teenagers. And I’m calmer about this milestone than I thought I might be, but I’m betting it’ll take a while before I get used to turning the other way, toward a different school, at the bottom of our hill for the daily drop-off and pickup.

I remember standing in the elementary school foyer on the first day of kindergarten for my older two children. Back then, I was used to preschool-sized kids who couldn’t quite pronounce their Rs and were still learning to tie their shoelaces. On that morning, as my two 5-year-olds stuck close to my side, a bit anxious about their first day in the “big school,” the 6th graders seemed enormous and so grown up.

Now, of course, my perspective has shifted. I am used to (although sometimes still surprised by) the still-growing stature of my daughter and her 6th grade classmates, who are all approaching or have already surpassed my height. But those kindergarteners seem so tiny – even if it sometimes seems like last week that my own kids were that small.  

The end of each school year is one of those times when it’s easy to contemplate the changes in our children. Some are moving on from preschool, others – who, really, were learning their shapes and letters in preschool not so long ago – are graduating from high school or (gulp) college. So, their growing up offspring is at the top of many parents’ minds.

When your children are babies, it seems as if everyone – parents of older kids, strangers in the grocery store – tells you to “enjoy every minute,” that it passes quickly. And, on some level, you know they’re right. But then you’re also in the midst of changing diapers and cutting food into tiny pieces and being woken at all hours of the night. It’s exhausting.

All that exhaustion fades into the background, however, when a small human, whose world literally revolves around you, hands you a bouquet of dandelions or blows a kiss from the outfield in a t-ball game or snuggles in with a favorite stuffy for a cuddle – or says in a voice impossibly sweet, “I love you, Mama.”

And the next thing you know, they’re asking for the keys to the minivan so they can go out with their friends. OK, OK, so we’re not quite there yet. But judging by how fast these years seem to go, we’ll get there next week. Or tomorrow. Or five minutes from now. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's June 10, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021


Three more weeks. That’s how long my kids have to wait until they’re fully vaccinated. While most shots – to protect against such seemingly far-fetched ailments as tetanus and polio and diphtheria – are events to be dreaded at annual doctor’s office visits, the coronavirus vaccine was one all three of my children were eager to get.

This vaccine lifts a world of worry from their shoulders, one I hadn’t fully realized they’d been carrying these last long 14 months. Yes, getting the vaccine will mean less mask wearing and more hanging out with friends. But it is so much more than that.

When vaccination opened to the 12- to 16-year-old age group, I scheduled first shot appointments for early June, figuring the kids would be out of school by their second dose, and more easily able to handle any side effects. But when I happily announced this news, all three said they wanted their shots sooner. As soon as possible. They were tired of waiting. Tired of wondering when they’ll be able to hang out with friends – whenever and wherever they’d like – without masks.

They are done with pandemic worry. They are ready to move forward.

My kids have been lucky this past academic year to have spent almost all of it in school. Yes, they wore masks to class, for hours a day. Yes, they had to stick with their limited cohorts, which meant no mingling at lunch tables or in hallways – and, for my 6th grader, missing out on many of the traditional last-year-of-elementary-school events, including the field trip to Boston, a series of outdoor education hikes in the mountains, and getting to be leaders for various activities of mixed age groups at school.

But they have not been isolated. Their human interaction has not been limited to seeing friends and classmates only through a screen. They played soccer in the fall and competed in ski races through winter, both activities that are as much about being with friends as they are about athletics and competition. When they had questions about schoolwork, they were able to ask their teachers in person. They’ve had the welcome routine of going to school each weekday morning.

Still, amid all of this not-quite-normal, there’s been an underlying fear. Fear of getting sick. Fear of getting someone else sick. Fear of being ostracized if they did contract Covid. Being vaccinated won’t eliminate this anxiety entirely, but it alleviates it in a huge way. One shot in, my kids are already feeling that Covid concern ease a bit. One down, one to go. Forward.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's May 27, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Weeds & Seeds

Spring opens, most years, with a one-step-forward-two-steps-back dance. Cold rain and snow twirl around sunshine and warmth, as the odd summer-like day and maybe an unexpected frost cut in now and then. Through this spring cha-cha, the landscape greens up, the earliest flowers – both wild and cultivated – bloom, and the trees unfurl their leaves. As color seeps back into the world, gardening tasks lengthen my to-do list.

With a spattering of veggie beds and a perennial garden we revamped during last spring’s time of Staying Home, I’ve been fitting the gardening in between work hours and soccer games, woods wanderings and playing catch in the yard, dinnertime and bedtime. Much like spring, my gardening efforts come in fits and starts.

As soon as the growing things emerge, it seems the weeds quickly outpace whatever it is we’ve planted. Last week, my son and I plucked new weeds from the front garden and spread mulch around clumps of daylilies and irises, moonbeam coreopsis and barely out-of-the-ground astilbe stalks. We got about halfway through the job before running out of mulch, and the other half remains on hold until we have the time (and the truck) to collect more. Cha-cha-cha.

After considering what edibles to plant this season, waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for warmer weather, and sketching out what will go where, on Saturday I dropped the year’s first veggie seeds into one of the raised beds the kids helped my dad build last year. Into the freshly turned soil, I carefully sowed snow peas and beet seeds and spring greens. Still to come: green beans, carrots, squash, cucumbers, sungold tomatoes, maybe a row or two of potatoes, a few onions. It may take me the next month to get everything in, but it will happen. Eventually. Cha-cha-cha.

Last year, I grew two rows of zinnias between the snap peas and the bush beans in the big vegetable garden out back. This year, I think I may fill one of the smaller garden boxes in the side yard entirely with flowers – more zinnias and sunflowers and maybe some snapdragons. These, of course, we cannot eat. (Well, maybe the sunflower seeds, but we’ll likely leave those for the birds.) But they are nourishing in other, also important ways.

Through spring’s uncertain dance and into summer I’ll wait, hopeful, for the seeds to sprout, then for the stems to grow tall, and for the tightly furled buds to open. I don’t know what this dance is called – not a cha-cha or a waltz or a tango – but the choreography is pretty close to perfect.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's May 13, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.