In this store, Diane the near-50-year-old turtle helps you come out of your shell

  • Diane the turtle gets ready to grab a piece of strawberry from Jim Tonner in the special room he and his twin brother, Brad, designed for her. The owners of the TwinDesigns Gift Shop in Bristol plan to have a 50-year birthday celebration for the turtle in December. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jim Tonner has cared for Diane the Turtle for nearly 50 years after he received the pet while recovering from a medical condition at age 12. Tonner washes her every week and keeps her cage and tank clean. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Diane swims in the tank at the TwinDesigns Gift Shop in Bristol on Monday, June 25, 2018. Jim Tonner and his twin brother, Brad, keep her in a special room where patrons can come and look at her. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jim Tonner, who co-owns TwinDesigns Gift Shop with his twin brother, Brad Tonner, gave Diane the miracle turtle her own room off the main portion of the store. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jim Tonner gave Diane the miracle turtle her own room off the main portion of the TwinDesigns Gift Shop in Bristol. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jim Tonner (left), who co-owns TwinDesigns Gift Shop with his twin brother, Brad Tonner (right), show customers the book they produced and released three years ago on Monday, June 25, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Diane the Turtle peers out of the tank in her special room at the TwinDesigns Gift Shop in Bristol on Monday, June 25, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Cheryl Germano (left) and her mother, Sandra Germano, visit the TwinDesigns Gift Shop in Bristol on Monday, June 25, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 6/25/2018 7:50:28 PM

Diane greeted her guests with a pullup, peeking over the edge on top of her 60-gallon home, hoping Jim Tonner had brought her a snack.

And he had. Tonner, who co-owns TwinDesigns Gift Shop with his twin brother, Brad Tonner, gave a strawberry to the miracle who lives in a room off the main portion of the store.

I say miracle because Diane is as big as a plate and almost as old as me. Once, though, she was one of those silver-dollar sized turtles with the bright yellow belly, the kind that died after a few weeks, maybe a few months.

Remember?

We’d put them in a little plastic container with a little raised platform, a little plastic palm tree and a little water. We’d pay attention for a little while, they’d die, we’d flush and life moved on.

Not Diane. She weighs around 4 pounds, chomps on huge lettuce leaves, does pullups when Jim enters the room and was born on Dec. 15.

1968.

That’s right. Diane came into this world the same year the Beatles released the White Album. The Beatles are long gone.

Long live Diane.

“People come here and maybe they have problems in life,” Jim told me while feeding Diane more strawberries. “But for a few minutes they all melt away. Kids and adults smile. They’ll email us after leaving here and most of them we will never see again.”

I can confirm that. As Jim explained and Diane ate, Brad walked in with an envelope. Its return address was North Carolina. Its words expressed gratitude and affection. Its greeting was not sent to Jim or Brad.

“Dear Diane,” it began.

“Diane has followers from Switzerland,” Brad later told me, “and Japan and Peru and Paris and Australia and New Zealand and Ukraine.”

This is what the Tonners have cultivated in their shop in downtown Bristol. Uniqueness is omnipresent, and for reasons beyond the fact that Diane lives there.

The brothers live upstairs with their two cats and a box turtle named Sam. The shop is old-school, with two long rows of glass containers, each filled with candy. A giant turtle greets you near the front door, and photos jam each inch of space on the walls.

Photos of boys and girls with Red Sox and Star Wars T-shirts. Photos of mothers and fathers standing beside those children. Photos of people smiling.

And, in every single photo, Diane is in the background, sometimes during that mealtime pullup. She’s not always obvious, but if you look hard enough, you’ll see her.

“It doesn’t matter what nationality you are, how old you are,” Jim noted. “Everyone has a good time.”

The backstory, like Diane’s life span, sounds like something out of a children’s book – which, by the way, is something Jim and Brad collaborated on, creating, The Story of Diane the Turtle.

It begins in Wrentham, Mass., south of Boston, where 12-year-old Jim spent a month in the hospital with an arthritic ailment. Once home, he spent another five months in bed, placed in traction each night.

His life changed shortly after Brad, his sister and his parents created a game: They’d place little surprises in a basket attached to a string, which Jim would then pull up and into his second-floor window.

He’d reel in games, puzzles, playing cards, plants. A neighbor donated a goldfish in a plastic bag (No, it’s not still alive).

Then, one day, a tiny turtle found its way up the side of the house and into Jim’s bedroom. Jim named her Diane, after a cousin who had treated him well during those painful days in bed.

Adding to the magic here is the fact that Jim doesn’t know who put Diane in the basket. Brad says it wasn’t him. And now, does it really matter?

“I needed something in those days, when I was in that position for so long,” Jim said. “We just came together, connected.”

Life rolled by and things changed. Diane’s home went from that little palm-treed dish to a tank to a bigger to a bigger tank.

Jim got married and opened a wholesale store with Brad, whose artwork adorned products they sold. Customers met Diane and marveled at her age. Ten years old? Amazing. Twenty years old? Impossible. Thirty? What have you been feeding that thing?

Their late father, the tough Navy pilot who bombed Nazi U-boats during World War II, cared for Diane when his boys were busy, always turning off the light and saying good night.

Jim lost his wife to heart disease at the age of 39. Then the brothers moved into the retail business, opening their shop here seven years ago and turning it into all things turtle.

Word spread. Their book was published three years ago. Suddenly, everyone wanted to go to the cool store, run by the twins with the booming laughs, with the turtle in the back room who had lived forever and did pullups.

One thing that never changed, though, was the bond between Jim and Diane, which remained strong like a turtle’s shell.

“I go in there and Diane is like, ‘How ya doing?’ ” Brad said. “But when Jim goes in, Diane is like, “Jim!’ ”

Diane, of course, is good for business. Cheryl Germano lives south of Boston and has a place in Campton. She brought her mother and friend to the shop Monday, convinced they’d love Diane. They bought the book and a stuffed turtle for Cheryl’s sister, who teaches special needs children.

Germano went into a room deep within the shop, past Diane’s room, picked up a carved walking stick and pointed to a picture high on the wall, a picture of her and her friends from last summer.

Diane was in the background, of course.

“I had to introduce my mother to this,” Germano told me. “And I’m going to bring my grandson here later this summer. He’ll be 4.”

Germano’s mother, Sandra Germano, had heard the stories about the once-little turtle who grew up to be a big turtle and was approaching her 50th birthday.

“She was talking to me a lot and I thought she was crazy,” Sandra said of Diane. “But I was amazed. She was talking to me. We bonded. I think she thought my red nails were strawberries.”

Heather LaBarre brought her two high school-aged daughters and their friend from North Smithfield, R.I. LaBarre has been visiting every year since the twins opened seven years ago.

“I couldn’t believe how old and big she was,” LaBarre said. “And she definitely has personality.”

LaBarre said her daughters ask every year “to go back to the turtle store.”

“I thought it was so cool, how long she’s been here,” said Tessa LaBarre.

And Punxsutawney Phil has nothing on Diane, who doesn’t eat through the winter, then starts again in late February or early March. To the Tonners, that marks spring, and they haul out their Adirondack chairs on the day of that first meal and take a photo in front of the store of two lucky young customers, snow on the ground or not. Then the photo goes on the wall.

“If you have a sense of humor,” Brad said, “you’ll get a kick out of Diane.”

The brothers showed a sense of humor when I went Donald Trump on them and asked for a birth certificate, proving Diane’s age. They’re holding a 50th birthday party on Dec. 1, complete with balloons and cake and lots of guests. At a recent party, all 800 turtle cookies were eaten.

“I have her birthday marked on an index card,” Jim told me. “It’s in a box somewhere.”

I quickly forgot and didn’t pursue it.

A 50-year-old turtle was over by the wall, doing a pushup.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)




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