Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Story of a Tortoise


The cardboard box stood in the open doorway of the downtown shop. I peered in. A box of live tortoises. I entered the shop that was lined with burlap bags of lentils, dry beans, chick peas, corn and other grains.

            “Are the tortoises for sale?” I asked. My youngest son, Nicky, would soon be celebrating his sixth birthday. I thought he’d like a pet.

They all looked the same, so I reached into the box and pulled one out. The shopkeeper put him in a small box, tied it with string and poked holes in the top. I carried the box carefully, boarded the metro and arrived home with our new pet.

            Nicky loved the tortoise and named him “Speedy Gonzalez” because on warm days his tortoise walked around the garden at an unexpected pace. We tried different foods with Speedy: ripe bananas, apricots, plums, cherries and leaves and grass in the garden. If he didn’t like something he simply plowed over it like an army tank.

Speedy lived year round in our walled backyard until one very rainy day, I found him floundering in a puddle, head submerged. We wondered if we shouldn’t leave him outside in this weather. We bought a small book about tortoises. They needed to hibernate in a dark indoor place once outdoor temperatures reached lower than ten degrees.

The next fall we placed him in a low cardboard box with a layer of soil in the toolshed. In late spring, when he began to move around, we took him outside in the daytime and returned him to his box on cooler nights.

The years passed by. Nicky, now called Nico, graduated from the university and took a job as a guide in Patagonia. I took over turtle care, though Speedy never required much care. We kept an eye on him in hot weather as he’d sneak into our bedroom and squeeze under a radiator. He loved dark corners. Summer nights he’d find a spot to sleep behind a flower pot, or beside a thick bougainvillea trunk or tucked into a hole he’d carved out. His favorite season is apricot season, when he gorges on the fallen fruit.



After Nico moved on to studies and jobs overseas, I became the official tortoise caretaker. One year, I noticed that Speedy was not his usual tortoise self, less active and eating little. After a few phone calls, I located Francisca, a veterinarian who specialized in tortoises. She informed us that Speedy is a chelonoidis chilensis, but that, in spite of his scientific name, he comes from Argentina. She examined, weighed him, checked inside his mouth and sent me to the other end of town to have him x-rayed. A tortoise x-ray! Results: Speedy had pneumonia and was underweight. Since he wouldn’t eat on his own, we had to feed him special tortoise food, vitamins and antibiotics with a syringe and we couldn’t let him hibernate. We set up a home-made tortoise terrarium: a large clear plastic box with a lamp, a heating element, a thermometer and lined with shredded paper. But Speedy still wanted to hibernate.

I picked him up and looked into his eyes. “No, Speedy! You can’t sleep! You must eat.”

Feeding him was a slow, two-person ordeal. First measure the food into a syringe. Then I’d say to the day’s designated helper (the cleaning lady or my husband) “I’ll hold his neck and open his mouth and you drop in the food.” I’d grab at his squiggly neck but he’d whisk back into his shell. After a tug of war (he has the strength of an ox), I’d manage to pry open is jaw. 

I told the vet, “This is a struggle.”

“Try relaxing him, petting him,” she said.

Okay. I can do that.

If it was too much food, it oozed out of his nose. We’d wait several minutes for him to swallow before repeating the procedure. This process took about half an hour. We did this daily for two winters. Eventually, Speedy became more cooperative and he and I even developed a bond of sorts. Then one spring he finally returned to his normal tortoise behavior.

But this past summer, I noted that once more he was not well. Even the apricots didn’t tempt him. Back to the vet. Blood tests. Antibiotics and vitamins. A kidney problem. Hand feeding again.

 

Nico has moved back to Chile with his wife and now has a daughter. When I tell him how stressful tortoise feeding has become, he decides it’s time for him to take over care of his tortoise. The vet suggests that to facilitate the feeding, she’ll attach a plastic tube to his shell and insert the other end into a small hole in his neck. 

This costly surgery requires anesthesia. Nico takes Speedy to his house that has a good size walled in garden. But feeding with the tube does not go well. One day as Speedy roamed the garden, the tube came out.

 Yet, the treatment was effective.


 

Speedy has become more active in the summer sun and developed an appetite. He’s eating apricots, mangos, peaches and the all-time favorite, figs. Now it is fall and he recently has chosen to hibernate, staying active way longer than he ever did in all the years at our house.

People ask: how old is Speedy? Speedy has been in the family for over 35 years. How old he was when we bought him is a mystery.  The family’s two dogs have accepted this reptile into their outdoor territory. And Nico’s two-year-old daughter, Mila, is enjoying getting to know Speedy.

I miss saying good morning to Speedy in our yard after so many years but I’m pleased that he is thriving in his new home.

  

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Why Do I Write?

Why do I write?

 In the beginning, I was anxious to explore what it has meant to be an expat/immigrant, the significant moments, turning points, and losses in my life and how they have shaped me. Writing has given me insight into what I value most in life. I’ve learned over the years that there is more to writing than naval gazing.

A group of expat women in a local book club recently bestowed upon me a priceless gift-- the knowledge that my words had touched them deeply. They had invited me to attend their Zoom meeting because they were discussing “Marrying Santiago,” my first book, published five years ago.

They sparkled with enthusiasm, each giving examples of aha moments. Yes! Of course! I know what you mean! I’d written about the pain of giving up my California family home. One woman worried where she and her siblings would meet, once her mother passed and the house was sold. Another brought up the great sacrifices we immigrants have experienced. This statement evoked a general and rigorous nodding of heads. Were our husbands and children cognizant of this? One woman shared that her kids commented on how their lives have been shaped by having a gringa mother. “We wouldn’t be speaking English now!”

I shared that in my family there’s seldom a reference to the sacrifices, the losses, though I know they’re very aware of it. They know how I love going back to my home turf. It’s clear in “Marrying Santiago.” One woman in the group, who happens to be from Marin County where I grew up, shared that even after six years here in Santiago, it still doesn’t feel like home. After my 49 years here, I can say that making a life in Chile has been a never-ending process. I often refer to myself as an “introduced species,” like my California redwood tree, my roots always reaching deeper with the passage of time. My husband, sons, grandchildren are my nutrients. Memories – of past vacations, family birthdays, lunch in the countryside with friends, solemn occasions like graduations and weddings –  all form part of my root system anchoring me here.

 Yet I’ll always feel like an introduced species.

Our Zoom gathering ended with all the women present thanking me profusely for having written my book! They loved it, “couldn’t put it down.”  Words that transported me into a euphoric writer’s paradise.

           


Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Grateful Tree

A few evenings ago our neighbor, Soledad, walked past our front gate carrying a large plastic jug. “I’m watering the trees,” she explained. “I hate to see them die.” She was referring to two spindly, young trees outside the uninhabited house next door to us. My first thought was: why hadn’t I, a tree person, thought of that? Then I realized that it was most likely a fruitless task. Trees roots reach far and deep. What good would an occasional jug of water do?

Chile’s Central Valley, where the city of Santiago lies, has suffered more than a dozen years of drought. Out for a neighborhood walk I constantly notice how many city street trees are brown and bare. Dead. Like California, my native state, Chile has endured severe water shortages, extreme summer heat and devastating wild fires.


We are now nearing summer’s end in the Southern Hemisphere. Leaves are already turning brown and drifting down to the ground below. While washing dishes, I was surprised and puzzled to notice that a bare, dry tree visible from the kitchen window had suddenly sprouted new green leaves. How was it possible? As the days passed, the leaves filled out more and more. Had the tree confused the seasons? Didn’t it realize that we’re on the cusp of fall and it would soon be shedding its new bright green leaves?

I pondered and puzzled about this for several days. But then, I had an AHA moment. A month ago an unusual, unheard of summer storm dumped large amounts of rain onto the city. Not only did it wash the grime and dust from the vegetation, but irrigated it as well.



That tree was thirsty. It gave a shout of joy and gratitude in an explosion of new leaves.


Saturday, January 23, 2021

Green Garden War

 

Peeking out from among browned needles on the redwood twig in my hand is a new green nub! I check other twigs. More green sprouts. New life. Yes! The redwood I brought as a seedling to Chile from Muir Woods in California thirty years ago is not going to die! It is my forest in our small city backyard. How I love inhaling its evocative pungent scent and watching its feathery branches swishing in the wind.

            When I brought the sapling here in a plastic tube, global warming hadn’t hit Santiago yet. It still rained regularly in fall, winter and spring. I never doubted the sequoia would adjust to this Mediterranean climate. Now, after fourteen years of drought, the trees in our neighborhood are dying and the redwood is close to being more brown than green. I’ve begun slow-watering it and observe with hope the progress of the new green growth.

Then the parrots arrive.

The non-native invasive Argentine parrots have taken over the city’s avian air space and food sources. They prefer building their basket-like, bulky condos in conifers. This year they’ve been sampling the flavors of my redwood and seem to find them tasty. When I realize that the small, top branches are bare, I declare a parrot war. I haul out the hose, adjusting the spigot to achieve a long, narrow stream, and aim the water to the highest branches where several green parrots are dining. Depending on the water pressure, I can almost reach the top. Sometimes I manage to hit them and they fly off in a chorus of squawking. I turn off the water and return to whatever I was doing before the parrot arrival. Yet, soon I hear more squawking and I must rush back to the hose again. Sometimes hubby helps, but we realize that this is an impossible task.

He sends out a plea to the family WhatsApp for a BB gun. A nephew arrives with his “rifle” and demonstrates how to use it. We’ve never had a gun of any sort in our house. I never imagined that we, a bird-watching family with a shelf filled with bird books, would be in favor of shooting the feathered creatures. But it was either the redwood or the parrots.

From an upstairs window, my husband takes aim and –pop! At first nothing happens, but then- squawk, squawk and off they fly, disgruntled with that disruption of their meal. Later, when they return, hubby takes aim. Pop! “Got one!” I look out to the garden and there lies a beautiful green parrot on the ground. It tries to fly, but only makes it short distances. My first reaction is to go to it, pick it up and coddle it. It manages to climb into a thick, tangled mass of ivy on the garden wall. Suddenly, we are faced with a dilemma. Our intention was not to injure a bird, just scare them until they learned their lesson.

            “I don’t want it to suffer.” I’m surprised at the intense sadness I feel.

 “Well, we want to get rid of them, don’t we?” says my husband, but I know he is upset as well.

            We search among the tangled ivy vines unsuccessfully. Is his soft green form languishing amidst the leaves or has he managed to climb to the top of the garden wall and fly off to join his clan? I doubt he’s able to fly again.

 We’ve put ourselves in this moral dilemma: the redwood or the parrots. There are hordes of parrots in every neighborhood. Only a few sequoias. Both introduced species. Will climate change reduce the parrot food supply? Or will my redwood, native to cool coastal California climes, succumb to the blistering summer heat?

So far today, no parrots! Have they learned their lesson? We have. Aim to frighten, not to maim.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

A Christmas Carol Treasure

 Embossed on the red leather cover in gold letters and ringed by a delicate holly wreath are the words A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It is a small book with gilt edges,   ‘a book that can be easily held in the hand and carried to the fireside…’

I’d determined to reread the book to enter the Christmas spirit in this pandemic year. I knew where to find it. In the side cabinet of my grandmother’s desk. Years ago it was to be found on a bookshelf in my family home. I hadn’t held the book in my hands in many years.

It smells old. The copyright is 1920. One hundred years. Because this is a purposeful rereading, I start with the introduction by A. Edward Newton, an American author, publisher and book collector. He tells the history of the book’s first publication and its influences for good in a world seemingly dominated by evil forces, a book, according to Dicken’s friend Lord Jeffrey that ‘had done more good than all the pulpits in Christendom.’

It is a story of redemption. Ghostly revelations spark Scrooge’s nostalgia for his younger, innocent self,  a self-awareness of his mean character in the present, and a gloomy vision of his future self. I can relate. The holiday season makes me nostalgic for Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere with family, especially childhood Christmases. In addition, long months of quarantine have induced me to much self-reflection that I believe also comes with the aging process. Not much time left for self-improvement!

I learn that the small book in my hand is an exact copy of the first edition, following Dicken’s dictates, including four color plates, the title page printed in red and blue, the end papers inside the covers of a Paris green color and gilt edges. I am holding a small treasure.




Our Christmas in this pandemic year will be a simple one in keeping with these times, focusing, as in A Christmas Carol, on extending cheer and love to our family, friends and neighbors.

 May these be our gifts throughout the year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Coronavirus Christmas 2020


Christmas in the southern hemisphere where I’ve lived for the past 48 years is quite unlike my previous Christmases in California, distinguished by the fragrance of fir emanating from our live Christmas tree, the cold nippy air outside, Christmas card writing, gift wrapping, mall shopping, carols on the radio, the fireplace ablaze, the thoughtful placing of the figures in the Nativity scene. As the only child, I was the focal point of the day among parents, grandparents and great-aunts. My only uncle was an Air Force pilot, so he, my aunt and two boy cousins weren’t always around. Gathered in our living room, we read each gift tag aloud and handed over the package, waiting to see and proclaim over the contents.

My first Christmas in Chile was a shock: sweltering days, a drooping pine branch with a few red ornaments, a crèche in the fireplace, in-laws, sisters- and brother-in-law and a gaggle of noisy nieces and nephews. Gift distribution was mayhem. Kids opened their presents in one big explosion of flying wrapping paper and ripped-open boxes. Over the years as I became accepted as one of the family, I suggested a bit of order might make it more enjoyable. In more recent years, when we’ve hosted Christmas at our house, my grandchildren helped decorate the tree with my old family ornaments, and we named a teenage Santa Claus who donned a red hat and white beard. Yet Santa always seemed to be in a hurry. My idea of order was difficult to maintain.

Now we are the grandparents and the great-aunts and uncles. The younger generation has been hosting the December 24th dinners. Families have grown as has the number of children present. The mayhem has returned. I didn’t put up our artificial tree last year for the first time. We’d be going to the grandkids’ house. I’d be the only one in our home to stop and notice the gleaming reflections of the colored lights in the silver, red and gold ornaments.

This year I don’t know if it’s wise for us “seniors” to expose ourselves to the younger generations, who have not been strictly social distancing. I’m imagining a quieter 2020 Christmas Eve dinner at our house with just our generation. I don’t know if they’ll agree to this cautious gringa’s idea. But, after all, on the 25th we’ll all be spending Christmas Day at our offspring’s homes. I’ll do my shopping online or in small stores. I’ll definitely set up the Nativity scene. Still undecided whether to put up a tree.

 To get into the holiday spirit, I’ll prepare the old family recipe for Scottish shortbread with my IPad tuned to Christmas music, reread my mother’s old copy of “A Christmas Carol,” and each morning I’ll water my zinnias while reflecting upon the most solemn lesson of this Coronavirus Christmas – the Interconnectedness of All.


Monday, October 26, 2020

“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Mary Oliver.

 

 

Yesterday, a warm spring day, I watched four consecutive episodes of “The Big Bang Theory.” I needed to laugh. Eight months of social distancing plus the past month house-bound recovering from hip replacement surgery require special self-permission to use my time in whatever ways lifts my spirits.

I’ve had time to reflect. Too much time. Negative thoughts and regrets have been in surplus. Yet, as I begin to feel better physically, positive sparks have begun to surface. Words like grace, patience and gratitude.

Gratitude.

I make a list. At the top of the list is Carola, our part time maid who now is my patient, angelic caregiver. Always a smile, never complaining. She’s just a couple years younger than I, and yet is able to do the housekeeping that my body resists. My appreciation (and my husband’s, as well) had already grown by leaps and bounds during the four months of quarantine that kept her from coming.

My family. Sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, sisters-in-law. How I miss the grandchildren’s visits and their hugs. I want to touch their skin. Facetime and videos are poor substitutes.

Friends. Those that go way back to childhood. Friendships that had lapsed over the years, now renewed. We find plenty to talk about: books, health, our gardens, politics.

My garden. I spend hours sitting there and observing. Robins have built a nest in the bougainvillea and continue, even after a week, to line their nest with lush grass and clumps of soil. A royal robin nest. I watch the flowers taking turns unfolding in these warming days: the snowball bush blooms are fading; the tiny yellow ranunculus glow brightly, reminding me of the buttercups of my childhood; the California blue-eyed grass sparkles in the sunlight. The seedlings: one tomato plant now with perky yellow blooms; the zinnias holding promise of bright summertime colors.



And the trees. The branches of our ancient, sturdy apricot are lined with tiny green fruit. Perhaps the most heartening news regards my redwood tree that I’d worried about. Upon very close inspection, I discovered tender verdant shoots among the summer-browned needles of the redwood.

Rewards of paying attention.