| Double Take |

Monster on the Grounds

“The Katzes’ bungalow… they’re not here this summer. There’s a new family and, Ma — they have a dog!”

 


Nechama:
 We can’t sacrifice a whole community’s vacation for one child.

Ruthie: Can’t you stretch beyond your comfort zone so my family and I can get our desperately needed vacation?

 

Nechama

T

he entire year, my kids talk about The Country. You can hear the wonder and delight in their voices.

After renting bungalows in different colonies for a few summers, Sholom and I finally invested in a bungalow of our own, in a lovely colony where some of our friends and relatives already vacationed each summer. It was a good move; the kids had friends, and the premises were beautiful and spacious, with a well-run shul, day camp, and pool.

The most exciting part, or so my kids claimed, was definitely the first day. As soon as we arrived at the colony this year, they begged to go and explore their new-old surroundings. It would be easier to unpack without them underfoot, anyway, so I laughed and waved them off. Relishing the heady freedom — so unlike the city, where I would never let them roam around on their own — the four older ones set off around the bungalow colony, reuniting with old friends and introducing themselves to new faces.

I got regular updates, though.

“Ma!” Gayil raced in after a half hour. “The Sterns have been here all week already!”

“I’m so happy for them,” I told her. She was already halfway out the door again.

“Ma!” The next kid raced in. “One of the neighbors is selling cotton candy! Can we go buy?”

“Ma, Elky from next door is working in the day camp this year!”

And so on, through the afternoon, while I attempted to cram our belongings into a bungalow a fraction of the size of our house.

When Tali came in, calling my name frantically, I assumed that it was another piece of bungalow news for me to gush over, but as soon as I saw her stricken face, I realized something was very wrong.

“Ma! Ma!” She tripped over a pair of socks and promptly dissolved in tears. I abandoned the pantry and rushed over.

“What happened, honey?”

She hiccupped. “The Katzes’ bungalow… they’re not here this summer. There’s a new family and, Ma — they have a dog!”

***

The bungalow-colony day camp is one of its biggest assets, and it’s exceptionally well run. After I reassured the kids that they were unlikely to see anything of the dog — to hear them talk about it, you’d have thought it was at least the size of a tiger, and just as dangerous — the four of them set off to the large building that housed the shul and day camp.

I cleaned up from breakfast. It was quiet and peaceful, just me and the baby, and I opened the bungalow door to air out the room. The sun was shining, the world smelled fresh, and the country was green and beautiful as always. From over at the camp, song and laughter floated on the breeze.

“Come, Leah’le, let’s sit on the porch.”

I rocked her with one hand and pulled out some magazines I’d been saving. The trees overhead swayed. Forget reading, I could fall asleep right here.

But I didn’t get more than a few moments of shut-eye, because just then, a short bark cut through the air, and I looked up just in time to see a monster of a dog bounding up the path, followed by a boy of around nine, laughing hysterically. I bolted upright, heart racing, but the dog ignored our open porch. It continued up the path to the other bungalows — and, I realized too late, the day camp building.

I heard all about it later.

“It was so scary, Ma!” Gayil moaned, giving a shudder. “Our bunk was outside, we were davening in a circle and the dog came! And everyone was screaming and running away — even Mindy the counselor, even though she said she wasn’t scared! She said, Ma!”

“We were outside too!” Tali said, never to be outdone. “And we saw!”

I hugged them both. “Did anyone get hurt?”

They shook their heads. “But the dog licked Breindy Kolman, on her leg!”

Gayil shook her head in disgust. “I would have died if it licked me.”

“We don’t talk like that,” I said automatically.

But inside, I wondered what to do. Both my girls had run home immediately after the dog debacle and were refusing to go back to day camp. They didn’t want to run around the bungalow colony either, and I doubted they were the only ones. Someone had to do something about that dog, or we wouldn’t be getting much of a vacation this summer.

***

It took a day before my girls ventured off the porch again, and even then, only with me watching. Their counselors had come over the night before to convince them that the dog hadn’t been back, and Mrs. Segelman — the mother of That Family — said she would try to keep it away from the shul area during the day.

Only she didn’t. Maybe she tried. I saw her once or twice, hurrying after the boy with the dog. “Benjy, Benjy, bring Sam back please!” she was calling after him. Fruitlessly, of course.

My chest tightened when I saw them, day after day, knowing that the day camp would be in an uproar again. For goodness’ sake, couldn’t she do something? Why didn’t they leave the dog at home? Get a therapist for the kid, who obviously had some behavioral issues? Or maybe it was the mother with the problem, she clearly could benefit from parenting classes.

I suppose I could’ve felt bad for her, except that her issues were ruining my children’s vacation. They still ran around the colony at nights, but cautiously, and only with each other. I asked Gayil to run to the neighbor’s bungalow for a couple of eggs one morning, and she just shrugged obstinately and refused.

“I’m scared of the dog,” she finally admitted.

In the end, Yoni and Tali went to get the eggs together. Gayil crept onto the porch to watch from a safe distance, and there was no sign of Scary Sammy (the colony kids had nicknamed the monster by now). Still, it cast a shadow over our carefree vacation, and I wished I had the guts to have it out with the mother. Who brings a dog to a frum bungalow colony anyway? Or at least, an out-of-control, oversized dog. We could’ve managed a Chihuahua, maybe.

But the climax was still to come.

***

It was Monday, but Sholom had taken a long weekend off and he was still in the country. The kids were in day camp and the weather was perfect.

“Let’s go on a walk, you get so little time in the mountains,” I suggested.

With Leah in the stroller, we headed on a leisurely circuit of the colony. Sholom sniffed the air. “We don’t get enough of this in Brooklyn.”

“Definitely not.”

We were walking up the path near the shul when we heard the barking. Sholom hadn’t yet met Sam, though he’d heard plenty about the resident monster.

“I hope he’s not going to go disturb the day camp again,” I said anxiously.

Sholom’s brow furrowed. “Didn’t anyone speak to the owner?”

I sighed. “Apparently, it doesn’t really help.”

A moment later, we spotted boy and dog, heading toward us. I shrank back instinctively, but they passed right by, and my heart sank.

“Sholom, he’s heading toward the day camp, the girls are so scared! Can you get him to take the dog back the other way?”

Sholom’s lips were tight. “I’m going to try.”

He set off at a jog, and I headed toward the back of the shul with the stroller. That was where the little girls usually had davening and calisthenics. Tali would be so excited to see me.

Neither of us were fast enough, though. Just as I turned the corner, Scary Sam bounded across the grass, and the group of girls scattered in terror. Tali screamed and ran toward the pool, and to my horror, the dog was right behind her.

“Don’t run! Don’t run! He thinks it’s a game!” I heard the counselors yelling, but Tali was terrified beyond reason. Sholom sprinted over, yelling “Sam!” and the boy came after him, looking slightly scared as well.

He let out a yell of his own: “Sam, come back, Sam, food, come!”

It was only a minute before it was over. The dog made a half-turn, saw that his young owner was serious, and stopped chasing Tali. I reached her a moment later, sobbing in terror inside the pool enclosure. My heart was pounding so hard, I wondered how it didn’t shatter my rib cage. The pool. She was Right. By. The. Pool. She could’ve slipped, could’ve fallen in. She could have died. Because of a dog!

***

“Sholom,” I told him later, when Tali was finally calm again, and cuddled up on the sofa with a hot cocoa — she refused to leave the bungalow. “That’s it. The dog needs to leave. Do you realize what could’ve happened to Tali?”

“The pool shouldn’t have been open,” he countered.

I sighed. “The girls were about to go swimming. It’s not the counselor’s fault. There was even a lifeguard outside, she came as soon as she saw Tali. But she wouldn’t have been running in there like that if not for that crazy dog!”

I was fuming, and I let the entire colony know. Most of them had heard versions of the story from their own daughters, and were just as fed up with the situation. Finally, Miri Stern called me — a delegation of the men would be going to the Segelmans to explain that having a dog here in our bungalow colony was not working.

I would’ve liked Sholom to go along, but he was on his way back to the city already.

“Don’t worry, Nechama,” Miri said. “The men are taking this very seriously. My husband said they’re going to ask the Segelmans to take their dog back to the city tomorrow. They’re welcome to stay here, of course, but not with a dog like that running free and terrorizing the children.”

I felt awash with relief. “As long as Tali doesn’t get chased again, and the kids can walk around the place without being afraid all the time, I’m happy.”

***

This time, believe it or not, something actually worked. For a few days, we stopped seeing boy and dog — both of them. Then I met Mrs. Segelman near the entrance to the colony. She was lugging a large suitcase.

Now that the dog saga was over, I felt a little guilty that I hadn’t said hello, welcomed her to the colony. “Hi, I’m Nechama,” I greeted her. “I’ve been meaning to say hello, but somehow we haven’t really been introduced yet.” I smiled.

She didn’t smile back. “You might as well say goodbye. We’re leaving.”

My mouth dropped open.

“You can’t exactly be surprised. You know what they told me — the dog has to leave. Well, that means we’re leaving too.” Her eyes and voice were so bitter, I took a step back.

“O-oh,” I stammered. “I didn’t realize. Isn’t there a way — I mean, can’t you leave the dog somewhere and stay here with your family?”

She looked at me, and I noticed lines of strain etched around her features. “No,” she said. “I can’t.”

If I could tell Mrs. Segelman one thing, it would be: We can’t sacrifice a whole community’s vacation for one child. We all came here to relax and your dog is ruining things for everyone.

 

Ruthie

W

hen the school year staggered to a close, I could barely believe we’d made it. It had been a tough year on every possible front. Levi was laid off and had spent a few months between jobs, relying on my meager salary to keep us afloat. I’d been at the beginning of my pregnancy and stressed out, trying to take on extra hours, run the house, and secretly worrying what would be. Luckily, he found another job, but right around then, the situation with Benjy came to a head.

“Benjy’s behavior in the classroom is becoming worse,” the principal informed me, his face solemn. “The teachers are unable to manage it, and his classmates are suffering too. It can’t be allowed to continue like this.”

I looked across the desk helplessly. I was there at the meeting alone, because Levi was too nervous to leave in the middle of the day, his first week on a new job.

“I… what do you suggest, then?”

“We strongly advise you and your husband to take him for an assessment,” the principal continued, almost as if I hadn’t spoken. “Without the input of a professional behavior specialist, we will no longer be able to have Benjy in the school.”

I couldn’t believe how impassively he could state those words. “But of course, we’ll do anything to help our son,” I stammered. “It really shouldn’t be necessary to — to have him leave the school.”

“I hope not,” the principal agreed, softening a little. “I’m glad you’re willing to cooperate with us, Mrs. Segelman. Too many parents refuse to get their child the help he needs, with disastrous results.”

I shook my head. “My husband and I would do anything to help Benjy.”

***

I left with the name and number of a child psychologist, who gave Benjy an initial assessment. To be honest, we probably would have done it without the pushing of the school, since Benjy’s behavior at home was not that much easier than it was at school. His temper tantrums were frequent and uncontrollable, he would get violent with his younger siblings, and I felt like I was constantly on eggshells not to trigger an explosion. It was impossible to get him to help out or follow instructions, and I had to be constantly creative and super patient to get him out to school each day.

The first person we went to, a friend of Levi’s who offered to see us one evening, was inclined to diagnose it as ADHD, but Levi and I didn’t think that was right. After all, Benjy sat for hours sometimes, absorbed in his Lego models. We scheduled an appointment with the child psychologist recommended by the school, whose fees, incidentally, were probably going to add up to higher than the tuition bill each month. He spoke to Benjy and to us, taking copious notes, and finally asked us if we’d heard of ODD.

We hadn’t, but as soon as he described it, we realized that of course we had. He was describing Benjy to a T.

I left with this huge feeling of relief — it has a name! — together with the overwhelming knowledge that the appointments and therapies had only just begun.

The psychologist recommended that Benjy go for therapy to learn how to manage his emotions, and that we should, also, to learn how to manage the behavior at home.

And thus began a life that no one without a struggling child can truly understand — the shift of an entire household to a merry-go-round revolving around one kid. Therapy appointments were a weekly bribe-beg-threaten-drag experience, and I was exhausted by the time we arrived. Our own biweekly sessions — Levi’s and mine — to learn how to handle Benjy’s behavior were better, but they were costly — exorbitantly so — plus we had to hire a babysitter, and leave Benjy at my mother because no babysitter would’ve handled him.

***

The two younger kids were good about it, but they were losing out — so much time, energy, and attention went to Benjy’s needs. The therapist had suggested many interventions we could try at home, but they took time too. I felt awful when Esti asked, plaintively, if I could read her a bedtime story, and I had to refuse, for the third night running.

“The babysitter will, honey,” I said, patting her head as I rushed to get car keys, lipstick, and a notebook. “Benjy! We’re going to Bubby!”

The response was a bloodcurdling yell. “I’m not going!!”

Uh-oh. Esti shrank back into a corner, her eyes wide and frightened. I looked at her and back up the stairs, where Benjy was standing, arms crossed, about to let out another scream.

“Benjy, come down and let’s talk about it.”

Esti slunk away. I looked after her, feeling horribly guilty. She needed to talk to me, she needed me to sit and read her a bedtime story. And yet again and again, I had to prioritize Benjy’s meltdown.

Still, it did start to get easier. With more tools in place, Levi and I gained confidence in dealing with the explosions. His new job was working out well, which took another load off our minds. When Sandy, the therapist who was working with Benjy, suggested buying him a pet to look after, we didn’t jump at the idea, but we considered it.

“It will help him learn responsibility and empathy, and give him confidence,” she explained. We discussed and debated, and finally gave in — the winning factor being Benjy’s own enthusiasm. But while we expected to choose a pet canary or maybe a hamster, Benjy was hankering after nothing less than a full-blown dog.

Now it was my turn to have a meltdown. I wasn’t scared of dogs, per se, but I didn’t like them much. It took about two weeks to get used to the idea — or, to be more accurate, until Benjy’s constant kvetching wore me down. The therapist encouraged us to use this as an opportunity to teach him new skills, to discuss what Benjy would need to do for the dog, what a responsibility it was. He was miraculously calm and agreeable to the “dog rules” we painstakingly laid down: Benjy would walk it and feed it each day, and take responsibility for its upkeep.

I wasn’t sure if it would really work, but somehow it did. Benjy with a dog was a different boy from Benjy without. Not that he wasn’t difficult — but he was no longer impossible. We were careful as always to limit giving him direct instructions, but on the rare occasions that we did, he usually listened. The tantrums became less frequent. The dog kept him entertained a lot too, so he stopped annoying his siblings so much.

“I don’t like Big Sam,” Esti told me one night, referring to the dog. “But I like when Benjy plays with him.”

I hugged her. “It’s good for Benjy, sweetie. And now, should Mommy read you a bedtime story?”

***

Things got easier after that, but also busier. The baby came, right on time, and I was adjusting to having four kids — plus a dog. When Levi said that he thought we could swing a summer in the mountains, I was overjoyed. So were the kids.

“We haven’t been to the mountains ever!” Esti told me.

I laughed. “We actually went when you were much younger, you wouldn’t remember.”

We reserved a bungalow in a colony that Levi had heard about, and I started making packing lists. In addition to packing for all the kids, I was packing for the dog. By that time, I was used to Big Sam.

The packing and traveling were so exciting, even Benjy was easier than usual. He couldn’t wait to show Big Sam the country, to take him on runs in the green, open spaces. “Big Sam’s gonna love the bungalow!” he kept telling us proudly.

And he did. From the first moment, when we unleashed Benjy and Sam into the great outdoors, they were on cloud nine. We hardly saw Benjy that first day. He came in for a moment to grab a bite, fetch some food for Sam, and then he was off again.

My girls were excited too. The day camp boasted a wide range of activities, and I knew they would love every minute. The first day, I packed them off with snacks and lunches, and headed inside for a much-needed rest. The baby was sleeping and Benjy was out with the dog. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been able to relax like this.

The long-awaited nap was cut far too short. After a scanty half hour or so, the bungalow door opened, and I heard Benjy calling me. Big Sam, apparently, was right behind him.

The baby woke up from the barking and started to cry. I picked him up and rushed out to Benjy. “What’s the matter, Benjy?”

He looked up at me, dark eyes unfathomable. “Big Sam ran to the day camp, and the girls there were all screaming. Then a lady yelled at me to take the dog away.”

My heart sank. “Benjy, why don’t you take Sam to the other side of the colony? The woods area with trees and the long grass? He’ll like it there.”

Benjy wasn’t listening. “Mommy, we’re hungry.”

I found him a snack and showed him where Sam’s food was. I hoped they hadn’t caused too much havoc. Sam was a good dog, he wouldn’t actually hurt anyone. But little girls can be so frightened of him.

I shrugged to myself. If I could get used to a dog in the house, they could deal with one in the bungalow colony, surely.

***

Esti filled me in on more details later that day.

“Big Sam came in the middle of storytime! And the other girls were petrified! And I tried to tell them that he’s not scary but everyone was running away and screaming! And I heard the counselor complain to the lady in charge and she said she’s gonna make sure that Big Sam doesn’t come to camp ever again!”

I swallowed. Benjy and Sam had certainly caused a commotion. When a brisk, assertive knock sounded at the door, I opened it, expecting one of the women who ran the day camp. Instead, three men stood there, stern-faced.

“Is your husband in?” one of them asked.

“No… he’s in the city,” I said. “Can I help you?”

One of the men was peering over my shoulder. Looking for Sam?

“Listen, Mrs… Segelman, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“You have a dog, right?”

I nodded again. “Yes, my son’s dog… Sam, we call him.” I was babbling, but the grim faces made me nervous.

The spokesman waved a hand. “Look, we just want some help from you here, okay?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “You have a dog, the kids are very scared. We need to work out what to do about that.”

He stopped for breath, and the man on his left, with glasses and a full black beard, took over. “We have to compromise here. Your dog likes to run around, our kids are terrified. Could you put it on a leash, maybe? At least during the daytime hours?”

“Or at least, make sure it stays away from the shul and day camp area.” The spokesman was back. “You want to let him run loose a bit, fine, do it by the woods. The kids aren’t there, they won’t be scared.”

“Or tie him up, when he doesn’t need to be out on a walk, you know?”

My throat was dry. I didn’t know how to respond. How could I tell them that it wasn’t controlling Sam that would be the problem, but controlling Benjy? That tying him up would elicit such an explosion from my son, the whole bungalow would be covering their ears?

“Look, I can try encourage my son to keep to the other side of the colony,” I said, my voice a little shaky. “But…”

Black Beard broke in smoothly. “That’s all we ask, Mrs. Segelman. All we ask.”

***

I want to put it on record that I tried. I begged, I cajoled, I bribed. I even went along with Benjy sometimes, hoping to keep them away from the day camp. For all the sacrifice of my precious naptime, I finally had to admit that I didn’t have much control. Benjy would listen, nod, then run out of the bungalow with Big Sam tearing ahead of him — and my words were lost in the wind. As always, there was that delicate balance between giving him direct instructions, which could trigger an explosion, and finding the right wording to win him over to my point of view.

I was exhausted before the day had even begun, and even when they were gone I would sit holding my breath, hoping today would be calm, hoping I wouldn’t be interrupted by the beis din pounding on the door, demanding that I tie up the dog or else.

Levi laughed out loud when I described the scene to him over the phone.

“It’s not funny!” I cried. “I’m stressed out, this is not a vacation!”

He immediately sobered. “Ruthie, I’m coming for Shabbos, I’ll talk to them.”

Friday and Shabbos were surprisingly event-free. Levi kept Benjy busy and accompanied him on Sam’s runs around the colony. I didn’t want him to leave on Sunday night. Neither did Benjy.

“It’s much nicer when Daddy’s here,” he grumbled. My heart pinched; I’d spent the last few days so tense. No wonder my most emotionally turbulent child was feeling it.

“Daddy will come next Shabbos,” I said, automatically. He pulled a face.

Next morning, Benjy was raring to go along with Sam. I guess he’d forgotten his emotions of the night before. “I’m taking Big Sam out.”

I wanted to call after him the usual reminders, but I didn’t have the heart. They would probably go in one ear and right out the other.

When the girls came home, with another story of Sam erupting into a day camp activity, I wasn’t even surprised. I sank onto a chair, awaiting the inevitable. It wasn’t long in coming.

***

This time, there were four. Black Beard, Spokesman, Silent Guy, and someone else with thick-framed glasses and a peppery temper. They didn’t mince words either.

“Mrs. Segelman, do you know what happened today?” The unfamiliar man began in clipped tones.

“I… I’m not sure what you mean,” I said, nervously. “Is it about the dog? I heard he disturbed the day camp, again?”

Spokesman stepped forward. “It’s not just a matter of disturbing the camp, Mrs. Segelman. Your dog actually chased a little girl right into the swimming pool.”

My heart dropped. “Whaaat?!!”

“Not the pool itself — the enclosure,” clarified the man with the black beard. “You understand, though, that this cannot carry on. We were lucky this time — the girl’s father was around, he came to the rescue — but it could have been a Tragedy.” He spoke in solemn capital letters.

I nodded, shaken.

“Unfortunately, we have to ask you to remove the dog from the premises.”

I must have gasped a bit too loud.

“Unless, of course, you can commit to tying up the dog during the times that children are around in the colony.”

I looked from the spokesman to the black-bearded man. “You mean to keep the dog tied up for 12 hours at a time?”

They shrugged. “So maybe send it away. Can’t you get someone to look after it for a few weeks?”

A nightmare. That’s what this was. I leaned against the doorframe. The world was spinning.

“I’ll… I have to speak to my husband,” I said weakly, staggering inside.

***

By the time I actually got through to Levi, the reality had hit. This was it. Benjy wouldn’t stay in the colony without Sam, and we couldn’t stay in the colony without Benjy. The girls, once again, were going to have their dream vacation cut short — never mind me. (And the day camp was prepaid, so there went that.)

Levi was angry about my defeatist attitude. “We have just as much right to be there as they do!” he fumed. “I’m coming right back — I’ll speak to them! What a chutzpah to come to you on your own and intimidate you into leaving…”

I sank down into a chair. “I don’t think it’s their fault…. Sam was scaring the kids. He almost chased a girl into the pool this morning. The parents are terrified.”

“Sam wouldn’t hurt anyone, he was just playing around,” Levi huffed.

We didn’t have any choice, though. The next day, Mr. Katz — the founder of the colony — called up to apologize, but he’d heard the story, and there really wasn’t any possibility of keeping a dog like that on the colony grounds. He was very nice, offered half our rental money back, but it wasn’t about money anymore.

I packed up, feeling numb inside. I’d waited for, dreamed of this vacation. I needed it. My children needed it. Benjy needed it. And these people, because of their petty fears (can’t they send their kids to dog therapy, for goodness’ sake?!) were snatching it all away from me.

For all that he was the cause of it, Benjy took the news the worst. He threw a royal tantrum and ran off with Sam — thankfully, toward the woods. I was too tired to go after them. They returned hours later, muddy and hungry, and I was just grateful that no one in the colony seemed to have come across them.

***

Levi drove back to the country to pick us up a couple of days later. I began schlepping the suitcases out to the parking lot. On the way, I passed a woman with blonde bangs and sunglasses perched on her sheitel — vaguely familiar, though I didn’t think we’d been introduced.

I didn’t intend to start a conversation, but she was evidently out to be friendly. Apparently, she wanted to say hello.

You’re a bit late for that, I thought. “You might as well say goodbye. We’re leaving.” I told her, bitterly. She looked taken aback. “You know what they told me — the dog has to leave. Well, that means we’re leaving with it.”

She didn’t get it. She had no idea what anguish this whole saga had caused me. “I didn’t realize,” she said. And then she suggested, lamely, “Can’t you leave the dog somewhere and stay here with your family?”

I looked at her and thought about putting into words what a struggle this year had been: Levi’s job, Benjy’s behavior, my new baby, the girls who were endlessly being the martyrs. And then I just gave it up.

“I can’t,” I told her. And turned to start loading the suitcase into the car.

If I could tell Nechama one thing, it would be: Can’t you stretch beyond your comfort zone so my family and I can get our desperately needed vacation? 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 769)

Tagged: Double Take