It started out as an alternative to buying a dog for our children: a plastic dish with a plastic palm tree and a dime-store turtle, easy. There was only an inch or two of water, and once a day you sprinkled some dried insects from a shaker tube.
Before we knew what was happening, we were in the turtle business big time: four turtles, a 29-gallon tank, and pipes through the floor to fill and drain this monster aquarium.
Our turtles grew and grew, developed personalities, acquired names and gourmet appetites. I was the one who carried them, one at a time, to the kitchen and fed them in a bowl full of water. They dined on tuna or chicken livers that had to be cut into small pieces. Only occasionally did we feed them in their tank.
We named them Spaghetti, Meatball, Noodle, and Pizza. Spaghetti grew into a large male with long fingernails that he used to woo the blue-eyed Noodle, a coy female. Pizza was the smallest. He hissed and bit. Meatball was a loser, no personality. He never seemed to eat.
One night I forgot him in his bowl on the drainboard. The next morning, as I was cleaning a casserole dish I'd left soaking in the sink, I shrieked as my hand felt a turtle! He'd crawled out of the bowl and into the soapy water.
What a transformation! His whole personality changed; life became good, no more hiding and not eating. His baptism had turned out to be a blessing!
Our turtles could recognize who was coming to see them. Depending on who it was, they would remain on the rocks, "sunning" themselves, or dive under the large platform and not appear until the coast was clear. The man who came to wax our kitchen floor never saw the turtles because of this. Several of our children's friends had the same experience.
Over the years, we learned a lot about turtles. We found they needed deep water so they could swim and use their muscles, food that could hold up in water (not hamburger), a light for warmth, and a rock on which to climb for sunning themselves.
A neighbor brought us their pathetic turtle, a victim of shallow water and dried commercial "turtle food." He was so weak that he just lay on a rock with his head out, eyes closed. After being in a deeper tank, eating proper food, and having a daily swim, he began to thrive. We sent him home a renewed turtle.
Finally, as our lives changed and we started to travel more, we decided to donate our turtles to the Philadelphia Zoo for inclusion in a new exhibit.
When we got to the zoo and drove in a back entrance, we said we'd brought our turtles. A woman came to the car with a cupcake box, took one look at the turtles, and without a word went for a large box. She had expected the usual dimestore-size turtles.
Several years went by, and one day we found ourselves at the zoo again. There was the usual glassed wall of water and turtles of many sizes and species. As my husband and I stood there, one turtle with blue eyes came over and frantically tried to reach us, swimming back and forth as we went from one side to the other.
It was our Noodle!
Had she been looking for us among the thousands of zoo visitors all this time? Reluctantly, we had to say farewell again to our blue-eyed turtle, but we could see she was in a wonderful environment with lots of room to swim and many turtle friends.
Some people claim that elephants never forget. We can say for certain that some turtles don't.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society