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 ou