(acquired ≈ between 2004 and 2006)
Reflecting on an object from my treasure box.
The memory of the exact occasion for which this object was given is completely lost to me, but I treasure it not so much because of when I received, but because of who gave it to me.
The toy sea turtle is small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, as baby sea turtles tend to be. It is soft and filled with, I think, sand from a beach where turtles have been known to nest. At least that’s what I choose to believe. It’s hard to tell without ripping the fabric apart.
The turtle’s cloth “skin” is the color of sea grass. It has only one eye made of a black, plastic bead. It once had both eyes, but now only a black thread remains where the second eye used to be. I don’t remember when or how this came to be. It just is.
The fabric shell seems to have mustard yellow as its base color with splashes of green, blue, purple, and magenta in between, without symmetry or any distinctive pattern. It’s as though the fabric dye were tossed on it at random and then sewn together haphazardly, lengthwise down the middle.
The tag on the the seam near the turtle’s tail says that he was made in Thailand and the USA. I suppose that gives him duel citizenship. Maybe the sand inside his tiny body is from a beach somewhere in Thailand. I know there are sea turtles who nest on Thai beaches and grow old in Thai waters. I’ve seen them in pictures and they truly are majestic!
The tag also says this “toy” is suitable for ages 5+. That means I’m more than old enough to take care of it, even if I may have accidentally been responsible for its missing eye (again, I can’t remember).
He was gifted to me by my sister, strangely enough. But there’s little else I remember about the circumstances surrounding the gifting. I kind of think it was a birthday gift sometime in my mid to late twenties, which means my sister would’ve been in her late twenties or early thirties, since she’s two and a half years older than me.
I don’t often write about my sister, at least not for a mass audience. But I have too often complained about her to close friends and family, as well as my therapists and other mental health professionals. It’s not something I’m proud of, either. I mean, if anything, this confession brings up uncomfortable, and not entirely unmerited, guilt and shame. But I will try and write about her with the utmost love and respect while still leaving room for my truth to shine through.
First of all, I ethically cannot give a psychiatric diagnostic for my sister nor can I reveal previous diagnosis (many of which were flat out wrong anyway) without her full permission. But at this point I’d rather step away from such labels and risk having to beg forgiveness rather than ask permission. What other options do we memoirists have? I guess I could wait until she dies, but what if I die first? What if my truth is buried with me and never comes to light? What good would it do the world if there are others out there who need to hear stories like mine if only to feel less alone in their own problems?
No. This story can’t been locked away from the world any longer.
Furthermore, I want my readers to know that I have no intention of slandering or harming my sister. I love her even if we argue until we’re so old we end up trapped in a nursing home together, stubbornly trying to prove one of us is wrong and the other is right. This is the kind of sibling relationship that teeters between petty squabbles and loving kindness that, for most people, resolves itself with age. But not for us. It is as though our minds have been locked in childlike stages of maturity while our bodies have ignored our efforts to stay young, forcing us into middle age.
It doesn’t help that our shared, stunted maturities have forced us back into the world we’d once tried desperately to escape, like we’re caught in a vicious circle, longing for the same acceptance as our peers who’ve managed to reach all the milestones our society expects of adults our age. Yet we’re somehow unable to figure out how to make it happen for ourselves.
There might be some clues in our shared parentage. I know Mom and Dad love us but I also know they enable our childish behaviors by not forcing us to pay rent or to help them with such adult responsibilities as chipping in for utilities and groceries. On more than one occasion, psychiatrists and psychologists have called them out on this in family therapy sessions, but it’s never truly sunk in. I guess this means they’re also in a kind of arrested development in their roles as parents. For this reason I sometimes feel an enormous anxiety when I think of mine and my sister’s future without them, a future where I alone must navigate my sister’s peculiarities.
Thank God we never had children of our own! Please don’t get me wrong. I love my friends’ kids and my cousins’ kids but when I try and imagine myself as a parent, I feel sorry for my imaginary kids because I know their mom would never have enough energy at the end of the day to put her own needs aside in favor of theirs. If I were a mom, I’m sure I’d feel even more trapped because of all the responsibility parenting entails and how easily I, as a parent, could fuck up or, even worse, I could fuck them up for life.
For the record, there are plenty of mentally ill parents out there who are managing their illnesses well and taking great care of their children. I just can’t see myself doing the same.
Anyway, for you to fully appreciate my relationship with my sister, let me fill in a little of our backstory.
From our parents, we both inherited our mother’s blue eyes (instead of Dad’s brown eyes). When she was younger, her hair was more of an ash color but has since darkened into a chestnut brown. And, now that she’s reached what is commonly know as “middle age,” there are a few strains of gray dispersed throughout her brunette locks. She used to dye her hair to try and hide the gray, but not anymore.
Her face is shaped more like our dad’s, however, and, even though she (as the eldest) was taller than me for the first eleven years of my life, she is now the shortest member of our family (although Mom is shrinking closer to my sister’s height each year and may, one day, be shorter than her). In contrast, I am the tallest in my family and have been since about age thirteen or fourteen. I’m told I look more like my mom than my dad. I’m also the only redhead in the family (although now my hair color is better described as strawberry blonde). Moreover, I’m the youngest of all the cousins of my generation (not including those born to my dad’s half siblings of whom he’s the eldest and who none of us met until 2001). So it can be scary to think that, if we leave this world in the order in which we were born, I’m likely to die without my family (but hopefully I’ll still be surrounded by friends, or what I like to call my chosen family).
My sister and I were both born in Potsdam, New York. She was born in July, 1977 and I was born February 26, 1980. Then, in 1982, our family moved to Norman, Oklahoma where both of us began our elementary schooling.
Norman is the first place I remember living as a child. I think this is mostly true for my sister as well for I don’t remember her sharing many memories of what it was like when we lived in Potsdam. But in Norman, our dad taught at the local university while our mom stayed home for us. We lived in an average-size house with an enormous backyard behind which was a gigantic park with a lake, a playground, a frisbee golf-course, and a wildlife preserve.
For us as children, this was paradise! Mom and Dad let us fly kites and catch butterflies and other bugs with butterfly nets. At the nearby playground, my sister and I’d take to the swings where we’d let our imaginations transport us high above the clouds. Dad gave us both tricycles and let us pedal around the neighborhood with him and Mom. We’d collect insects, search for four-leaf clovers, tickle one another with “tickle weeds,” take rides in our little red wagon, make wishes on dandelions, and then huddle together in bathrooms and closest whenever the city’s tornado whistle blew.
I truly loved playing with my sister back then, mimicking her behaviors, trying to tag along when she had friends over. But perhaps the best part about living in Norman was finding turtles in our own backyard.
They tended to be nestled in the tall grass along the foot of the barbed wire fence that separated us from the park. Sometimes my sister would find one, sometimes I would. Once in a blue moon we’d both find one and could share the victory.
They wandered in from the lake. My sister and I wanted to keep them as pets, but Mom and Dad (wisely) wouldn’t allowed it. Instead, one or both of them would accompany us to the lake at the park with our turtles. There we’d set them free in the water. I know that’s where my sister and I fell in love with turtles.
Later, after our family had moved again (this time to Fort Worth, Texas), I finally convinced my dad to let me have a pet turtle. This one came from a pet store and I to “earn” it by letting the dog out every night so my parents could sleep (or maybe that was the deal for the pet mice and keeping my room clean for a month was the one for the turtle – I can’t remember). He was a Japanese box turtle who my dad named Snappy because he seemed to move quickly when given the chance. I’d take him to the back yard with me whenever I went outside to play and he loved it! I even designed a little outdoor inclosure for him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t secure and one day, I was devastated to come home and discover he’d escaped by digging a hole under his inclosure. A week later, our next door neighbor alerted us that Snappy was wandering around in her carefully manicured garden. So I picked him up and brought him back home. Shortly thereafter, he died and, though the cause of death was unknown, I suspected that, during his time away, he’d eaten an insect who’d been covered in pesticides thereby poisoning him.
I still remember the shock and sadness I felt when I discovered his stiff and still body. A child’s first encounter with death is often through the loss of a beloved pet and she never forgets it.
Naturally our fondness for turtles eventually developed into shared fascination with sea turtles. ThoughI don’t know specifically all the reasons my sister’s interest in them grew, mine was very much in learning about the hatching of baby sea turtles. There’s something mystical and magical about an animal who, without parental guidance, just instinctively knows how and when to break from its shell, crawl out of the sand, and head toward the ocean.
Imagine! We humans are born helpless, completely dependent on the love and nurture of a parent or guardian, requiring careful instruction as we grow in how to live and interact with other human beings, often not leaving our own nests for at least eighteen years. But sea turtles, they’re just born knowing!
I know. Other wild animals also live and die by instinct alone, too. Insects, reptiles, and amphibians are especially known for this. But isn’t it crazy how sea turtles begin as nothing, burst from an egg buried on a sandy beach, and, having never even met their parents, just know the ocean is where they’re supposed to go? It’s so phenomenal and breathtaking all at once!
Later, when I spent my freshman year of university at a school at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California, a wild and adventures Austrian-born missionary kid who’d grown up in Papua, New Guinea started a SCUBA diving club. Drawn to the adventure (and the chance to pretend to be a mermaid), I signed up immediately and got my certification. Sadly, I never had the time or money to dive in waters warm enough for sea turtles to flourish, but I always dreamed of doing so someday. Even when I transferred to Northern Arizona University where I was much farther from the ocean, I managed to join yet another SCUBA club and subscribed to a monthly diving magazine with glorious pictures of clear, sun-filled waters where bright colored choral reefs, schools of florescent fish, sea mammals, whale sharks, manta rays, and giant sea turtles flourished. But this dream never became a reality.
My sister prefers to watch sea turtles in nature documentaries or in aquariums and glass-bottomed boats. She once bought a wall calendar that featured sea turtles and kept it even after the the year was over just for the photos. To me, this is evidence that the sea turtle has become a sacred symbol for she and I (although I doubt she would use that word to describe it).
You know, it’s funny. As I look at this object now and think about the future, when it’ll be just her and me, I remember something Mom and Dad told me about how my sister, because of my own mental illness, once expressed how she felt she’d actually have to take care of me in old age. This strange idea threw me off guard when it was initially brought up. I mean, since adolescence I’ve actually felt as if our roles were reversed, as if I’ve taken on the responsibilities and expectations of a typical older sibling whereas she’s become the younger one. After all, I was the first to travel across country alone on an airplane, the first get a drivers license, the first to be admitted to a four-year university, the first to earn a bachelors degree, the first to fall in love, the first travel overseas, and so on. I had the world in my pocket, the approval and praise of teachers, pastors, friends, and family; I also had the ease of learning knew material and being able to think critically about it. Because of that, I’ve often felt sorry for her, but also guilty about the seemingly uncontrollable outbursts of anger I’ve been known to have in reaction to something she’d do or say. Much has changed in recent years, but I used to think it extremely unfair that she’d been forced to live in my shadow just because of the unique challenges she’d faced from birth that were beyond her control.
On the other hand, I know she’s capable of far more than we give her credit for, despite the fact she’s very squeamish about cleaning up animal messes or seeing other humans in the nude.
But at least we still both love turtles and the memories we shared that nurtured our love for them are such that only siblings can know and understand.
Even so, I can’t ignore the sadness I sometimes feel about our relationship. It’s a grief I’ve carried from adolescence into adulthood. It’s been the root of a kind of the envy I’ve felt when watching other adult siblings enjoy their time with one another. And it stems, too, from the acute realization that my sister and I will never have the kind of closeness I see in so many of my friends’ sibling relationships.
In fact, once, not to long ago, I had a dream that my sister had been faking who she really is all our lives and we really did have enough in common to be friends as well as sisters. In that dream, we laughed and joked as I’ve done countless times with the women friends who I also see as sisters, but never really did with my actual sister. In my dream we even smoked pot together (something my real sister would never in a millions years approve of). When I awoke from my dream, I was sadder still, mourning all the things I’d never have in a sibling relationship.
Sometimes I think that if my sister were anyone but my sister, we’d probably never have been friends. I suppose that’s where the spiritual aspect our how I view our relationship fits in. I think God teaches us to be who (s)he wants us to be through relationships not of our choosing. Therefore, I’ve often felt God made us sisters so I’d learn to love those who I find difficult to love besides those I naturally gravitate toward.
But who knows? Maybe, as an outsider, you could easily love my sister. Then again, I’ve witnessed many people dismiss her without even trying to get to know her, including some of my chosen friends who’ve been close enough that I’ve felt comfortable enough to introduce them to her.
But you should know, dear reader, my sister is beautiful. She’s currently going to school, working on her bachelor’s degree one class at a time while working part-time at a job she likes with a bunch of elementary-age kids. Also, once a week, she helps lead chapel for kids who go to a private school nearby.
Meanwhile, we still share a home with our parents with rooms across from one another. It’s actually much the same setup as when we were teenagers except now she’s the one with all the pets. She has a ginger cat named Samuel, a beta fish named Strawberry, and a snail she calls Mr. Ladybug. When she laughs, she’s often either unaware or simply not bothered when no one else gets why she’s laughing. She loves to talk about her plans. Also, she is (and has been for many years) devoted to her faith. She’s read the Bible cover to cover a few times already. She loves her church and her church leaders. She doesn’t attend the same church as our parents but they don’t care as long her church is under the banner of “Christianity.” In fact, I’m actually the one who’s spiritual future they worry about because I don’t attend any church anymore.
Years ago I’d often hear her talk often about wanting to be married, but now she seems to have accepted her singleness just as I’ve accepted mine (and Mom and Dad have accepted that they’ll never be grandparents). And even though she moved back in with our parents before I did (more than a decade ago), she still talks about moving out on her own someday to a place where she feels safe and free.
I want to see her dreams come true as well, even if I’m somewhat skeptical at times (after having watched her struggle over the years with many ideas that didn’t quite pan out). But I always want the best for her. She is my sister, after all. She is kind and honest and worthy of love.
I keep this sea turtle as a reminder that, even when we fight (or when I’m simply frustrated with her for my own petty and selfish reasons), she is my sister and I love her, even when she doesn’t think I do.