That’s what my mom proclaimed to me, my younger sister, and my dad after she had unwrapped the three-hundred and forty-third turtle knickknack given to her over the course of years for Christmases, birthdays, and other occasions. You could not look anywhere in the house and not see a turtle. There was a blue and brown ceramic turtle ash tray on the living room table, although no one in the family smoked, and no visitors who did so would ever be allowed to smoke in our home. In a corner of the living room, turtles of different sizes, colors, and designs crowded the shelves of a three-tiered table. Some were mementoes of travels, such as the hand-painted aquamarine turtle, no bigger than my thumb, whose head bounced up and down if you touched it. I couldn’t tell you where it came from though, unlike the clay pottery turtle I bought for my mom when I visited the Acoma Pueblo. Signed on the underside, MSJ, this turtle was actually two turtles. A smaller turtle sat on the top of a larger turtle. I imagined the turtle on the bottom as the mother, carrying her daughter with her.
Even our front yard was inhabited by turtles, picked up during a vacation trip from our home in New Jersey to Colonial Williamsburg. Despite regularly commuting an hour each way for work, my dad always drove during annual summer vacations. Our well-planned trips were interrupted by my mom’s interest in roadside stops, such as the garden center whose lawn featured enough animals worthy of a zoo, where she carefully chose two turtles and negotiated a lower price for the pair (but probably still paid more than they were worth). Their cement bodies took up all the room in the passenger seat footwells, requiring me to rest my feet on their bumpy, coarse surface, and making a six-hour car drive far less comfortable. Having lived in our yard for years, exposure to rain and snow had caused the concrete to crumble, exposing the rusting rebar skeleton.
My mom had wearable turtles – items of jewelry we bought for her over the years. These were kept in her dresser or in the jewelry box; there were so many, they seemed to be trying to climb out of the drawers. And of course, we had real, live turtles – two red-eared sliders that became too big for their tank but had nowhere else to go.
My mom loved turtles, because growing up, as a severe asthmatic allergic to everything, turtles were the only pet she could have. Before there was the Bubble Boy, there was my mom living in a hospital with an oxygen tent tucked into the mattress of her bed. If you Google, you might come across an old black and white film from the 1940s in which she silently stars. (No, it’s not her, but it could be). She was so ill, she lived for nearly four years away from her family at the National Jewish Home for Children in Denver, where she was the first non-Jewish patient treated for asthma. That’s where she received her first turtle.
She lost the turtle on the airplane while traveling alone back from Denver. When the plane landed, rather than deboarding, she had all the passengers on their hands and knees looking for the turtle. The turtle was located, I assume.
My mom’s love of turtles accompanied her into adulthood and parenthood. She remained a severe asthmatic, but allergic to fewer things thanks to a lifetime of allergy shots. She was well enough that we could have a dog, so I grew up with Kelly, a standard poodle who was the runt of his litter, and Sweetie, a terrier mutt, who incessantly wagged her tail sideways and licked anyone, as though she needed to earn her name. My mom even consented to a cat, but that was too much for her, and after a few weeks of Mom struggling to breathe, we had to return the white furball I called Frosty. I was devastated; Frosty slept in the windowsill above my bed and would wake me every morning with a playful swat of my head.
Growing up, whenever a holiday came up – a birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day – that required present-giving, “Do you have anything with turtles?” was my go-to question when shopping. If it featured a turtle, I considered it.
I was amused when someone, unable to provide a turtle, offered what they thought to be a suitable alternative. “No, sorry, nothing with turtles. What about a frog? We have this lovely handblown glass frog,” the salesperson would suggest. I’d shake my head disdainfully and continue my search.
Sometimes I was lucky and overwhelmed by the options. A jewelry case in Macy’s would contain a dozen items featuring turtles: pendants, earrings, necklaces, bracelets. But in some years, pigs, rabbits, and, yes, frogs, seemed to be the rage. The popularity of turtles fluctuated like the stock market. I’d like to say that 1984 was a popular year for turtles, but I can’t. But maybe it was.
At the time, seeking a turtle as a gift seemed the easiest way to find a present for Mom, but I don’t think it was. I didn’t buy the first turtle I saw. When presented with multiple turtles, I could be quite discerning. Yes, price made a difference to a twelve-year-old using her small allowance – or her father’s credit card. But even as I got older, and my budget increased, I continued to be selective. The turtle had to speak to me, although I’m not sure I could have articulated what it needed to say.
Despite Mom’s proclamation, the turtle moratorium only lasted for a season. Eventually, someone purchased the three-hundred and forty-fourth turtle, for which my mom somehow found a place.
The last turtle I bought for Mom I found at a garage sale when I was in my early 30s. Something about the kitschy wooden sign featuring two turtles side by side – one wearing a backwards blue baseball cap and the other wearing a bonnet with a blue flower appealed to me. When I read the line, “It doesn’t matter where you go, What you do or how much you have, It’s who you have beside you,” I had to buy it.
She never saw it. It was a present she never unwrapped. My mom passed away in the fall of 2010 after the proverbial “lengthy illness”. I was living in Ohio, and she and my dad were still living in New Jersey. I had moved because of work, and only saw them a few times a year, but I talked with my mom on the phone nearly daily. If I didn’t call frequently enough, I’d receive a not-so-subtle email nudge from my father – “Your mom hasn’t heard from you in a while.” When I returned home for the funeral, I brought the sign with me, and gave it to my dad.
That sign hung on the wall in the kitchen for several years. Whenever I visited, I would look at the image of the happy turtles, read the words, chuckle. My dad wasn’t a backwards baseball cap wearing guy, nor was my mom the blue bonnet type, but something about those turtles resonated with my image of my parents.
My dad passed away six years after my mom. When my sister and I packed up my dad’s home, I made sure to claim the sign, which now hangs near my front door.
Most of Mom’s turtles reside in a six-foot-tall display case in my home. It’s cramped, and some turtles stand precariously on each other as though they are trying to imitate the Acoma Pueblo turtles. Despite the overcrowding, I continue to purchase turtles. In the corner of our living room are large ceramic turtles my husband and I bought on two separate trips to the same potter in Maine. He uses the honor system for purchases. You walk through his unattended shop, take what you want, and send him a check for the cost. He discourages leaving cash. When we ran into him on one visit, he said, “People don’t steal pottery. They do steal cash.” And on my dashboard, a sea turtle with the baby turtle joey-like in a pouch in the mom’s carapace. I bought it on a trip to Las Vegas when I visited the aquarium at the Mandalay Bay. I am not even sure I saw a sea turtle while there but felt compelled to purchase the stuffed animal.
Looking back, buying turtles for my mom was shorthand for something I didn’t understand at the time and perhaps still don’t: my mom’s lifelong illness; the suffering it caused her and her family; how her experiences as a child who spent years away from her family affected the way she raised me and my sister. Buying a turtle was a recognition she was trying her best, even when we fought – as we sometimes did – and when her expectations for me seemed too high – as they sometimes were. The turtle meant accepting a mother who was so overprotective that when I was in my 20s and visiting my younger sister at her apartment, she yelled at me over the phone when I hadn’t come home before dark, insisting I had promised to do so (I had not) and that I did not know the roads (I most certainly did).
My mom passed away more than a decade ago, but when I want to hear her voice, I glance at the display case in the house and hear “No more turtles!”