My Daughter the Tortoise: Green Prints, Fall 2010

Heard of Green Prints? It’s a fine little literary mag that’s aptly called “The Weeder’s Digest” because it contains nifty and touching stories about the true world of gardening.

I submitted a story to them about, oh, five, six years ago. They liked it, bought it and sent me a check. Now, in this fall’s issue…I finally see the story, “My Daughter, the Tortoise” appear in print. Well worth the wait!

Here is the story:

My Daughter the Tortoise

By Brenda Rees

We’ve babysat kids and took care of neighbor’s cats, but when Janna called one late September evening asking if we’d watch Rocky for a few weeks while she was out of town, there was no hesitation in response: Yes!

As a 19-year-old desert tortoise, Rocky had been a contender for our permanent backyard pet, but once my husband and I realized that such beasts live to well in their 100s…well…we just couldn’t make the commitment, no matter how darn cute they are – and desert tortoises are absolutely delightful, especially when they wag those chubby little tails.

Still, if we couldn’t be fulltime parents, we were more than happy to take care of Rocky as a part-time pet.

Before Rocky’s visit, I checked out a desert tortoise website and discovered, to my dismay, that many of the plants in our Los Angeles backyard were deemed poisonous to the reptiles – namely agapanthus and scheffleras. I mentioned this to Janna who nonchalantly replied, “Oh I don’t think he’ll be interested in them.”

Wellllll…okay…I just didn’t want to find a stiff Rocky one morning whilst watering the Mexican sage and buddleia. Still, Janna raised Rocky and six of his brothers legally from eggs. She was the source. She should know her clutch.

Upon his arrival, Rocky popped out of his carrying cage ready for exploration, taking off like a shot. He snooped under tomato plants, crunched through plectranthus, dug around the jades. He was in heaven. Janna said, “A new environment should stimulate him. Maybe it will make him smarter.”

We found a shady place for a water bowl and food plate. Where would Rocky sleep at nights? “He’ll find a spot,” reassured Janna. “He’ll make a burrow somewhere safe.”

Watching Rocky slowly and methodically troop about, I found myself grinning on the inside. It’s one thing to watch birds flitter back and forth from seed socks and birdfeeders, but a tortoise invokes mediation and reflection. Rocky forced me to slow down.

Still, I worried about those poisonous plants. Every morning once the sun warmed our Southern Californian grass, I rejoiced and gave a sigh of relief when I saw the shuddering fuchsias spew out one pleased-looking reptile. He certainly was being stimulated…you can tell by the twinkle in his beady – and I do mean beady — little eyes.

Topping it off, Rocky had the nail-biting habit of burrowing down among the agapanthus and scheffleras. There were many other locales for a perfectly fine burrow, still he choose the most toxic environment possible. Eeerk! Would one of the leaves tempt him? Maybe just a nibble? Just how deadly could they be??

In order to keep Rocky’s mind off those plants, I enticed him daily with some of a tortoise’s irresistible foods – rose petals and hibiscus. Walking my daughter from her new kindergarten, we would find bright red and yellow hibiscus blossoms to bring home. Katie squealed with delight when Rocky eagerly chomped the tasty buds from her hands.

Katie loved showing off Rocky to her friends. She liked picking him up and putting him behind the jade, letting him walk over her feet. He was a wonderful small living “dinosaur.”

While the home front was magical, the academic world was problematic. Katie was attending an inner-city kindergarten that served plenty of bright kids, but also kids with issues – kids from poor, broken homes.

I cringed sometimes as I walked by classrooms, observing some students struggling with internal demons, acting out and crying out for attention. With breakfasts of cookies and tortilla chips, these kids were literally spinning out of control. They spat at their teachers, punched smaller kids and walked out of classrooms for hours at a time.

Even though they were few, they were there.

Then, I had heard rumors that students in a neighboring kindergarten class were suspended for verbally harassing and threatening another kindergartener. Obscenities and violence. I felt as if the school was poison. It made me sick.

Still, when my husband and I approached Katie with the idea of switching schools, she burst into tears, announcing that she “loved her school! I love my friends! I love my teacher!” She wanted to stay.

I tossed and turned that night, wondering how to protect my daughter from the obscenities and violence of not only her school, but the world. It seemed as if she wanted to burrow right down there among the poison…

I sat up in bed.

Katie was Rocky. She loved the freedom of kindergarten, she relished in the joy of learning and despite the few bad influences around her, she was determined to thrive and survive, just as Rocky did in our backyard of what I mistakenly referred to as “poison.”

When Janna picked Rocky up later in the month, she was thrilled to see a confident, spunky tortoise. Hibernation was coming soon, so we’d have to wait until spring to once again open up our backyard tortoise sitting service. “I’m so glad I can count on you,” she told us and she carried Rocky into her car.

As she drove off, I was sad to see Rocky go, but thankful that he reminded me about the nature of the world. We can’t hide from all the poison that’s out there, but we can be smart, find good friends and alliances, and keep our hearts in the right place.

Now when I send Katie off to school, I imagine her with an invisible armor of love, a shell of common sense and faith that will keep her safe. And maybe it won’t protect her from all the poison out there, but it will give her the strength and courage to do what’s right.

Just like we fed Rocky rose petals and hibiscus, Jim and I strive to keep Katie well-nourished spiritually and physically. We want her out in the warmth of sun, exploring this life, as she charts her own course among the nooks and crannies, underbrush and shrubs, rocks and holes.

Let her be a tortoise, I tell myself. It’s a fine thing to be.