By Susan Vaughan Moshofsky for Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers
“Can I bring home Ernest, Mommy?” four-year-old Reed begged. “For the summer?” Ernest, the preschool class turtle, for the whole summer. I loathe reptiles.
Reed clung like a barnacle when I dropped him off at preschool and melted down when I finally peeled him off. Keeping the turtle might ease Reed’s re-entry to school next fall. Plus, he’d earn celebrity status. I nodded.
“Here are his worms,” Teacher Lynn handed me a small plastic tub with tiny holes in the top. She smiled at the grimace on my face. “Keep it in the refrigerator or they turn into beetles.”
Lynn also suggested outings for Ernest in our back yard. “He likes the fresh air,” she explained. I wondered how she could tell.
Only a mother desperate to help her shy child adjust to school would keep a turtle that’s been the preschool pet for twelve years. And this isn’t just any preschool. People put their babies on the wait list in utero for this one. These parents pay attention. So Ernest’s stay had to be perfect.
First I had to find a safe spot for his aquarium-style tank, away from our slobbering, curious Labrador Retriever. My choice: the kitchen counter. Yes, Ernest lived near my stove, and yes, turtles carry salmonella. Let’s just say if I can keep worms in my refrigerator, I can have a turtle on my countertop.
I congratulated myself for being such a great mom. (Look! I let my kids keep pets I can’t stand to touch!)
Two weekends later, my husband Brett helped Reed scrub the tank while Ernest took a stroll on the kitchen floor. I practiced my deep breathing exercises. The task done, Reed and his older brother Ryan gave Ernest his first backyard airing.
While Ernest’s tank dried in the sun, he lumbered through the flower garden, neck outstretched, enjoying the fresh air. Ryan and Reed kept an eye on him. But since he moved at -- well, a turtle’s pace -- they checked on him in between slides down the hill. I planted some perennials. Rachel, our teenage daughter, lay tanning on the deck. Life was good.
Good until Ryan hollered, “Where’s Ernest?”
“What do you mean, ‘Where’s Ernest?’”
“I can’t find him, Mom. He was here just a minute ago.”
Choking back vomit, I ran to the flower bed where Ernest had been. No turtle. Get a grip, I thought.
“Well, he can’t be far.” I barked orders to all three kids. “Rachel, establish a perimeter; Ryan, check the inside of the dog’s mouth…” We scrambled through flower beds, peered under bushes, combed the hillside. Even the dog sniffed around.
An hour later, still no trace. Turtles don’t leave footprints or make a sound. And Ernest’s coloring was the perfect camouflage for our wooded backyard.
“Rachel,” I begged my daughter, “Call Petco. See if they sell box turtles.” She ran inside to make the call. Ryan and Reed pulled ivy. I made silent bargains with the Almighty.
“Mom,” Rachel called down to me from the deck. “I called them. We can’t get one.”
“What do you mean, we can’t get one?”
“They said it’s not legal to sell box turtles here, Mom!”
There I stood, knee deep in plants I had yanked in our frenzy to find little Speedo. I pictured myself lugging Ernest’s empty cage back into the classroom. I pictured wide-eyed children peering into that empty cage. I imagined Reed’s expression as the children pointed stubby fingers at him -- the turtle loser.
My husband came back from his run and saw us razing our freshly landscaped garden. “What’s going on?” he asked.
Gesturing with dirty hands in a pose reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, I wailed, “We lost the pre-school turtle!”
Brett’s expression told me it was time to call the teacher.
“My first concern is the kids,” Teacher Lynn began. “This will be the first real loss for some of them. We’ll have to tell them the truth.” As she paused, I realized just how deep a pit of bile had collected in my stomach. She asked if Reed was worried and suggested I emphasize the fun Ernest might be having on his adventure. “But the little guy has done this before: one summer, he was gone for three months and turned up in a neighbor’s yard,” she continued. Now you tell me, I thought. “You may find him yet,” Lynn reassured. I hung up, feeling ill. I had to do something.
I called Reptile World, described our hilly area and asked if a turtle could survive there. “He’ll have nutrition and hydration. He might winter over just fine there,” the reptile expert told me. Winter over? The return to preschool was less than two months away.
We printed up flyers: Lost Box Turtle. Answers to the name of Ernest. Size of a teacup saucer. Reward! Many neighbors, some I’d never met, fought smiles when we knocked on their doors, brandishing the flyer.
“I’m really worried,” I said to Brett later that night. “Could we rent some heat-seeking infrared binoculars to help us find him in all the brush?”
Brett bit his lip. “Sue, honey, Ernest is cold blooded.”
The summer passed. The first few weeks, Reed and Ryan filled Ernest’s food dish daily with strawberries, worms, and grapes and set out small water dishes around the yard. But gradually, their daily backyard searches gave way to twice-weekly searches.
If I talked about Ernest, Reed murmured happily, “He’s in the backyard on an adventure, Mommy. Now I get to keep him for always!”
Soon it was September, time for the back to school open house. Filled with dread, I sneaked in and stood by the coffee, trying to hide my scarlet E. Lynn took me aside. “Two boys asked where Ernest was. Before I could answer, one of them remembered that Reed took him home for the summer.”
I gulped, speechless. Lynn nodded. “I’ll be letting the parents know a little later tonight. But I won’t tell which backyard he was in,” she winked. My coffee tasted like mud. I walked to the classroom meeting like a condemned woman.
I tuned out Teacher Lynn’s welcome back talk. But I sat bolt upright when she added, “I have some other news. Ernest has gone missing. He was in a backyard and just wandered off.”
The room was as quiet as a turtle cage. My face grew hot. My scalp prickled. I realized I might as well spill the beans since a four year old had already figured out the truth.
“The backyard where Ernest wandered off,” I began in a small voice, “was mine. We are the ones who lost him.” When I got to the part about the flyers we printed and the infrared binoculars, my voice trailed off.
There was a silence, then a chuckle. “Let’s take Sue out for a glass of wine. She’s had a rough summer,” a couple of moms sympathized. Another mom blurted, “I’m just so glad I didn’t volunteer to take him!” And then everyone in the room laughed out loud.
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