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Week 38: Melissa Noel

I was looking forward to hiking with Melissa Noel, my hiking companion for the 38th week of “A Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail” because I couldn’t wait to show her the pictures of the baby afghan I’m currently making. WHOA…I’m getting ahead of myself! Let me backup and start again!

I met Melissa at the trailhead off Route 77 on a cool and overcast morning.  We stood by the cars pondering our clothing option. To wear or not to wear long-sleeved shirts, that is the questions…especially when heading into the woods in late September.  Each to her own, I shed mine and Melissa kept hers on.  Off we set, appreciating the proliferation of goldenrod in the field where just a few weeks ago there had been a variety of flowers including Black-eyed Susan, Queen Ann’s Lace, Chicory, Tall Thistle and Allegheny Monkey flowers.

Even though some of the trees were beginning to lose their leaves, as we entered the woods it seemed like someone dimmed the lights.  It was cool and dark and moist, which means it was perfect for mushrooms! And boy did we see a lot of different kinds of mushrooms…mushrooms of every color, size, and shape! My favorite ones were both black and white. One looked like a porcupine and the other looked like a little gnome had decorated its top with a spirograph drawing.

As we headed down the trail, I asked Melissa, who is a fiber artist extraordinaire and owner of The Yarn Shop in downtown Hagerstown, about her latest project.  She’s currently knitting a silk wedding shawl for her niece…lucky woman! A few months ago, I stopped by Melissa’s store to get some advice of a blanket I was crocheting. Thanks to suggestions from one of Melissa’s employees, I now have an almost finished, beautiful baby blanket, which I plan to give to the grandbaby I’m expecting in mid- October! With her expertise in and knowledge of fiber arts, Melissa was super encouraging and politely listened to me excitedly blather on about my baby blanket creation!

Melissa is one of those women who thrives on being busy and likes to have lots of irons in the fire.  In fact, the week before our hike, she and her husband held the grand opening for their newest business venture, The Ice Cream Shop on West Washington Street. I said, “I don’t know how you do it all…raise a family and manage not one but two businesses! Do you have an MBA or what?” That’s when she blew my socks off! “Actually” she said, “neither of us went to college. We are just hard workers. In fact, we have three additional companies, Noel’s Fire Protection, _________, and a Management Company that handles the Human Resource needs for the other four companies.” Honestly, after talking with Melissa, I had the feeling that in the dictionary next to the word entrepreneur it would simply say “Melissa Noel.”

Continuing down the trail, I asked Melissa about her family. She married Brian, her high school sweetheart, 29 year ago and they are the proud parents of three children. I got the Cliff Note versions of the oldest two but learned a great deal more about Melissa’s youngest child, McKenzie.  Brain, Jr. works at ____ and is the father of Melissa adorable granddaughter. Katie, is a junior at _____ college, studying _________.

McKenzie, at 13 years of age, is a “2E or twice exceptional child.” If you haven’t heard that term don’t feel bad, I had to ask too. McKenzie, Melissa explained, is on the Autism spectrum and has both exceptional abilities and disabilities. Though McKenzie has a superior IQ and is incredibly gifted in some areas, she also has learning and developmental challenges including ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome, and dysgraphia.  As we hiked down the trail near the lichen-covered rock wall, Melissa was equally comfortable sharing her pride in McKenzie’s artistic accomplishments and explaining how autism affects her daughter. Melissa spoke of the difficulties of raising a child with autism and admitted that sometimes when she is helping McKenzie with homework, they both wind up in tears.  Despite the struggles, Melissa is a tireless advocate for her daughter and is committed to sharing information about autism with the uninitiated, hoping to increase their compassion, understanding and inclusivity for those on the spectrum.

As Melissa struck the “strong woman” pose, pretending to lift the angled tree, I contemplated her fierce advocacy for her daughter and her indefatigable entrepreneurial spirit. The first requires focused attention on a child she loves and the second requires self-love, granting herself permission to pursue her own passions and interests. I am grateful for Melissa strengths…we all need role models!

Along the trail, Melissa noticed the beautiful dry-stacked rock wall that in some places in at least 8 feet tall.  She was so curious that I did a little research and learned that according to Dr. Robert Maslowski, a retired archaeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, similar walls in West Virginia “were likely the work of 19th and 20th century farmers.” If anybody knows more about these mysterious rock walls, please let me know!

When Melissa and I made it down to the stream at Warner Hollow we took a few pictures but didn’t stay long.  For the first-time this fall our photos captured recently fallen leaves clinging to the wet rocks and floating down the stream. As we headed back up the trail, we got to talking about our childhoods. Melissa, knowing what she wanted and didn’t want, left home at 17 years of age to live her life on her terms. Wow, such independence! Sharing experiences and stories from our early years, we realized we were both raised in Catholic families that were affected by alcoholism. It was interesting to discuss the ways religion and drinking combined to impact our childhoods and still impact us today.  Melissa still attends her Catholic church, but I left to find a LBGTQ+ friendly faith community after my son, who is gay, was hurt that I was a member of a church that actively discriminated against him.  Getting a little emotional, I shared with Melissa my regret that my son didn’t feel more supported by me. Her advice to me: “Drop the mom guilt!”  Sometimes you know something, but it is helpful to hear others say it. Will do…thanks Melissa!

Climbing up the hill, Melissa asked if I’d seen any bears.  The answer was no but shortly after that we saw bear scat along the side of the trail.  Melissa who lives on 22 acres of forested lands knows bear scat when she sees it!  We also got talking about hiking gear, mostly boots and shirts.  I told her about my new Echo hiking sandals, and she told me about her new favorite Woolx shirt.  Made of merino wool, Melissa said, “They keep me cool in the heat and warm in the cold.”  I think I’m going to buy a new shirt or two!

Almost back to the car, we talked about the challenges of parenting adult children.  This is a topic that has come up on many of the hikes. Just because adult children have flown the nest it doesn’t mean we, as mothers, stop caring about them.  To Melissa and me, it does mean that we must trust them and respect their decisions even if we don’t agree with them. Melissa said, “We raise our kids to be true to themselves and then are surprised when they are different from what we expected. Still our job is to empower them to live their own lives.”  When I asked Melissa what she has learned over the course of her parenting career, she said, “I’m not perfect and I have no control over anything.”  Thanks, Melissa, for sharing your wisdom. I will remember your words and try to practice humility not only in relationship to my adult children but in every aspect of life.

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