Monday, July 18, 2022

Cousins Week

Every year, around the first week of July, a group of cousins who live 3,000 apart takes a hike to a low, rocky outcrop in Franconia Notch, locally known as Mt. Baldy. It’s not a long hike, nor a difficult one, but the view from the top is sweet – and it has become, over the past decade or so, a family tradition. 

📷: Michelle McCarthy
Hiking Mt. Baldy has been at the top of my California nephew’s New Hampshire to-do list since one of his first visits here. Back then, the kids were all small, and the trek seemed a long journey for little legs. Now, our crew of teenagers makes it from the trailhead sign – where they somewhat grudgingly pose for the obligatory annual Baldy photo – to the top in mere minutes. This summer, the littlest cousin, who lives just down the road, made her inaugural cousins hike up Baldy, perched comfortably on her mother’s back. That littlest is now learning to walk, and I imagine on the next cousins hike, she’ll be ready to scramble along on her own.

Over the years, the week of activities on the list for Cousins Week has shifted a bit, as some things are added and others removed. But a few things remain from one July to the next: the Baldy hike, a trip (or two) to Chutters to stock up on candy and fudge, riding in the back of the pickup through the woods road, and loading up kayaks and lunch to drive out to Long Pond and search for salamanders and loons. In recent years, we’ve added trips to favorite breweries, a few hot laps on mountain bikes along a wooded route, and a backyard fireworks display, since the visit generally falls around the Fourth of July (and backyard fireworks are not allowed in dry California).


My kids talk about the cousins visit throughout the year, and in the days before the Cali crew arrives, that talk is almost non-stop. While other summer mornings, if they are not working, they may lounge around and gradually get to breakfast and whatever comes next, the week the cousins are here, my kids are out of bed and pedaling their bikes up the driveway and around the corner to my folks’ house before I’ve poured my second cup of coffee. 


Cousins Week means Poppy pancakes for breakfast, card games on the porch, endless and intense rounds of badminton in the back yard. There are family dinners – where the youngest generation still sits at the kids’ table, even though they’re mostly grown-up size now. There is teasing (among both cousins and middle-aged siblings) and laughing and arguing over whether that birdie landed in or out on a court that has no boundaries. 


It’s the kind of togetherness that only happens when the parties don’t see each regularly, when they gather together only during this one stretch of days. 


None of us knows how many more summers we’ll have of this week together, as college looms and summer jobs require more time close to home and the kids phase out of, well, being kids. But however long they last, I’m guessing a cousins trek up Mt. Baldy will remain in the mix, right at the top of the list.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appeared as Meghan's July 7, 2022 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Team on Three ...

What happens when you take 18 kids from a half dozen towns and four different high schools and throw them together on a soccer field? Well, if you’re lucky – and if all the stars and personalities align – you get a team. 

This was the experiment we started back in March, although the conversation started well before then. I had two kids who wanted to play spring soccer, but had no team. Some of their friends were also interested in playing. My friend Mike – whose kids are friends with my kids – was game to help with coaching. And I had a connection with an established club who said if we could wrangle enough kids, they’d include a locally-based team under the club’s umbrella. 


Finding those 18 kids from a half dozen towns took some scrambling, and our group grew in fits and starts. Before we got to that soccer field, we started in a high school gym. It was the home school gym for several of these kids, and a rival gym for the others. And, indeed, before we started, many of these teenagers knew each other only as rivals – having faced off on opposing sides of the soccer field or basketball court a time or two. 


During the first couple of practices, only two schools were represented. Those sessions were pretty quiet, with awkward silences between drills and activities, and groups forming mainly along school allegiances. Then we added a handful of boys – and another coach – from a third school. 


Maybe it was some “Rule of Three” effect. Or maybe it was the timing of it. Probably it had a lot to do with personalities. Whatever the reason, by the time we headed outside in mid-April, this group of mostly boys and a few girls was goofing around, cracking jokes – often at a new teammate’s expense – and assigning each other nicknames. Sometimes, they were getting along SO well that we had to pause practice and wait for them to stop talking with each other.


When you grow up in a small town surrounded by other small towns, you spend a good portion of your childhood with the same bunch of kids. If you play sports, you probably have the same teammates (and some of the same opponents) from kindergarten through high school. If you’re lucky, those teammates become good friends, and maybe you figure out – early on or further down the road – how to work well together on the field. 


But every now and then, it can be really fun to mix it up. Play with different teammates. Compete against other teams. Listen to a different coach (or two). Learn to play a new position. And, well, make some new friends. 


By our first game, we had players from four different high schools on the roster. While we didn’t end the season with a winning record, the highlight of the spring was a tournament over Memorial Day weekend. The team won its first three games, including beating a team they’d tied earlier in the spring, and reached the tourney’s semifinals. For coach mom here, though, the best part of the weekend was seeing this group of awesome humans hanging out with each other and just having fun together.  


Our coaching goals for the season were to get the kids lots of touches on the ball, teach them a bit more about the game, help them learn to become better players. And they did – as individuals and as a team. The new friendships were a collateral bonus. 


This week, this crew of kids who didn’t really know each other a few months ago had their final game of the season. The next day, they got together one last time for a pickup session, which was as much about socializing as it was about soccer. For 90 minutes, they ran around a soccer field, laughing and playing and talking smack. 


Come fall, these kids will go back to being rivals on the pitch. But at the end of the season’s last gathering, they came together in a tight circle one more time, put their hands into the center, and gave their pre-game yell: “Team on three – one-two-three team!”

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's June 9, 2022 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

May Mornings

By nature and my own design, I am almost always the first of my household to rise. When the kids were little, I got into the habit of rising earlier than they did, no matter how tired I might be. Those early mornings were often the only time I could rely on quiet; I cherished that bit of peace, however short, to sip my coffee and prepare for whatever the hours ahead might bring. As a morning person, I am attuned to the light early in the day – and how that light ebbs and flows through the seasons.

As September spins into October, summer’s yellow-white light fades, too quickly, to a subdued gray and I lament the morning dimness. No matter how bright an autumn day may become, with fall sunshine and all the colors of changing leaves, the steadily darkening mornings clearly indicate that summer has gone. By November, I am feeling my way down the hallway well before sunrise, shocked into wakefulness when my bare feet hit the chill of the kitchen’s tile floor. 

Though I grow used to these dark mornings by the depth of winter – and even accept the coziness of the lamp-lit quiet, tucked warmly away from the snowy world outside – I wholeheartedly welcome the return of early morning light come springtime. Some morning near the beginning of March, I notice a faint glow through my window shades as I awaken, and I know that no matter how much snow there is on the ground or how icy the wind is outside, the light is returning. This happens not long before the bi-annual time change, which always seems like a cheap trick to me – to give me morning light, then snatch it away as a tradeoff for lingering evening brightness. 

Daylight “savings” aside, come May, the morning light glows through those window shades earlier and brighter. Each day’s first wash of light gradually flows across a landscape whose color is expanding by the day. The newly green grass grows greener, dotted by happy yellow daffodils and dandelions. In the field, the lupine leaves on their slowly stretching stalks hold dew that sparkles in the morning sun. The pink-hued flowers of red maple trees and cascading pale green of willows tint yards and hillsides as leaves prepare to unfurl. The leaf buds on the lilac bushes swell daily, and I think if I had the patience to sit and watch, I could probably see them grow before my eyes. The fragrant flowers of those bushes will bloom this month, as will the shadbush at the edge of the driveway and the sweet pink and white apple blossoms in the fields beyond.


May is when early morning reclaims its light, and it is not only the leaves and flowers and returning birds who take note and adjust. I return to my weekend ritual of early morning porch sits, absconding outside with a blanket, a book, and the day’s first cup of coffee. I return to occasional early morning walks through the woods or slow, backroads runs. Even before the sun is fully up, the sky is filled with light. 


Perhaps we morning people are, in a way, solar powered. This growing morning light corresponds with an exceptionally busy time of year for my family. These early May mornings allow me the bit of space and time – and brightness – I need to reset and recharge before I dive into each full day. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's May 5, 2022 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Seasons of Chaos

As every parent of school-aged children knows, each season has its own level of crazy. For my family, it is often the sport-du-saison that ramps up the chaos, especially when there is overlap between one and the next. Now, for instance, as ski season lingers, while spring soccer and tennis kick off at full speed. Three kids. Two sports. Five teams. Oof.

The logistics, even with two involved parents, plus grandparents living nearby to help with taxi-ing and other things, can range from daunting to seemingly impossible. Our spring calendar is a muddle of games and practices and who-needs-to-be-where-when. Some days, my head spins when I try to figure out how to get everyone – including myself – where they are supposed to be at the allotted times. 

Here’s the thing, though – I’m not sure I’d have it any other way. 


There was one spring, in 2020, when we had no place to be. That, of course, was the year Covid hit and much of our world shut down. Frenzied schedules of sports and school concerts and social outings suddenly shifted to a very long stretch of days spent almost entirely at home. Work was from home. School was from home. And our sporting endeavors became constrained to the backyard. 


That spring, we did lots of projects around the house and yard. We spent weekends normally reserved for games instead completely revamping the huge and unwieldy perennial bed at the front of the house. We walked in the woods and along normally quiet roads that had become even quieter, since most other people weren’t going anywhere either. We played nearly daily family games of soccer and disc golf in the yard, fashioning goals from tree trunks and targets from boulders and branches and old stumps. We hardly got in the car at all. 


In some ways, it was kind of nice to have all that downtime and so many fewer obligations. But we also longed to get back to teams and sports and friends and competition – with someone beyond immediate family members. 


Two years later, we have returned to full-fledged scheduling madness. And I am OK with that. Mostly because I realize it will not last forever. 


The other day, I was lamenting to my mom how wild and crazy the family logistics are becoming, with kids going all different directions, work obligations, and the task of feeding three teenagers on-the-fly. “Yes, it’ll be busy for a few more years,” she said. The conversation rolled on to the next topic, but that remark has stuck with me. A few more years. Then, these multiple-sports-a-season, driving-all-over-creation, mom-there’s-nothing-to-eat days will be another phase of raising kids that has passed. 


I won’t have to create spreadsheets and color-coded calendars to help manage our family schedule. I will have far fewer games to watch and none of my own children to coach. It will, perhaps, be weirdly quiet in my house.   


So, yeah, I’m jumping into the chaos of this season. If anyone needs me, I’m probably driving to practice. Or a game. Or to the grocery store – again – to restock. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's April 7, 2022 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Birthday Season

Birthday season is in full swing in our house. All the humans who live here turn another year older during a stretch of five weeks. And from the first week of January to the last week of February, if you add only the local members of our extended family into the mix, we have nine birthdays. That’s a lot of cake. And a lot of reflecting on the passage of time.  

This stretch of winter weeks used to entail lots of time spent baking (and frosting and eating) cupcakes, wrapping presents, and planning parties for little people. Recently, I came across decade-old photos from a dinosaur-themed birthday party, including some pictures of dino-masked preschoolers playing Pin the Tail on the T-Rex. The birthday honorees in those photos are now mere months away from having their drivers permits. Gulp. 

For a year after my youngest was born, I could claim I had three kids under the age of 3. It was a statement that was partly prideful (as in, “I don’t know how, but I am doing this!”), but also partly oh-my-gawd-help-me! Now that I’m about to have three teenagers in the house, I feel the same way. I am so proud of these humans my husband and I are raising. And I am so challenged by raising them. 


Early in my parenting career I realized, often in moments of panic, that I had no idea what I was doing. This parenting thing, it’s no joke. And sometimes it’s wicked hard. What if I did something that totally messed up these children I had born and am responsible for growing into adulthood? Fifteen years into being a mom, that feeling lingers, sometimes just a distant internal hum, other times an anxiety-laden roar.


When the kids were little and I’d be out with them – at the playground or in the grocery store, with all three loaded into the cart – well-meaning parents of much older children (or grandchildren) would smile wistfully and tell me to “enjoy every moment.” And, like parents of small children everywhere, I’d smile politely while silently calculating how many nights in the past month I’d slept for more than four consecutive hours and wondering if I should truly enjoy EVERY moment, including the ones occupied by diaper blowouts, toddler temper tantrums, and middle-of-the-night projectile vomiting.


But even then, I knew my babies would grow faster than I was prepared for. The sweetness of those baby and toddler stages – and of just about every stage since – trumped all the not-so-sweet stuff. I have tried, all along the way, to cherish the best moments, even the ones – or maybe especially the ones – comprising such normalcy as a 6-year-old holding my hand as we walked down the road or a teenager skunking me in a game of cribbage. I have made it a conscious habit to NOT wish time away. And, still, the time keeps flying by. 


These past few years, I’ve discovered that no one ever tells a mom of teenagers to “enjoy every moment.” But those more seasoned parents will often share a quiet look of sympathetic understanding or some vague words of encouragement. With my friends who are also parenting teens, I lament adolescent angst and eye-rolling attitudes – along with the realization that too soon these kids who can sometimes cause us so much consternation will be out of the house and onto their next stage – one that doesn’t involve hand-holding walks (at least not with Mom), after-dinner family games, homework help, or curfews.  


So I strive to continue to hold onto those best moments, even in the midst of the not-so-fun ones. I cherish those rare afternoon ski runs with a kid or three. Or when one of them hugs me and holds on just an extra second or two. Or when they share stories from their day, and I get a little glimpse into those worlds that are more and more separate from mine all the time. I know other parents of teenagers cherish these moments, too, because we sometimes talk about the wonder of that stolen time with our kids, who so often these days are at school or at work or off with their friends or hidden away in their rooms doing homework – or just avoiding their parents. 


And at least during Birthday Season, I know these teenagers of mine will emerge from their rooms once in a while. After all, there’s lots of cake to be eaten this time of year.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's February 3, 2022 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Walking Through the Dark

As we approached the darkest – or at least the longest – evening of the year last month, the kids and I took to venturing out for post-dinner walks. Partly this is because with so much dark and so little daylight, it can be a challenge to fit exercise into the daylight hours. And partly it’s because there are only so many Netflix shows we can watch and games of cribbage we can play during these long nights. Sometimes we need another diversion. Or a fresh air fix. Winter evening walks are a way to have both.

Like lots of people around here, we live on a dirt road where the traffic is sparse, especially during dark winter nights. The only streetlight is at the far end of the road, and we tend to wander in other directions during our evening forays. I often strap a headlamp around my hat as we venture into the darkness, but my preference is to allow our eyes to adjust, to see our way bit by bit, sometimes with a twinkling of starlight or moonglow to guide us. 

Last year, these walks generally included only me and the dog. This winter, though, the kids have been wound up and ready to ramble with me after we’ve eaten dinner and done the dishes. Having their company is not always relaxing – they can be loud, and sometimes they run ahead to hide, then spook the rest of us by jumping out from behind some shadowy tree – but as the mother of teenagers, I figure I should take all the screen-free together time I can get these days. Plus, I’d rather have them running around outside than bouncing off the walls inside.


I remember watching people stroll along Lake Garda one summer, during college, when I spent a few weeks backpacking around Europe. Older couples walked arm-in-arm, kids scampered about, and nobody seemed to be going anywhere in particular. They weren’t in a hurry, or pumping their arms to burn extra calories from eating all that delectable gelato – just meandering along a lake in a resort town of mountain views and sidewalk cafes. 


Probably most of these evening strollers were tourists, like I was. And maybe this was not their normal, non-holiday routine. But I found the idea of an after-dinner walk charming – and memorable enough that the mental image has stuck with me for more than a couple of decades and countless life changes since those two nights spent at a hostel by the lake. 


My winter evening rambles through the neighborhood with my kids are vastly different from those Riva del Garda strolls through the bright evening light of an Italian summer when I was 21. Somehow, though, the one evokes a recollection of the other. 


Then, I was sipping wine with friends and basking in warmth of the season and our youth, suntanned and carefree and thrilled to be spending a couple of days in this foreign land. Now, I walk with offspring who have surpassed me in height, our feet crunching across a frozen, white landscape. Our breath curls as wispy clouds into the darkness. The snow-laced branches of balsam firs and hemlock trees stand as silent, magical sentinels along the quiet road.


Sometimes we step off the road and into the woods, where our tracks crisscross those of snowshoe hare, deer, foxes, and other forest dwellers. The dog revels in the scents floating in the night air and throws herself happily down to roll in the snow. The mountains of home rise along the horizon, their familiar craggy shapes barely discernible through the dark, the bright lights of snowcats prowling along ski trails. 


We come home rosy-cheeked and stomping snow from our boots onto the floor, where it will melt into small, cold puddles. These winter nights are long, yes. But our walks bring us, bit by bit, through the darkness.  

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's January 6, 2022 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.