“I’ll bet you’ve never written a column about a turtle,” said Mary, sitting across from me at the coffee shop.
No. I can’t say that I have. And I’m not sure I want to break a lucky streak.
Then Mary told me a story.
She was a thirteen-year-old when she found L.B. in her mother’s flowerbed. She was a tomboy in jeans, with scraped knees, dirty fingernails, and a bad case of freckles.
L.B. was a terrestrial box turtle.
Her parents had just divorced. Her father left town with his new girlfriend. He couldn’t have moved any farther away if he’d left planet Earth.
Life was sad. Her mother was always in a bad mood, her older brother started spending time away from home.
Most nights, she fended for herself, eating TV dinners, watching television, and waiting for her mother to get home.
When she saw the turtle nestled among the tall weeds, she noticed red nail-polish writing on his shell. Two initials which read: L.B.
He was a gentle creature, he didn’t squirm or snap. She noticed something wrong with his shell, and blood smears on his wounded back leg.
Her first move was to call her father for advice.
“Dad!” she said into the phone. “I found something in the yard!”
“Sweetie,” he said. “We’ve been over this, you can’t keep calling long distance every fifteen minutes, I have a job, I’m very busy.”
“But Dad,” she said. “I just found a tur—”
A dial tone.
So, she took the turtle to her elderly neighbor, Miss Stanley. People said the old woman was a little crazy, and this might have been true.
Miss Stanley had dozens of animals wandering her place—dogs, cats, an iguana, exotic birds. But if anyone would’ve known how to fix L.B.’s leg, it was her.
The old woman invited Mary inside. She cleaned the turtle’s leg with alcohol and cotton balls. She made Mary some tea. She listened.
When she handed the reptile back to the thirteen-year-old, she said, “This turtle is a sacred gift from above, you can’t ever let go of him, he’s meant just for you.”
And L.B. became Mary’s lifelong friend.
“We were close,” Mary explained. “He used to wander around my room and crawl on my leg until I’d pick him up. He snapped at everyone else, but not me.”
He nosed around while she did homework. She fed him earthworms and crickets. At night, she talked to L.B. and tried to forget how much she missed her father, and how lonely she was.
When she learned to drive, she brought him on road trips. When she got accepted into college, she kept him in an aquarium in her dorm.
L.B. was in her life when she met a young man who eventually became her husband. And L.B. was around when she brought home her first and second babies from the hospital.
For every major life event, there was a small, unassuming reptile in her background who always needed his tank cleaned.
But that was a long time ago. She’s older now. Her hair is turning gray, and her kids are finished with school. She has a nice house, and she is almost ready for an AARP card.
A few months ago, she found a hairline crack in L.B.’s shell. He had also quit eating for a few weeks. She took him to the vet. It was bad.
The crack progressed into an infection. She kept an eye on him every day, but things got worse. One morning, she found him lying still.
“I know it’s weird,” she said. “Crying over a turtle, you probably think I’m crazy, I cried so hard. He was forty years old, maybe older, that’s a long time to have a pet.”
One afternoon, Mary stood in the yard with her two grown children, and her husband. Her son dug the hole.
Mary placed a shoebox into the ground with nail-polish initials painted on the lid.
And she was thirteen all over again. A tomboy who needed something, or someone to love. A child who missed her father, who wanted to feel important. A lonely girl, eating TV dinners. Old feelings never really leave a body.
“Listen,” Mary said to me, “I know the last thing you want to write about a turtle, but he sorta got me through a hard time when I was growing up, and I just wanted to tell someone.”
I asked what she thought the turtle’s initials stood for.
She laughed. “I always told people they were short for ‘Little Buddy’, but I guess I’ll never know.”
Well, if you ask me, there aren’t many differences between Little Buddies and Little Blessings from above.
This is the first column I have ever written about a turtle.