Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Do You Wanna See My Turtle?"

“Do you wanna see my turtle?”

I will admit that this isn’t your standard pick up line. But 23 years ago that was what the husband said to woo and impress me. As I naively and nervously followed him upstairs to his bedroom I found myself wondering if his “turtle” really was a “turtle”.

Stretchy the turtle was a small, dark greenish black, Japanese Reeve’s water turtle. His shell never grew larger than about 4 or 5 inches long. He was named Stretchy for his impressive ability to stretch his head and neck out of his shell an amazingly far distance. He was purchased in a Novato, California pet store by the husband’s mom and given to the husband when he was about 10 years old. No one knew how old Stretchy was when he came to live with the husband. And no one knows how old he was when he died this week. One thing is certain though, the constant, comforting and unique presence of that little turtle in our lives will be greatly missed.

When the husband first made a place in his childhood bedroom for Stretchy to live, he had no idea he’d be his pet for over 30 years. But he soon became a curious and energetic companion for him. When the husband went to college, the husband’s mom, who was a high school science teacher, took care of Stretchy. She would often take him to class with her. During one lecture she turned from the blackboard and noticed that not one of the students in the class was paying attention to her. Instead, all eyes in the class were fixated on Stretchy. He was, with some difficulty, attempting to climb up on his rock- the hard way- just for the challenge of it. When he finally emerged at the top of the rock, victorious, the teenagers cheered and clapped. He stretched his neck out as far as it would go and turned his head toward the clapping sound. He loved the attention.

After the husband graduated from college and we were married, my mother in law arrived on my porch carrying Stretchy in his tank. Apparently, now that the husband was settled, it was time for Stretchy to come and live with him. After all, he was his pet. I firmly questioned the husband, “Don’t family pets stay with the family-even after the kids leave home?” “He’s NOT a family pet” the husband replied, somewhat offended. “He’s MY pet.”

It didn’t take me long to realize I was stuck with the turtle. And I’d probably be stuck with him for a very long time. I found out that some turtles live so long they are passed down in families from generation to generation. Neighbor kids would find him cute and beg their mothers for a turtle. I was always quick to advise against it. “Do you know how long these things can live?” I’d tersely ask, shaking my head and rolling my eyes.

It wasn’t long though before Stretchy began to grow on me. He won me over with his outgoing personality and his surprisingly expressive little face. As we travelled all over the country for the husband’s Navy career, Stretchy always came with us, even bravely surviving a car fire in Cleveland on one of our trips. When we reached a new town and went to rent a new apartment, we were always asked if we had any pets. The look on the manager’s face when we said we had a turtle was always priceless.

Stretchy was always a comfort when the husband would be out to sea for months at a time. I enjoyed walking in the house at the end of the day and seeing his ugly little tank in my living room. I grew accustomed to hearing his shell bang against the side of his tank at night when he was trying to climb his rock-the hard way, of course. I even started talking out loud to him when the husband was gone. Although he never said much back to me, he would always swim to the side of the tank, cock his head and look at me for as long as I stayed there.

Eventually, Stretchy dictated our living room d├ęcor. When he was upgraded from his tiny 10 gallon tank to his new, luxurious 55 gallon aquarium, we had a cabinet custom made that was large enough to hold the tank on top and strong enough to keep from breaking under the weight of it. When we moved into our current home, there was a space of honor above the fireplace for a large TV. That was where we put Stretchy and his huge tank. In our family, it was the turtle that deserved the place of honor, not a TV.

Stretchy got along quite well with the cats. The cats were always fascinated by him and never stopped trying to attack him through the glass. Stretchy was equally fascinated by them and never seemed threatened. He would always stretch his neck out toward them to get a better look. Every cat we have ever owned enjoyed sleeping on the warm light bar on top of his tank. Occasionally, they would reach their paws into his tank through a hole in his tank lid and try desperately to reach him. He would stretch his head out as far as it could go and snap at their paws.

When the teenager was a baby she would stare at Stretchy in his tank and yell out in excitement when he came over to see her. The boy enjoyed watching Stretchy chase his finger as he “drew” pictures on the side of his tank with it. Once in awhile, one of the kids’ toys would manage to fall in the tank or behind it. Stretchy would always swim right over and check it out. And when he was alone, he’d spend hours inspecting his pump and heater. We’d often find him with his head positioned directly in front of his blowing pump,casually catching the breeze, looking like a dog hanging his head out of a speeding car’s window-minus the fur, of course. And at the end of each day he would try and climb up on his rock-always the hard way. Who needed TV when there was this kind of entertainment right in front of us?

Stretchy was also beneficial for our family full of introverts. Most of our friends didn’t know anyone who had a turtle for a pet. He was quite a novelty. When we had guests over and the conversation lulled, we could always count on Stretchy to give us something to talk about. Many people gravitated toward him as soon as they walked through our front door. Instead of gathering around the food table or the TV, guests at our house would gather around the turtle tank. And he always loved the attention. He would come right up to the side of the tank and look you right in the eye. If you moved to the other end of the tank, he would follow you. If you put your finger up to the side of the tank he would pretend to bite it.Occasionally, one of the kids’ friends would refuse to leave our house and would have to be carried out the door. With tears running down their face they would scream that they “weren’t done playing with that turtle yet!”

Stretchy’s tank now sits empty in the place of honor above the fireplace. We haven’t yet been able to bring ourselves to clean it and take it down. Stretchy was the husband’s pet for 32 years. He’s been a part of my life as long as the husband has. The teenager and the boy don’t know a life without Stretchy in it. He’s outlived quite a few fish, a few hamsters and gerbils, and a couple of cats and dogs. He’s always been a part of our family- since the husband was a small boy and since that fateful day when the husband asked, “Do you wanna see my turtle?”

And now he’s gone. We buried Stretchy in the backyard this week. And with tears running down our faces, I know each of us were thinking the same thing…we weren’t done playing with that turtle yet.


In loving memory of Stretchy