There’s a trail I like to take back of the small cluster of houses where I live outside Las Cruces. If I can I walk it early mornings and evenings just before dark. When I was a kid I did something similar, walking the pasture behind my parents’ house. On good days I’d spot a horny toad or two, ground squirrels, and puzzled over holes. Did they harbor a rattlesnake?
Here, near the Rio Grande, I’m entertained the same way: a prairie falcon one day, a Black Phoebe the next. Lizards skedaddle and roadrunners stop, eye me, and flee, their rudder-like tails coursing them along.
So when I saw a large turtle down in one of the several water treatment tanks alongside the path, I stopped and waited. No movement. It was a large turtle, maybe a snapping turtle; then on day three of my observation I began to worry. The tank was nearly dry, the Dona Ana Water Board having rotated the tun-off into another their black plastic bottomed reservoirs. Sand covered the bottom now and there were tracks in and out, something else besides the turtle seeking water. Or maybe the turtle.
The next time by, I realized the turtle probably was dead; there had been no movement of the shell. Then the next day I noticed two more shells. They might be surfacing, digging out really, from the sipapu-like hole in the tank’s middle, the only hint of water left. But they all appear dead as if the life within evaporated along with the water, leaving home.
I thought about that shell that had housed such a life.
Maybe it’s my sinus attack that followed me from my own shell in Vega, Texas, the old bungalow style farmhouse I’ve owned since the mid-1970s. The dust accumulates there, too, a kind of permanent evaporation. But whenever I go back to check on the house and my farm nearby, I open the door to a perpetual spicy smell. It might be the cedar chest in the back room. Whatever, it reminds me of my great aunt and uncle who owned the house and kindly left it to me, since none of their children cared about it.
I look around at the “artifacts” there: old photographs, collectibles from far-flung travels, one grandmother’s four poster bed, and on the back porch, my uncle Vern’s work-worn saws and shovels. A camel’s bell from Ethiopia, Native American pots from New Mexico, two china cabinets full of items of my other grandmother’s and my mother’s. I still have my mother’s china painting kit, though I cannot paint a stroke.
This is my shell and when I leave it, I feel a vacancy. It has been my shelter through failed relationships and joyous celebrations, intimate encounters, and family dinners. It holds my memories now, even though I know we are not supposed to be attached to material objects. But they all key a connection, reminders of the roots of my life.
If and when we come to the point of going into a retirement home, we are supposed to ready ourselves by culling, by getting rid of all this “stuff.” We are shamed by hoarding shows and cautionary tales about aging and the need to scale down.
I tried to start this process by inviting a local realtor over to see what I might ask for the place. Of course it would have to be emptied out. I made jokes about a bulldozer or two (there is a basement full). The realtor was quiet going through the house. The large baseboards and turn of the century fixtures, even the claw foot tub, did not impress. She quickly disappeared back into her car tossing some closer over her shoulder: “Haven’t a clue how to list it.”
I never saw her again.
I wonder about our shells and ourselves, oozing history.