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Set Them Free

“Okay boys, time to go.”

My boys continued staring at the television, transfixed by a sponge wearing pants.

“Hello? Boys?”


I sighed, but wasn’t surprised. I was used to talking to myself. It seemed I could speak directly to my children, literally in their faces, but if the TV was on, their brains were off, and they could completely block me out. It’s both amazing and extremely annoying.

Outside Howard was beeping the car horn like he had every answer on quick-fire jeopardy.  We were going upstate to visit the grandparents and to return the salamanders we captured there over a month ago to their natural habitat; but first I had to get my children out of the house. It’s an everyday battle.

“Michael, let’s go bike ride.”
“I want to stay inside!  Call Noah to come over.”

“Tyler let’s go play ball.”
“NOOOOOOoooooo….” Return to blank TV stare.

“Julius, how ‘bout a walk around the block?”
Foot stamping, arm folding, “I don’t wannna! I wanna play Gold Fish!”

I may be partly to blame for their homey natures, but I prefer to blame society. When I was growing up, I had the run of my neighborhood; while at 10, Tyler isn’t even allowed to walk down the block to his friend. It’s the culture of the day to keep them close, protected. So while I do push them out on the lawn (where I keep watch), and have friends over (where I keep watch), and have them involved in many sport activities (where I drive, Howard coaches and I, you got it,  keep watch), they are now creatures of habit and home. It’s just not the same world anymore.

We make it to the bungalows. The boys are like panting pups, ready to race outside to run wild, but Howard grabs the salamander container. “We’re going to release these guys first.”


“Can’t we do it later?” Michael whines.

“We want to go by the paddle courts.” Tyler moans.

Julius stands in between his big brothers, looking supportively whiny.

Howard shakes his head. “Release first, play after.”

We traipse through the woods behind the bungalows. Howard lugs the heavy Tupperware filled with the salamanders who had ‘summered’ in our backyard on Long Island.

After being coaxed, a.k.a. tortured thru whining, into taking them home, Howard and I had every expectation of soon burying them. There seemed no way for these guys to survive so far from their natural habitat. Regardless, Howard and Julius created a salamander wonderland filled with moss, sticks and a big rock. It was very damp with ‘pools’ of water. Howard constructed a special mesh cover for better ventilation. We had no idea what to feed them, so Julius and Howard packed the container with bug filled mud and we hoped for the best.

As it turned out, it was even better. The salamanders fed on some kind of larva that seemed to mysteriously grow in the water. They lounged on the rock. On many occasions, I saw them tucked neatly into a moss cave, one on top of the other, two little orange heads, almost unnoticeable. We did nothing but look at them every few days, and then not even that.

Looking now at these luxury accommodations, our Tupperware penthouse seemed damp and homey; the perfect place for two little, orange creatures to happily lounge the day away, while the woods seemed vast and dangerous. I had a moment of regret. Maybe we just should have left them in our yard.

Didn’t matter now; we were here and it was time to set them free. We placed the Tupperware near a tree and added a thick branch so they could walk out on their own. We watched for a while, but the salamanders made no attempt toward escape. Howard placed them higher on the branch to show them their surroundings. The salamanders turned and crawled back into the Tupperware.  After repeated attempts to ‘guide’ the salamanders to their freedom, we ultimately had to physically place them into the woods.

We left them there, looking so small and lost. I felt guilty, which was ridiculous. This was where they belonged. Right?

Our boys quickly forgot about them and ran from the woods back toward the bungalows. “Release the hounds,” I mocked as they galloped past, tongues lagging. They were so happy here, despite the morning difficulties getting them out. The bungalows had always been a cocoon of sorts, filled with family, friends of family, grass and freedom. Here, kids can be kids, like the old days.

“We’re going to find grandpa.” Tyler announced, using his upstate independent voice.

“I think he’s down by Sandy’s bungalow playing cards.”

“We’re going to find him.” He reiterated confidently.

“Okay, watch your brothers.”

They headed away from us, each walking with a little swagger, down toward some bungalows about 100 feet away, but out of my vision. Howard and I smiled at one another and I almost welled with tears. Letting them go was scary, but they were good. Howard would follow them shortly, just to make sure.

I still wonder about the salamanders.

Smells like country air

We make the pilgrimage at least once, but generally twice, in a summer. I pack bags filled with our most ratty, hang-around clothes, bug spray for the mosquitos and a golf bag full of hopes and dreams for Howard. We are on our way to the Catskills, and although some say it’s dead, I’m here to tell you, it’s merely on life support, much like the age group it now caters to (sorry mom).

Howard and I both grew up summering in the mountains, or the country, as we call it. We were bungalow babies of the seventies, independently roaming and playing on the grounds while the adults did the same. At that time we were on “rival” colonies, but by 1984, like so many others, my colony was sold to the Hassidic. My family and many of our friends were forced to wander like the Jews (and Italians) that we were, ultimately re-settling on my husband’s colony. I was 15. He was 17. Bungalow life was still a Dirty Dancing time capsule, and our beginning had begun.

You’d think having such a history with the mountains, and both Howard’s and my family still up there, that our conversation wouldn’t go like this –

Howard – We’re going upstate this weekend.

Me – Really? Awww. Why?

Howard – You know why.

Me (whining like a baby) – I don’t wanna.

Howard – There’s a pot luck lunch.

Me – (brow raised) – Seriously, that’s what you got?

Howard (firm) – Too bad. Pack.

I don’t know why I give him a hard time. I love the people and I loved the bungalows growing up. Still this colony is nothing like days of old – the children are gone, the surrounding area is a disaster – but for our parents and their friends, it’s still the good old days. It’s hard to watch their enjoyment and not love it, but for me those good old days are long gone.

Howard and I and our three boys pile in the mini-van with all our crap and drive the 2 ½ hours of “Are we there yet?” torture. My two sisters and brothers-in-law and their children are headed up as well. It’s a lot of people in a 15×15 space, but that’s what bungalows are for. Besides, most of the time you’re outside playing ball, floating on noodles in the pool or reading Shades of Grey while turning shades of brown.

We arrive and there’s a lot of hugging and kissing. Howard breathes deep, “Ah, smell that country air!” The boys dutifully follow. “Smells like meatballs.” Tyler, our oldest, correctly identifies, then wrinkles his nose. “And smoke.” Correct again. A smiling shirtless man with a round belly and a cigar takes a step back.

Other bungalow families are there with their kids. As is customary, we all enter the lounging circle of yentas to pay our respects and be kissed by women in house IMAG2583-1 (1)dresses/bathing suit cover-ups and bronzed bare-chested men who knew us when we were in diapers. After the formalities, we traipse back to the bungalow to participate in the second customary act – eating. We ascend upon any food my mother-in-law has prepared, like a beast to a bone. No matter whether you just came off the buffet line at the Big Bob’s BBQ, you’ve just started weight watchers or just plain aren’t hungry, it doesn’t make one bit of difference. You will eat.

Having completed the reception and consumption, we now looked to each other for ideas. It had just rained, so no one was interested in the pool, and since the grounds were swampy and buggy, wiffle ball on the lawn was also out. Before the kids could open their mouths to cry “iPad!”, “iTouch!” or “I want to go home!” Howard had a brilliant idea.

“Who wants to go salamander hunting?!” He boomed, and six gleeful voices boomed back.

Capturing the little orange creatures that crawl out from under rocks to drink and eat from the damp moss is a fond childhood summer memory for me. I was thrilled my children would experience wandering and searching in the muddy woods with their cousins while my sister-in-law and I played scrabble and contemplated wine. Why do I resist coming here??

They returned not too long afterwards with small, plastic cups, each holding a salamander of their very own. It had been awhile since I had seen one (I am a bearded dragon girl now, but that is another story). They were just as cute as I remembered, but when four year-old Julius proudly picked his up to show me, squeezing his little body round his soft center, I also remembered how delicate they were.

“Julius, you need to be gentle when you’re holding him. He could get hurt if you squeeze his stomach like that.”

“Okay, mommy.” He nodded happily and his curls nodded along. “So I hold him like this?”

Before I could correct him, Julius had picked up his salamander by the head. “No honey! No.”

I took the poor little guy from him. “Like this.”

I showed him how to hold him in his open palm and cover his hand over the top to keep him from falling. Julius again nodded. “I can do that mommy.”

He took his salamander and copied what I did, only his little hands were closer to a closed grasp than a protective cave. Oy.

“Not too tight.” I advised, gritting my teeth, as he walked back toward his cousins so his new pet could play with the other little orange victims.

“Hey, Julius.” I called after him. He looked so darn cute as he walked off suffocating that poor creature.

He turned toward me, smile lighting his eyes. “Yes mommy?”

“You didn’t tell me his name.”

“Oh. It’s squishy.” He said, without a trace of irony. “Cause he’s so squishy.”

I nodded, holding back a head slapping, well, duh . “Good name, honey.”

He bounced off. His hair followed.

Squishy lived a life no other amphibian could claim. He took a ride down a slide, bungeed off the porch and was introduced to many wide-eyed witnesses from in between my son’s two stubby little fingers. Occasionally, he’d remember that it wasn’t the correct way of holding him and would promptly drop him on the floor before picking him up for a more proper display. By the time, we convinced Julius that Squishy was very tired and needed to go back to the woods to nap, he was well beyond ever waking up.

We distracted Julius with a trip to the pool where he giggled along with his brothers and cousins playing on rafts and shooting each other with water guns. Their favorite target was their unflappable grandpa Earl who sat at the edge of the pool reading his paper. Even as it got more and more drenched and I watched him barely able to separate the stuck pages to turn, he continued. The kids cracked up. He barely realized.

Once dried off, Julius once again remembered his pet. It took a visit to the lollipop lady’s bungalow to soothe him, but conveniently after he was done, he again badgered Howard into going back into the woods to find Squishy. Finally, Howard caved and off they went. They returned, Julius once again cheerful. “We found him!”

I looked in the cup and saw another orange salamander, except this one was smaller and skinnier. Apparently Squishy#2  had seamlessly assumed the identity of Squishy #1 without much fanfare, kind of like Darren on Bewitched.

It was time to say goodbye, so we made our way back to the circle where the mamas and papas kibitzed and noshed on coffee and cake. We lingered of course – there was coffee and cake – but then returned to the bungalow to pack our stuff.

Julius was busy, with the help of his grandma and grandpa, making a Tupperware house to transport his new pet home. The other kids with living salamanders were doing the same, and soon there were three little houses filled with water, dirt and moss.

We walked to the car, schlepping our bags, Julius carrying his beloved Squishy soon to be renamed Jumper. (Jumper? Really?) He looked so proud and happy, yet a salamander was the last thing I wanted back at the house. First off, it belonged upstate where it would live, and second, we couldn’t just get another one if Jumper also took a “nap.”

Home two days now, and I’m (semi)happy to report Jumper is doing fine. He has a new Tupperware penthouse and it’s filled with all the latest in bugs and rocks and moss. Julius has checked on him morning and night and is careful to keep the handling to a minimum.

Last night, my three underwear wearing boys came down from Planet Wii to find me as I was cleaning up in the kitchen. They had something on their minds.

“Yes?” I questioned. This could be trouble.

Tyler the oldest, with nine years maturity and obviously their chosen leader, spoke for them. “We want to go back to the country.”

“Really?” I asked, amused. You had a good time?”

Three heads bobbled, one’s hair bobbled too. “So much fun!” Michael, my 7-year-old squealed. “And all our cousins too!”

I sighed, but it was a smiling, reminiscent sigh. There was something about the bungalows. Freedom. Innocence. Coffee and cake. Once it had you, it didn’t let go.

“Of course. We will. In a few weeks.”

“A few weeks! That’s too long!” They communally chorused, stomping a little and spreading their arms in exasperation.

“It’ll go fast.” I assured them. “You’ll see.”

They grumbled and shuffled happily off with consolation cookies, but then Tyler turned, a bright smile lifted his face when he informed me, “Next time we go, daddy said we can catch frogs!”