A Turtle Named Molly

Learning to see without sight

Posted in Musings on August 04, 2014

It’s a quiet Tuesday afternoon at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, and the other docents and I stare out the big picture window, watching windsurfers fly across the choppy waves. We all hope to see a whale, so we’re keeping a close eye on the ocean. So far, the only excitement has been the windsurfers every now and then getting toppled by the strong April winds.

I decide to leave the window to see if anyone has any questions about jellies, decorator crabs or swell sharks. I round the corner of the rocky reef tank and come upon a 12-year-old girl wearing lime-green sweatpants, flip-flops and a pink t-shirt. In one hand she carries a cane. She has her head tilted towards the shrimp tank but her eyes are closed and she holds herself rather awkwardly. The lady with her immediately ropes me in:

"Oh hi! Sheila here was hoping someone could tell her more about what's in these tanks. Could you do that for us?" "Yeah, yeah!" Sheila pipes in, "What's in here? What are they??"

She speaks to the urchins like you would a kitten.

She feels the cold glass with her right hand, trying to get an idea of who might be lurking out of sight. I happily jump in, doing my best to describe the little crustaceans in detail.

Sheila quickly decides I’m her new friend for the day and takes my hand asking about the tide pool touch table. I lead her and her guardian, Sophie, over to the sea anemones. Sheila is so excited by the sticky tentacles and wants to know, “What do they eat? What am I feeling — legs?”

I describe the tentacles and their little stinging cells, that to us, just feel sticky due to our thick skin. She is fascinated and confidently proclaims, "I just loooove the sea anemone. It’s so beautiful. What is to my right?"

I take her through the center like this; holding her hand and guiding her left or right and around corners to all the things she can feel and really connect with. She holds a hermit crab, feels the difference between a bat star and a leather star, and runs slippery kelp through her hands asking, "Can I feed it to the anemone? Can I feed it to the sea urchin?" She speaks to the urchins like you would a kitten, "Come here little guy, come here you! I have some seaweed for you!"

We touch the swell sharks together even though before and after she keeps asking calmly if they will eat her. I assure her no, they are very docile sharks and much too small. I touch her shoulder and then her waist, explaining that they are only as long as her upper body. "What do they eat?" she asks. "We feed them bits of fish and squid here at the center," I reply. "Ooooh do you have squid here?" "No,” I answer, “but we do have an octopus!"

At the octopus tank, Sheila exclaims over the cephalopod's beauty even before I can tell her it’s in hiding. She exclaims over every creature’s beauty whether I describe it or not. She doesn’t let her lack of vision dampen her spirits or inhibit her from engaging with the marine creatures.

She is very talkative and inquisitive, never ashamed to reach for my hand for guidance.

Sheila explains to me how her eyes are a very light blue and that's why she can't see. Her pale blue iris is barely visible behind a milky white film. I am impressed by her confidence and spunk. She is very talkative and inquisitive — never shy or faltering, never doubting herself — never ashamed to reach for my hand for guidance.

After the octopus, we visit the pelt table to feel the seal and otter furs. Always concerned about upsetting the animals she touches, I assure her if she handles them gently they won't mind. The pelts, I have to explain, are only the animal's fur, not the live creature. She goes down the line of pelts, stroking each one in all directions then asking if she can smell them too.

“It smells so good!” she exclaims over the harbor seal. I bend down to take a whiff. Hmm, not bad. I would never have thought to smell it! When she feels the otter fur she exclaims, "Ooooh it's so soft and thick! We should reuse the pelts and make carpet out of them for our homes!" A nice idea, I say, but go on to explain the rarity of these pelts and the otter's past threat of extinction. Sheila nods in understanding. "Oohhhhh, Molly? Can you come to the gift store with us? I want to find a toy turtle!"

In the gift shop, I find myself pulling out different toys for Sheila to touch and fawn over. She specifically asks for something squishy that lights up. A soft rubber ball filled with colorful light-up “DNA molecules" most closely matches her request. Sheila presses it up to her right eye happily and exclaims over the brightness.

She holds rubber sea stars and sharks, a soft otter puppet, a stuffed whale, a singing bird toy and every other toy she can run her fast fingers over. Finally, we decide upon a plush sea turtle for her to take home. She holds it close with delight and her guardian Sophie exclaims, “Oh it’s just perfect, Sheila. Beautiful! Let’s get it.”

We walk up to the cash register and Sheila asks if I will help her name the new toy. “Uh, oh gee,” I stumble, “I haven’t named anything in such a long time. Pacific? Seymour?” Sophie whispers in Sheila’s ear, “Why don’t you name it Molly so you can have something to remember her by?” “I’ll name it Molly!” Sheila loudly exclaims, “And I’m going to come back and see you, ok?”

Sophie asks to take down my address so that Sheila can write me a thank you letter using her brail computer. I nearly melt. A sea turtle named Molly and a thank you letter in brail? This is all too much. Sheila holds my hand tightly as she vows again to come and visit me.

I watch as Sheila walks with sure swinging strides out the door and cross my fingers that Molly the sea turtle really will remind her of me for years to come. I know I will remember our tactile tour until I too may have to see the beauty of the world without sight.