Updated: Jan 18, 2021
I've never even attempted to write something like this before, but here it goes. I became "grandparent-less" this past week as we said goodbye to my grandmother Laura, known in the family as "Grandma Leone". There's something so surreal and weird about coming to terms with the fact that all your grandparents have passed on. For the most part, they lived long lives and I'm lucky enough to be able to say that all 4 of them were incredibly supportive, having great impacts on my life and who I became. Grandma Leone was 91. That's a hell of a lifetime if you ask me! She was strong, determined, totally stubborn and "with it" all the way until the end. Now, I should add in that this blog of course does have something to do with tortoises and let me tell you, the particular story tied to my grandmother is one that was a pivotal moment in my early years.
That's her to the left holding my oldest daughter Cecelia in 2017 but we need to head back in time to 1991 for this story. That year, not long after my grandfather passed, Grandma Leone took a trip back to her homeland of Italy to be with family. The Leones are "off the boat Italian". I'm talking straight up fish eating, Sunday-extravaganza-cooking, insulted if you don't eat 3 plates of food-Italian. Even my father and uncle came over from there originally....although their Italian accents are long gone and they're as Americanized as the rest of us are, it's great. But, Grandma Leone never spoke much English throughout her life and that was just fine. She was however, always finely tuned-in to whatever my interests were at the time and of course, I liked animals....specifically turtles. Up until 1991 I was only familiar with the neighborhood box turtles we'd find behind our fence and the NYC store-bought red eared sliders but, that all changed when grandma returned home from Italy.
She spent the summer over there and on a September evening we went to see her to welcome her back. She brought us all kinds of souvenirs but it was the very last gift that would completely floor me. She stood in front of the kitchen window in her North Jersey home and held up a clear, plastic box with a few holes in it. Inside, sat what I though was a fake turtle. It was totally motionless with beady, black eyes and I think my father was shocked that I wasn't making much of a big deal....yet. Just then, the "fake turtle" moved its head to one side and really, there aren't any words to possibly describe the feeling that overcame me. It wasn't fake my friends, it was living and breathing and unlike any I'd ever seen before. I had to throw in the below photo of me from back in the day just for emphasis. I mean come on, picture that kid flipping out over a turtle...
Fast forward through all the theatrics of shouting and jumping for joy in the kitchen like a total nut and I was given the story about the animal. Our family over in Italy kept "turtles" in their garden which I would come to know over the years is a very common practice in parts of Europe. According to Grandma Leone, they would sometimes "have babies", so, while on her trip, she explained to our cousins that I was obsessed with turtles here in the states. As luck would have it, a baby hatched in their garden that summer and she decided to bring it home to me as a gift. Let's stop there for a second and remember that things were very different then and instead of her getting in trouble for bringing the animal back to our country, she was actually offered help on the plane with it. The flight attendants told her to give it some air and asked if it needed any water to drink. My, how things have changed! She didn't know a thing about this turtle, only what they fed them in the garden in Italy and what the parents of it looked like. It was so small, about 2", colored black and yellow and was very inquisitive.
Once back to our house, my father and I quickly tried to figure out what kind of turtle this was! Grandma simply made one request before we left and that was to name it "Romeo" if it was a boy or "Juliet" if it was a girl. One of my first and favorite turtle books was Hartmut Wilke's "Turtles: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual" (which I still have) and that was the very book that helped us figure out what this Italian treasure was. The turtle was in fact a tortoise, known as the Mediterranean spur-tailed tortoise or, Hermann's tortoise. Some of you who know me and my present-day work might be figuring out where this is going by now. The book also helped us to be pretty sure that "Juliet" was the more fitting name. In truth, this tortoise was far too young to sex but we felt pretty confident about it being a lady.
Juliet the Hermann's tortoise became a beloved family pet very quickly. We of course were not well-versed on how to raise tortoises properly so she spent much of her short life in a fish tank with a heat lamp in our family room. The books I read back then were filled with outdated information and that of course didn't help things much. Despite keeping her in an inadequate setting, I did come to find that she loved to graze in the backyard and I fed her many weeds I'd pick from there. So, it wasn't all bad, I guess. Compared to what I know now it was atrocious, but hey, that's how most of us got our start with these reptiles. Juliet seemed to thrive through the winter months in our family room and come spring, I started keeping her outdoors.
Like any young animal lover, having just one is never enough and with the warm weather returning I started making my way back into the woods again to look for...you guessed it....more turtles! Despite my father suggesting to me that I should just focus on Juliet because of how special she was, I continued to bring turtles home and ignored those words of advice. I came home from school one hot day in mid June, dropped my backpack in the kitchen and ran out back to see how my turtles were doing. It was always the most exciting part of each and every day. To my complete surprise, I found Juliet dead just a few inches from her water bowl. I'll never forget that feeling and having to tell my father when he came home from work. It was truly a traumatizing moment for me and I beat myself up over it for what felt like forever. I don't know what caused such an untimely demise and it may have been a combination of things but the positivity in that harsh experience is that I learned so much from it.
I wasn't the one to share that news with Grandma Leone, dad was, but she of course didn't hold anything against me. I was, after all, just a kid who was only beginning to learn. She even tried to bring another Hermann's tortoise home for me when she again visited our family in Italy but the stars didn't align that time. My mother and father eventually made their way over to Italy as well and at least got to take pictures with the parents of Juliet who are of no surprise, still alive today. Here's dad with those iconic tortoises in Italy back in 2015:
What happened after we lost Juliet is why this animal and grandma's attempt to give me the ultimate gift are so important. After shaping up and burying my nose in every aspect of information on these creatures, I came to learn that Juliet wasn't just any Hermann's tortoise, she was an endangered western Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni hermanni). Some authors would even refer to them as "the Italian tortoise". That was fun to learn since grandma and dad dubbed them that from the start! I became immersed in absorbing every single tidbit of knowledge I could about these rapidly declining tortoises and was beyond determined to acquire them again with a much higher purpose. I spent over a decade researching them, becoming more and more obsessed with them. Although my direction in life would change from time to time, this interest in preserving and conserving turtles and tortoises, precisely the western Hermann's, always remained paramount. At some point it actually became so strong that it blinded me from all other endeavors aside from meeting and marrying my wife. Once my attempts to find these tortoises reached the right audience I began making this wild dream a reality. Turtles and tortoises of all kinds would come and go throughout the years as I aspired to be something bigger and greater but when I finally received my first true western Hermann's tortoises through my own hard work, the foundation of Garden State Tortoise was cemented.
I won't go overboard telling you all about Hermanni Haven and the work I've accomplished with western Hermann's tortoises to date, because you can simply visit the site for that, but I will finish this up with a few words for grandma.
One thing that gets to me a bit is that I don't think she ever knew the impact that she had on me with that tortoise. It literally set the stage and paved the road for what would happen so many years later. Even while she was still with us I was writing about these animals, experiencing them in the flesh by breeding and caring for a large number of them every single day and even taking part in genetic work that could help them both in captivity and in the wild. Something special happened in the very moment that she handed Juliet over to me and even I cannot fathom the right way to explain it. This species of tortoise and the memory of the first time I held one in grandma's kitchen is imbedded deeply into the man I am today. It affected me on a level no one could have ever imagined and maybe Juliet dying was only fuel to the growing fire. In some ways, that little tortoise's early death may have been a major trigger in me wanting to do better and to be better. So many people in the animal world have a favorite species or type because of the way it looks or acts or for some other reason, but for me it's so much more than that. This is a species I have now become globally known for and the nostalgia, the comfort and the drive that first little Italian tortoise gave and still gives me are things I wouldn't trade for the world. The thing is, I owe it all to Grandma Leone. She knew what I loved and she somehow turned that little spark into a lifelong passion for me. Aside from my family, western Hermann's tortoises are my absolute favorite thing in this crazy world and if I was told I had to keep just one species for the rest of my days, it would be them, without hesitation. Here's me in more recent times surrounded by some of the ones we are so fortunate to now have.
Like I said earlier, grandma didn't speak much English so I never said any of this to her until her final days. I explained a bit of it to my uncle who relayed it in Italian to her just a few weeks ago. I then showed her pictures of some of the tortoises I currently have here and it put a big smile on her face. She was "with it" until the end so she knew exactly what I was showing her. In more recent years, whenever she'd visit us, she'd always ask how the "Italian turtles" were doing and if they "had any babies". I was always quick to tell her the latest and she'd even walk out to the enclosures to check them out. Below is definitely the most cherished photo I have of her holding one of my absolute favorite western Hermann's tortoises who happens to originate from Puglia, the region in Italy where our family comes from. This tortoise was always referred to as "9207" because that's her studbook number but at the time of writing this I've decided to give her an actual, well-deserved name, which of course is Laura.
Laura Leone was an amazing woman. She never missed a thing for any of us grandkids and family was everything to her. She built an empire of a family and although she lived such a long, fruitful life, it still stings pretty bad that she's gone. She was so influential for me and she barely even knew it. I remember few things from my childhood as vividly as I do the moment she gave me that very first tortoise and it wholeheartedly was what brought this turtle interest to an entirely new level. The seed was planted by dad with the first box turtle in the yard and then grandma watered the hell out of it with that first tortoise! Because of what this crazy dream has become, I have given my own family so much and man, I can honestly say this is such a kick-ass life. Grandma Leone even got to know my own children, her great grandkids, for a while which is something many don't get to say. I only wish my other incredible grandparents got to meet them as well. Still, I can't complain. Altogether, my family as a whole is unlike any other in the most wonderful way and every single one of them holds an irreplaceable place inside me.
"Laura the tortoise" shown here to the right is doing great. She's currently brumating outdoors as she does every year and like the others, I can't wait to see her again in the spring. She's a beautiful tortoise and represents her species flawlessly. I like to think of her as the quintessential western Hermann's tortoise and it's amazing to me that Grandma Leone got to hold her and let me tell her a bit about her. It's also pretty rad that she's from where the Leone family began.
I don't have any photos of that original tortoise Juliet, just this drawing I made of her back in '91, but maybe some day one will turn up. For the record, I have gotten much better at drawing turtles and tortoises!
So, what else can I really say. Losing anyone of any age totally sucks. There's no sugar coating that and the void never really goes away. But, on a positive note, I'm beyond thankful for what I got to experience thanks to her and as cliche as it may sound, the memories really do live on. For me, all I have to do is look at one of these tortoises I share my home with and that just takes me right back to that monumental moment in grandma's kitchen.
Rest easy grandma, farewell for now, we love you and hey, thank you. Seriously.
Love your forever grateful and proud grandson,
Cecelia and I carefully watching one of our western Hermann's tortoises dig a nest just last year.