Everyone knew the big secret about Filbert the Turtle, so I guess it wasn’t much of a secret.
We got him the day we moved up to Westchester—we’re movin’ on up! as the Jefferson’s song went—from our small 2-bedroom in Queens.
The husband didn’t like Long Island and I didn’t like Jersey, so where’s an ambitious, young Jewish couple to go?
Westchester was the golden land—beautiful houses, magnificent trees, chill people—and only 25 minutes on Metro North to our jobs in NYC.
While the moving guys schlepped, I took five-year-old Zachary in one hand and the five months of Aaron in my belly and we set out to Petland Discounts.
It was like he was waiting for us.
I bought the whole kit and caboodle—including a pricey warming light—and set him up on a counter in our new kitchen, and invited every kid on the block to the first-ever Turtle Party.
Not to brag, but I kinda outdid myself at those parties, which became semi-annual.
Turtle races (slowest wins, but you have to keep moving), design your own turtle shell, decorate a turtle cupcake—and, for a finale—Filbert himself would make an appearance while the older kids vied to touch him and the younger ones shrieked and ran away.
Filbert liked yellow pepper. Not red, not green, yellow.
I would cut it in fresh crispy chunks and put it on his dish across from the round rock my mother got him.
He would pivot, stick out his cute turtle neck, and clomp a u-turn, thwacking into whatever was there—the glass wall, the rock—and make for the pepper.
It was fascinating to watch him eat and kids would pop by just for the show.
He would stare the pepper chunk down, twisting his pointy little head from side to side, gauging the best way to charge.
Then- snap! His mouth would open and his whole body would thrust forward, closing over the pepper and tearing off the bite with a little shake of his head.
Then he would sort of step back, and do it all again: the stare, the twist, the charge, the snap, the bite, the shake.
It took a while to get through a chunk, but turtles aren’t known for speed, and anyway, a fatty like me could learn a thing or two from watching careful eating and savoring.
It was kind of exciting, having a turtle. Exotic, but not creepy like a rodent or scary like a snake.
And the reptile/human connection was very encouraging.
I would put Filbert down on the kitchen floor and walk in different directions. Damned if he didn’t follow me every time.
And he smiled. I swear this. Everyone remarked on it. He had a happy disposition and never complained if his cage stank or if I forgot to freshen his water in the evening.
When I would come into the kitchen he would do one of those clomping u-turns from wherever, come over and thwack against the glass, lifting one of those Maurice Sendak-ish zig-zag feet to say hello.
I would take him out and hold him right up to my face and stroke his shell, and he’d stick out turtleneck and pointy head as far as it would go so that I could pat it.
Once, he actually made a sound. I had him in full frontal, face to face, and he suddenly breathed out of his nostrils: “Hnnnsss.”
Teeny bubbles came out of his nose and I couldn’t help laughing. He never did it again.
I must’ve talked about him some at work, because when my bosses at Ogilvy called me in to give me a raise (!) they said, “We want to make sure to keep your turtle in yellow pepper.”
Filbert was the “Old Maid” in the special-edition-personalized-one-of-a-kind-game-deck for Zachary and Aaron I drew, that featured their instruments (Sax and piano—a match!) our cars (Honda CRV and Chevy Cavalier—a match!) and their hobbies (Yugioh and Nintendo—a match!). And Filbert was included in all holiday cards and greetings from the family.
My babysitter loved the tortuga. My Yiddish theatre friends admired the shuldkrit. Aaron’s Russian piano teacher played for the cherepakha.
Special, I tell you.
And then there was the divorce, the great leaving of Westchester, the acquisition of the dogs, the million gallon fish tank, the birth of the twins and the move to Jersey.
It was Sruli and me and our menagerie.
The twins loved him too—the dogs not so much—stereo screeching when I brought the turtle out and duet kvetching when I put him back and made them wash their hands.
He endured the rough handling of the Shabbos kids at Sruli’s shul in North Bergen, and the not-so-good-for-him shtips from the not-so-nice cleaning lady there, whom I begged not to sneak him tomato, dammit.
He starred at Show and Tell at Pre-K (Charlie and Johnny said EVERYONE got a chance to hold him—nebikh) and a few mothers called me afterwards to ask where to buy a turtle—their kids were desperate.
He was the Old Maid again in the special-edition-personalized-one-of-a-kind-game-deck I made for Johnny and Charlie (a match!) Scrambled eggs and sunnyside up—a match! Target and Walmart—a match! Filbert—oh no!
Filbert (and we) looked out onto four different kitchens before we moved him to our bungalow on the Jersey shore.
The move almost killed me; we had to put a lot of stuff in storage and work our moving trips around Sruli’s job at the temple and the twins’ school.
If Filbert felt our stress he never showed it.
His terrarium took up a lot of trunk space and we made a special trip primarily to move him. It was the end of March and the Jersey Shore was feeling like spring.
We set Filbert up in the Florida room and he would thwak the glass genially whenever I walked by.
He was still in hibernation mode, so he wasn’t eating the food I put out for him.
We went back up to North Jersey, planning to come back down in a week.
Three days later there was a snowstorm.
The bungalow had been set for 55 so I didn’t think there’d be a problem.
I didn’t think, or I would have called a neighbor down there.
I didn’t think, because I was crazy busy moving and arranging for Charlie Re’s open-heart surgery and interviewing for Sruli’s new job up in Maine.
And when I came down later that week, Filbert was lying on the glass floor of his terrarium, his limbs all splayed out, smiling.
I screamed. I picked him up. I held his stiff little self in the air. I stroked his head. Nothing.
I got on the internet and read that a warm bath can resurrect a turtle.
I bolted up and took out my best pyrex and filled it with warm water and placed Filbert inside. I stared at him, on and off, for twenty-four hours. Nothing.
I cannot describe my apoplexy. I could not stop sobbing. Loud, uncontrolled sobs. I called the boys. I begged forgiveness from them, I begged forgiveness from Filbert. I had never, ever felt so guilty and so totally, completely out of control of my life.
I could not save Filbert.
I could not protect my daughter from her own heart. I could not help my son Aaron from having to start in September at a college he didn’t want to go to because his rich father refused to pay for the one he wanted to go to, and I couldn’t afford it myself. I could not deal with moving again and again. I could not guarantee that anything, forever and ever, would ever work out.
Nineteen years I had him, nineteen years, and now he was gone.
Nineteen years ago I was starting a new life, too. Here I was, doing it again, and I felt like a failure.
I couldn’t bear to bury him--in case the warm bath took a little more time to magick its resurrection.
I couldn’t bear to walk by the pyrex and see that smile.
I went outside near my little fig tree and dug a hole. I wrapped my turtle in a plastic Shoprite bag and placed him in the earth. I got a large flat piece of slate and wrote Filbert on it and drew a little turtle.
I said a blessing in Hebrew.
And then I went around the back of my bungalow, leaned my head on my hand on the corner and cried. Wracking, shaking cries. For a long time.
Three days I cried. On the fourth day, the family went to the boardwalk in Ocean City and I bought myself a small turtle charm necklace at my favorite artsy jewelry store and I haven’t taken it off. It’s the only thing that makes me feel better. Weird.
I write this now, 6 months later and I am still not whole.
But things have worked out. Charlie Re is, thank God, on the other side of a successful operation and she is fine. Aaron is making the most of his college life and his weekends are busy with his fabulous girlfriend.
Here in our new life in beautiful Maine, Sruli is working happily and hard, we have a house I love, and the twinkies are thriving. So are the dogs and the fish.
I still mourn Filbert and whenever I see a Turtle Crossing sign or a painting of sea creatures, or even a stuffed animal turtle, I turn away in shame. I think it will always be so.
In Kabbalah there is a concept of “Klipoth,” empty shells. The idea is that you have to fill those shells with goodness, with bravery, with kindness and thus will you create a better world.
On our very last day in South Jersey, as the moving truck sat in our driveway, I made a quick trip to Home Depot to get a few more boxes.
We were planning to leave in a few hours—going all the way up to Maine.
As I neared the bungalow I saw something in the road.
I stopped the car.
Ezekiel was beautiful, an Eastern Box Turtle, with a high domed shell and magnificent amber markings.
I checked the internet: red eyes, a male.
Filbert had been a female—that was the big, open secret.
Apparently, the salesguy said he was male, but the maven at the register said—no the tail’s too short, he is a she.
Trouble was, by the time we got to the register, Filbert had been named-- after that nerdy turtle in Rocko’s Modern Life, Zachary’s favorite show—and it wasn’t like there were going to be any babies, so she was a he from then on. Modern Life indeed.
I showed Ezekiel to Sruli. “I see he already has a name,” Sruli said. “You know, he’s a wild turtle; you really shouldn’t keep him.”
I found a little plastic box and jabbed some air holes with a scissors. I stroked his shell. After a bit, he poked his head out and looked at me with those red eyes. His mouth wasn’t naturally smiley—it came down to a tiny frowny point.
I figured I would stop at a pet shop along the way and get some food and a better box for the trip. I texted pictures of him to Zachary and Aaron and Ilana. I decided he would stay in my new kitchen, with me.
I felt filled up, elated. I was redeemed.
And then, a few hours later, I made the left turn out of the bungalow complex and passed the place where Ezekiel had been crossing the road.
I stopped the car. I took out the little plastic box. I crossed to the other side, in the direction he had been going.
Maybe I had saved his life by getting him off the road. But that wasn’t really enough, was it?
I put the box down gently onto the fallen leaves and grass and muck.
And then I did something I couldn’t do for Filbert.
I let him go.