Mother’s love of turtles

One might assume that a woman born and raised in Alabama with parents who farmed would be a country girl. Not so much the case with my Mother. She knew how to process garden produce and she had picked cotton as a little girl. She even knew how to kill and dress a chicken. But my Mother was no country girl. She wasn’t a city girl either. She was small-town all the way; definitely not outdoorsy. She never went barefoot and the only times I ever remember my Mother spending time outdoors involved cleaning it up. She raked leaves and planted flowers and picked up fallen limbs. She did enjoy picnics and cookouts, but never walked nature trails without being coerced. My Mother seldom went outside just for fun. I’m sure part of the reason she didn’t venture out was that she did not like critters. Mother had no tolerance for bugs and she was certainly not comfortable around snakes, alligators, squirrels, lizards, frogs, etc.

We used to drive over to Daytona Beach and go swimming—until the summer the Basford family came to visit and we all went to Marineland. Once Mother saw some of the critters that live in the ocean she was done with saltwater swimming.

When we moved to the Ocala National Forest in 1964 the abundance of critters made it a little boy’s dream and my Mother’s nightmare. Don and Tom were thrilled with having a lake to swim in and minnows and crickets and fireflies to catch. Daddy joined in their enthusiasm for the fabulous woods while Mother kept her thoughts to herself and didn’t sleep.

In their explorations of the yard and the lake, Don and Tom found two small eggs and brought them to the house. No one knew what might be growing in those eggs. I was hoping for baby ducks. Mother feared alligators. Don and Tom planted the eggs in one of Mother’s flower pots on the porch. When she went out to water the maidenhair fern, African violets, and Mother-in-law tongue, she would douse the pot that held just sand and eggs and dread what might be growing there. Months later—just when Mother had begun to believe the eggs were duds with nothing in them and that she could sleep easy—the eggs hatched.

The mysterious eggs revealed two tiny little alligator snapping turtles Don and Tom named Tiger and Speedy. Tiger was so named because he was mean and wont to bite. Speedy was the habitual winner of turtle races across the coffee table in the livingroom. At our parents’ insistence that wildlife belongs in the wild, Don and Tom eventually put Tiger and Speedy in the lake and heard Mother’s sigh of relief.

In the 1960s turtles were popular pets. Mrs. Hartman even had one. She taught 4- and 5-year-olds in Sunday School at Ocklawaha Bridge Baptist Church for more than 30 years. Less than five feet tall, Mrs. Hartman and her husband came to Florida from Kansas during the Dust Bowl years. She grew strawberries and made the best boiled peanuts ever. She was adored by generations of preschoolers and every year for something like 17 years, she brought her pet turtle to Vacation Bible School. If a sweet lady like Mrs. Hartman liked turtles, how could anyone else not like them? My Mother just pursed her lips and said, “Hmmm.”

I don’t remember where it came from, but somehow I eventually acquired my own pet turtle I named Stripeback. He lived on the same porch that birthed Tiger and Speedy. Stripeback lived in a gold plastic bowl with a little rubber palm tree that I bought at Woolworth’s in Ocala. Stripeback had tiny little claws and learned how to climb up the screen on the porch.

Mother had no memorable distaste for Stripeback—probably because she knew from the beginning he was a turtle and she didn’t have to wonder what horrors might emerge from a mutant egg—but he did nearly scare her to death one night. She was awakened by a loud, scratching sound coming from her closet. She woke Daddy up and he found that Stripeback had managed to get out of his bowl and crawl through the house to attack a cardboard shoe box. Don says Tom put the turtle in the closet, but Tom has never confessed. Either way, Mother was so thankful the noise was just the turtle and not some other imagined terror that she more or less made peace with Stripeback after that.

Many years later, we added another turtle story to the family archives. One afternoon Mother was in the yard planting caladium bulbs when Daddy started to cut the grass in the front yard by the lake.  Mother heard what she thought was a flying rock whiz by and hit the house. Daddy then began to see baby turtles by the dozens. The vibrations from the riding lawn mower must have sent them scurrying. They seemed to be coming up out of the grass. Daddy hit several before he realized what they were and got the mower stopped. He gave up on putting the mower away. He just stopped it in the middle of the yard and left it until the baby turtle parade was over.  It was amazing to see so many tiny turtles and what was most amazing was how they instinctively knew where the lake was and which way to go to get there. Not one single baby turtle went the wrong way.

With her children all grown up, Mother was confident her turtle-keeping days were over. She was mistaken. Wanting a pet of her own and having heard about Stripeback, my own daughter decided she wanted a pet turtle. It wasn’t until I started turtle shopping that I learned little turtles are now contraband—illegal to sell.  When I told my Dad Jennifer wanted a pet turtle and I couldn’t get one, he took care of it. Granddaddy managed to get Jennifer a turtle in Florida and bring it to her all the way to Birmingham, Alabama. This incident is one more piece of evidence that parents mellow when they become grandparents because my Mother the critterphobic held a little clear plastic box with water, a rock and a turtle in her lap for the whole nine-hour drive.

Upon her Granddaddy’s suggestion, Jennifer named her turtle J.P. Morgan after the 19th century millionaire who was once the richest man in the world. We thought it was appropriate considering how expensive it was to buy the aquarium and filters and other equipment needed to keep a little turtle healthy and clean. Mother and the little turtle must have bonded on the trip from Florida to Alabama because later that evening she looked at J.P. Morgan swimming in his 10-gallon tank surrounded by $300 worth of turtle amenities and when he smiled his little turtle smile, she actually admitted he was cute.

*Having been a turtle owner twice, I don’t recommend turtles as pets. Turtles carry germs that can be deadly unless they are cared for properly. Proper care is A LOT of trouble and it’s very  expensive. It’s best to enjoy seeing turtles in their natural habitats in the wild and at zoos and aquariums.

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