Churchy is a three-legged western box turtle my family keeps as a pet. Except, I feel bad calling him a pet. I’m not really a pet person anyway. I was never so fond of a cat or dog as I am of Churchy, and Churchy is not half as demanding as a cat or a dog. Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of him.
During the winter, Churchy lives in a terrarium in the basement and hibernates, mostly. At a couple points during the winter months, he gets confused by the warmth of the house and the sun through the sliding-glass door. He wakes up and sort of flings himself against the glass of his terrarium, noisily notifying us that it’s summer and he needs to be out in the garden. When that happens, my husband, Keith, brings Churchy outside and shows him the snow. Simultaneously mollified and shocked, Churchy accepts the limits of the terrarium and the season. Before Churchy returns to his hibernative state, Keith gives him a tiny bowlful of water and a cut-up grape. Considering the snow, the grape must really confuse him.
Every year it’s the same, Churchy’s winter of discontent. But roughly from May through September, Churchy lives—and luxuriates—in the vegetable garden. It’s surrounded by a wooden fence that’s reinforced with chicken wire, so nothing can get in and he can’t get out. He waits for the tomatoes. I plant sungold minis and romas and big boys. He especially likes the big boys, defying the rule against never eating anything bigger than one’s head. During the heat of the day, he hangs out under the grapevine or the rhubarb leaves, depending on his mood and the angle of the sun.
We don’t know why he only has three legs. He was found that way on Keith’s mom’s farm in southern Illinois. We think he’s about 16 years old, and he’s a rambunctious 16. Witness the flinging of self against the terrarium, and the way he zips across the garden to his destination among the cool of the lettuce, even though he won’t eat a leaf of it. Who knows why he does what he does. Last week he attacked my finger as if it were raw meat. I quickly forgave him. The tomatoes are weeks from ripening, and we’re all a bit anxious these days.
I’ve always loved turtles, from the time I was little. My parents would get me those tiny ones that were later accused of carrying salmonilla. The first turtle disappeared and they got me a new one. Then he disappeared. Months later, by chance, I found him (or her) hibernating in a stack of old newspapers. This left me feeling unworthy of caring for turtles, since I wouldn’t have guessed that was what he (or she) needed or desired. So I didn’t keep them as pets after that, although I continued to collect turtle-related items: stained-glass turtle lamps that light from within, turtle earrings, pipestone turtles authentically made by Indians. (Once people know you collect something, you’d be surprised by the variety of items available.)
I like the idea of the turtle: the self-containment of the protective shell, the wisdom gained from a long life. The Iroquios believed that creation began on a turtle’s back. As for our Churchy, my husband named him, affectionately, for Churchy LeFemme, the turtle in the Pogo comic strip. But don’t let that limit your idea of Churchy. Talk to him a little bit. Tell him a story. He’s a great listener—no cartoon character, Churchy the three-legged turtle.
Writing a church blog about my turtle may seem very frivolous, but if you re-read all I’ve written about Churchy, you might find some deeper, even spiritual meaning. His desire to awaken from hibernation and live in the garden, for instance, like a spiritual awakening or a return to The Garden. The beautiful protective shell could be made of God’s mercy and protection, all at once. Creation and the wisdom of the ages. The three legs, representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. OK, maybe not. But the name, Churchy. There might be something there.