Hamsters and the Virgin Mary

The hamster was not my idea. The hamster was Ginny’s idea and somehow, she roped Jamie’s sister Keisha into it, too.

Colin had been asking for a kitten, but we already have a dog. Paisley, our miniature schnauzer, was bought for Jack after he turned three. Buddies for the last 11 years, Paisley follows Jack from room to room, sleeps at the foot of Jack’s bed and gets antsy when Jack isn’t home.

Colin wanted a kitten, but he is allergic. Enter hamster.

The day after Thanksgiving two years ago, Ginny declared she had a great idea. She would buy Colin a hamster with all the extras for his Christmas present. I wasn’t thrilled but thought it would be a good compromise. Jamie hated the whole thing but said if I would accept all responsibility for the hamster, including any potential funeral planning, he’d not fuss too much.

In the weeks before Christmas, Ginny went to a local pet store and picked out a palm-sized, black bear hamster and all the extras: a cage, bedding, food, exercise wheel and a clear ball the hamster could roll around the house.

She decided to keep the hamster at her office so that it would get used to daytime/nighttime routines. Gin also thought it was a good idea to get the hamster accustomed to being picked up and petted and carried. Excellent plan.

There was only one problem. Five days into Operation Hamster, Ginny had an unexpected business trip pop up. No big deal. She just called in the big guns – Mama.

Although Daddy was not a hands-off parent when it came to caregiving, he didn’t have Mama’s touch. Once when Ginny and I were both home from school sick with a stomach virus, Daddy stayed home from work with us. Ginny and I were dubious of his skills from the get-go. He made us a pallet in front of the wood burning stove and sat in the armchair to read to us “until you fall asleep.” Mama told us stories about growing up in Japan or Hawaii, but Daddy hauled down big, brown books of poetry and read poems all elementary school children love, “Gunga Din” by Kipling, “The Birches” by Frost, or “Ozymandias” by Shelley. [Insert eye-roll here.]

On this day, he asked if I were interested in trying a home remedy that his Aunt Thellie used to make him feel better when he was a little boy. I was unsure but agreed mostly because I felt guilty for pouting and flouncing around on my pallet for most of his poetry reading.  I knew from the tone of his voice, I’d hurt his feelings.  Ginny, on the other hand, always the more amenable child, had fallen asleep.  Skeptical of the idea, I agreed. Daddy soaked a small cotton washcloth in cold water, wrung it out hard and directed me to lay it across my bare stomach. I did. The water was cold, the rag felt gross. The “remedy” made me feel even worse, and I threw up immediately. We tried no more home remedies, and I’m pretty sure that was the last time he stayed home with us when we were sick.

Mama is a master caregiver. It’s instinctive to her.  Not usually one for pet names, when we were sick, Mama spoke softly and called us, “Baby” or “Shug.” She drew us warm soapy baths. While we were soaking in the tub, she changed the sheets on our beds, complete with starched and ironed pillowcases, because as she explains it, ironed pillowcases feel better. She wrapped us in warm towels straight from the dryer and put us in clean pajamas. She made chicken soup, homemade mashed potatoes, grits – anything she thought would entice us to eat. She brewed hot tea, squeezed cold compresses, sang lullabies, told us stories, slathered us in Vick’s Vapor Rub and stroked our foreheads with soft hands.  Sleep juice.

Mama was delighted to hamster-sit. She set up the cage in the walk-in closet and told Gin that she put an old towel over the cage at night, so the hamster would “feel more secure.” The first morning of the hamster’s luxury stay, Mama lifted the towel, peeked into the cage and saw a teeny, tiny baby hamster foot. After closer inspection and at final count, there were five baby hamsters. FIVE. BABY. HAMSTERS.  They were hairless, blind, not even as long as a pinky finger- helpless.  Ginny said Mama’s first words when she called were, “Gin, you are not gonna believe this….”

Ginny called her vet to get the low-down on baby hamster care. The vet explained we shouldn’t get too excited. She said baby hamsters rarely survive. Mother hamsters often cannibalize their young, so we shouldn’t get attached. We would be lucky if even one lived to maturity.

Once we knew those babies had all odds against them, they suddenly became the most loved baby hamsters ever born in the history of the entire world. Ginny started researching mother and baby hamster care so the babies had the greatest chance of survival.

Advice was that mama hamster needed materials available to her so that she could “nest.” So, Mama ripped up handfuls of unscented toilet paper and watched as the little mama stuffed her cheek pouches full, softening the paper. Then, she used her tiny little hands to line her new nest. We learned one of the reasons mother hamsters cannibalize their young is because after giving birth, the craving for protein is so great, she cannot help herself. So, Mama boiled an egg every day and added little bits of warm diced egg to mama hamster’s formulated food.

A few days after the discovery, Ginny returned from her trip, but Mama asked to keep the mama hamster and her babies in Elmodel. “They shouldn’t travel. They just need to be still together,” she said.

We were well into Advent, and Christmas Day was upon us. We were all busy with Christmas hustle-and-bustle. Trees were up. Carols were on the radio. Sunday sermons were leading us to The Christmas Story. We’d all put out our nativity scenes, and in the Sanders’ walk-in closet in Elmodel was a mama hamster with all odds stacked against her five, teeny-tiny babies.

I realize it sounds sacrilegious, but for me, the whole hamster drama was reminiscent of The Christmas Story.  The December before Jack was born in April, I was full of hormones and foot cramps and indigestion and cravings. That Christmas, The Virgin Mary weighed heavy on my mind. On my commute into the city, I would daydream about the 100 mile, eight to ten-day trip Mary made all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. She and Joseph were so young. They must have been terrified – at the very least uneasy and unsettled. The trip would have been dusty, rocky and full of potholes. I know her back and feet must’ve hurt.  What was Mary’s facial expression when after finally arriving in Bethlehem they had to bed down in a manger?  Was she already in labor?  Was she trying to make the best out of things or was she exasperated and scared? Or, maybe all three? Mary’s mama wasn’t there to comfort her. What stories might Joseph have whispered to Mary or poems might he have recited to ease her mind and pain?

Mr. Walter, our wise Presbyterian minister, used to preach an entire sermon on Luke 2:19 “Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart.” He impressed on our little congregation the importance of the verb ponder – how specific and important that particular word is to Christmas and to Christianity. Officially, ponder means, “to think about something very carefully, usually before making a decision; to contemplate.” Mr. Walter, a confirmed bachelor, hit the nail on the head with his ruminations about Mary and how she had many things to ponder both before and well after Jesus’s birth. Surely, that’s something all mothers share – the pondering.

As Christmas came closer to us in Elmodel, the hamster babies were thriving, and their mama was, too. She was nursing them and very protective. Mama would coo to her, “You’re such a good little mama,” and I would swear the mama hamster would smile up at her proudly, her little human-like hands holding the sides of her cage. She enjoyed her daily nibbles of egg and accepted them directly from Mama’s hand. The babies’ hair began to come in, and they began to move around the cage on their own. Mama hamster moved them around the cage like kittens, picking them up with her mouth by the scruff of their necks and putting them where she wanted them.  The babies began to play together.  It became clear that they were all going to be just fine.

Christmas Day came, and thankfully we were well within the recommended time it is safe to hold hamsters after a delivery.  Keisha carried mama hamster into Colin who was waiting with his eyes closed for his “special present.” When he opened his eyes and saw the little rodent in her hand, he screamed and ran to his Daddy’s arms, but when he realized it wasn’t a mouse, he softened. He tiptoed over to the little brown mama and touched her with his index finger, “Hey, Bailey,” he whispered. He held her gently in his little hands, sweaty with a sudden rush of adrenaline, stroking her softly between her teacup-like ears.

Although the names didn’t get much traction, I named the three boy babies: Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar. The two girls: Mary and Angel. On day 21, we separated the girls from the boys. By day 35, we found homes for four babies. We were keeping one – a boy that was renamed Junior, because “Melchior is a dumb name for a hamster, Mama.”

Bailey and Junior lived side-by-side in their hamster cages in the laundry room. They were content, I suppose. Every day around 6:30pm, Colin fed them. Every other day or so they rolled around the house in their little clear hamster balls for exercise. Every Sunday I cleaned their cages. Sometimes they got special treats like small bits of cucumber or half of a peeled, seedless grape.
Colin held them almost every day.

Every time I put Bailey back in her cage, I would hold her just a little while longer and marvel at God’s grace even for the smallest and most vulnerable among us, and I’d ponder on that for a while, too.

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