Two Reptiles and a Mammal

posted in: Aging, Memoir, Poetry | 0

Memories of childhood and the curious experience of our changing bodies, with works by Nancy Davidoff Kelton, Susan Okie and Wendy Taylor Carlisle.
6 minutes


There was a cartoon in The New Yorker a couple weeks ago of two rabbits sitting at a scrabble board. They were waiting impatiently for the tortoise across the table to form its word.  

Here’s a piece about turtles. Or tortoises. Or terrapins — I have no idea what the difference is. It’s from Nancy Davidoff Kelton’s book Finding Mr. Rightstein

When tiny turtles came onto the scene, I got one. Not the first time I asked, but only after dragging my mother to the W. T. Grants pet department at the University Plaza whenever we did errands, pretending I wanted a parakeet. Mom didn’t want extra living things in the house. She didn’t really want those of us who weren’t extra.  

Eventually, she agreed on a turtle if I’d take care of it. I kept my Myrtle’s bowl on the kitchen counter next to where Mom seasoned our food with paprika. I liked keeping everyone and everything close. I worried, though, that when my mother drank her highballs, she might pour paprika on my turtle.  

I watched Myrtle sleep. Watched her climb rocks. Took her out and let her crawl on my hand. Spoke to her when I fed her in the morning and at night before going to bed.  

Myrtle died the day the elephant at the Buffalo Zoo died. Dad took me there on weekends . . . The food concession man told us the elephant would have a funeral.  

I insisted Myrtle have one, too. I invited Grandma Cohen. She drove. Not well. Very slowly. She could barely see over the steering wheel. She didn’t park well either. She parked her black Studebaker in the middle of the street.  

On the Sunday afternoon after Myrtle died, Grandma, wearing a navy short-sleeved dress and a long, sad face, joined Susan, Daddy and me in the backyard. My sister had decided to wear her white blouse with her red and green plaid skirt. I wore my white blouse and plaid skirt, too. The four of us dug a hole by the backyard fence with the snow shovel. I glanced at the back door to see if my mother was on the way out. No.  

“Shouldn’t we wait for Mommy?” I asked. Daddy shook his head. Dirt covered his cheek and forehead. I almost laughed. I placed my dead little turtle in the ground in her bowl. Grandma, Susan, Daddy, and I covered it with dirt and then put tulips and dandelions on the mound. I kept checking the door and the kitchen window. No sign of my mother. She stayed upstairs the day we buried Myrtle.  

An excerpt from Nancy Davidoff Kelton’s book Finding Mr. Rightstein

Susan Okie said that the tiny rough points that erupted on her skin from the cool, dry air of Arizona started to make her feel like a horned lizard. She said, “Now I am studying birds, reptiles, insects, and find myself looking at poems as passages to other ways of being.” Here’s her poem “Metamorphosis.” 

Each day drier,
sandpaper skin  
pebbles my shoulders.  
Warty tags pop out.  

The high desert’s  
adapting me,  
molding the squat,  
flattened shape  
and blunt snout  
of a short-horned lizard,  
one of a dozen species  
found in North and Central  

Spikes will grow 
along my spine —
yellow, reddish-brown. 
I look forward 
to the crown of horns  
sprouting on my head,  
poking through gray hair.  

Ants will be my staple. 
I’ve tried one, 
snapping it up, 
swallowing it whole. 
For balance, I’ll chomp  
the occasional grasshopper,  
beetle or spider.  

Earth tones of my thorny  
hide will camouflage me  
from those who crave lizard —
hawks, roadrunners, snakes,  
dogs, wolves, coyotes,  
other lizards.  

I’m learning 
to inflate my body 
to twice its size. 
If that doesn’t suffice,  
I’ll shoot blood 
from my eyes.  

“Metamorphosis.” Susan Okie. From Passager Issue 61.  

Wendy Taylor Carlisle said she sees the everyday as a thinly-disguised fairy tale. Space cadet cows, frog-princes, lost children in the woods pile up poem after poem. Here’s her poem “Hey Diddle, Diddle.”  

The cows are up there. Did you think 
there was just one jumping over the moon?  
Really? Bovines have a cosmic disposition.  

Cow astronauts, all day chewing 
like celestial machines, the grass moving  
from stomach to stomach becoming cud.  

All night, atmosphere to troposphere to space, 
leaping and leaping, coming back to their jobs 
as milk or rib roast or Camembert or Nursery Rhymes,  

but always touched, remembering  
how their udders floated, weightless 
in the vacuum over the moon.  

Wendy Taylor Carlisle’s “Hey Diddle, Diddle” from Passager Issue 72.  

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 For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.