I have a special place in my heart for toads because of Grandpa.
I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and didn’t really experience wilderness until I was in college. But because of my grandfather’s creative imagination, I learned that to discover the magic of nature, one need not look farther than a backyard.

The year was 1975 and my mother, 9-year-old brother and I, age 5, were spending another summer at my grandparents’ home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We had just finished a dinner of breaded pork chops and potato salad, and the grown-ups were at the kitchen table playing cards. My brother and I were sitting on the steps to the backyard, our silhouettes growing darker in the beam of light shining from the kitchen as the sun began to set.

Grandpa was a kindly soul and while he didn’t say a lot to us, he was always ready with a joke or a piece of rock candy when he came home from a long day of cutting glass. He could see we were bored, so without a word, he got up and grabbed a couple of large metal flashlights from the back porch, gave them to us, pointed at the grass and went back to playing cards. My brother and I just looked at each other, knowing we were supposed to wait for something to happen—but what?

Just then, lumps seem to emerge in the grass as if by magic. What were they, fairies? I shone the light on one of the larger lumps coming our way. Gleaming gold eyes stared back at us. I almost screamed! Then it hopped into the light: a toad, one of a great menagerie of hopping black-speckled gold and brown balls of various sizes. The grass looked like popcorn popping on a stove. Suddenly, we knew the game.

I ran out to the grass and picked up the biggest one I could find. It puffed up so much I could barely grasp it in my tiny hands. I was so proud of discovering what I called the “king of toads,” I ran into the house to show Grandpa. “You may have the grand prize winner!” he proclaimed. Everyone applauded and didn’t even mind as the dirt from the toad was smeared all over my shirt after I returned him to his place in the yard.

When Grandpa died, I asked for our lucky toad-hunting flashlight because all one might need for finding a toad and a love of nature is a source of water, a flashlight and a vivid imagination.
After a few minutes, Grandpa sauntered outside and bade us over to where the dog dishes sat in the yard under the light of a nearby streetlamp. We saw all sorts of flying insects just above the shallow pools as well as a ring of toads around the dishes. We watched quietly and they began to feed on the swarming smorgasbord before them. The tongues whipped out, snatching their meals mid-flight. The fireworks of Grandpa’s homemade bug zapper were spectacular!

So the summer went: the great toad game of who would find the most toads or the biggest one, the one with the prettiest spots or the fastest jumper, and each night ending with a firework display above the water dishes. I never got tired of it.

By the time we were teenagers, my brother and I had stopped spending every summer at my grandparents. When I was 20, I visited them after not seeing them for many years. At first, Grandpa didn’t know what to do with this grown-up grandchild. Then, he silently got up out of his lounge chair, went to the back porch and picked up one of those heavy metal flashlights. I followed him out the back door.

“I haven’t seen them for years since they built up over that pond in back of us,” Grandpa said apologetically. “But we’ll try.” After nearly a half hour, we finally saw him: a lone majestic toad prince peering out from under the shed. I gently picked him up and showed my prize to Grandpa. “I guess you win this round,” he proclaimed with a grin.

That was the last time I saw Grandpa before he died. I had indeed won, both memories I treasure and an enduring appreciation of toads. Along with Grandpa, these wondrous creatures will always sit in a special place in my heart. Never underestimate the power of grandparents or a simple backyard experience with nature to inspire one’s love of it for a lifetime.

Be Out There

NWF’s Be Out There® program offers many guides for parents and grandparents on how to grow the enjoyment of nature in your backyard and beyond. See the new Nature Play at Home Guide for tips on how to create nature play spaces at home and get The Dirt on Dirt, on why letting kids get dirty is a good thing.

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Read and subscribe to National Wildlife magazine’s Animals Channel for more articles on wildlife, including How to Dote on Toads and Frogs Need Our Help, So Hop to It!