We didn’t have a lot of money when we were growing up in Brooklyn almost a half-century ago, so whenever we received a birthday present or a Chanukah gift, we were extremely grateful. When Pop, my grandfather, surprised us one day by bringing home three pet-store turtles, we were pretty near delirious.
We hadn’t owned any pets before (my little sister's stuffed animals were the closest we ever got) and these turtles were just about the cutest things ever. I don’t remember exactly how old we were, but I couldn’t have been more than 9, which would make my brother, Mike, 7 1/2, and my sister, Patti, around 6. Pop was more of a father to us than our real father, who was in prison for much of our childhood, though we thought he was just "working in California," which was the cover story our mom repeated until, I think, she believed it herself. All families, even the happy ones, have their secrets.
Our mom raised the three of us alone and worked long hours at various jobs in the garment district. And that meant we were pretty much left to fend for ourselves until she came home in the evenings. As the oldest, and the man of the house, I was charged with taking my little brother and sister to and from school. I still remember the morning we showed up a few minutes late, only to find the doors locked. I furiously banged on those doors, fighting back tears the entire time until someone let us in. It was always the three of us against the world.
But I felt like a kid again the day we came home to find the three turtles crawling around in a bowl on our kitchen table. Pop, who owned a neighborhood butcher shop, had picked them up on his way home from work and then made a detour to our apartment. He was absolutely giddy. “This one is Larry,” he said, excitedly pointing to one of the turtles. “This one is Michael,” he said, pointing to another one that looked exactly the same, “and this little one over here is Patti.”
I’ll never forget the look on my mom’s face when she came home that night and saw the three of us gathered around the kitchen table with our new pets. I don't think I ever saw her that happy before or again. That moment may have been the first time the four of us felt like a real family.
For the next few days, we woke up early so we could play with the turtles before school. I realize how childhood memories always sound better than what really happened — and these were ordinary turtles, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja variety — but it would be hard to exaggerate how much we loved them.
Then, on Sunday morning, Mike and I went into the kitchen and noticed that the turtles weren’t moving. They weren’t moving because they were covered in white powder. The white powder was Comet cleanser, from a container that was tipped over near their bowl. The three turtles were dead. When Patti woke up and saw their literal ghostly remains, she began to sob uncontrollably.
Our mom was almost hysterical. “Who did this?” she screamed. “WHO DID THIS? WHO DID THIS? Who would do such a crazy, crazy thing?”
“We didn’t do it!” I yelled back. My whole body shook and then I started to cry. Mike followed suit, Patti was already inconsolable and then our mom was crying, too, overwhelmed by the whole sad mess. I don't remember what came next, other than feeling this was the worst thing that had happened in our house since the cops knocked on our door and took my father away.
Each of us developed a theory about who had killed the turtles. At first, I figured Mike had done it on a destructive whim. Mike was convinced I was the culprit for much the same reason. Neither of us believed that Patti had done it because she was too sweet and too little. Years later, when all three of us were adults, I came to the dubious conclusion (with a little help from my shrink) that our mother had killed the turtles in a last-straw fit of rage and exhaustion, perhaps after telling us to shut up and go to sleep one too many times.
Strangely, we were satisfied with that explanation for quite some time, even though it never really made sense. Then, a few years ago, Patti and I were in Las Vegas visiting Mike on his 50th birthday and I dredged up the ancient mystery of the turtles. Memory is a funny thing. Mike remembered the turtles being in a fish tank, and Patti swore they were Comet-ized in the bathtub. But we all agreed that our mom was totally innocent. She’s been dead for more than 30 years now, and as we’ve grown older, our view of her has shifted from saint to human being, but we’ve never doubted how much she loved us. The grisly murder of the turtles, we decided, would just be one of those mysteries that remained unsolved.
That is, until a few months ago, when Patti started to blog. My sister has been going through a particularly rough time, and thought it might be therapeutic to finally face and exorcise some deep-rooted memories about the pain she suffered at the hands of others. In one post, she wrote about the crazy teenage daughter of our apartment building’s superintendent who did awful things to her, the least of which may have been stealing her father’s passkey, sneaking into our apartment and killing the turtles.
Whether that actually happened, we’ll never know. What I do know is that when a family secret is finally revealed, there’s often a darker secret inside it.