C 2004 by Naomi Baltuck
“Fish don’t count, Mom. I need something with fur,” she said.
“Daddy and I are allergic to cats and dogs. They make him itch and me wheeze.”
“What about a guinea pig or a hamster?”
“They stink, you have to change their cages, and for what? Unresponsive vermin.”
I knew something of hamsters in captivity. My sister’s kids had had a hamster named Little May. Little May had lived hard and fast, and had died young. A life of costume parties, wild shirt-pocket rides, playing the “show and tell” circuit, and a brief-but-thrilling flight career; it was all too much for Little May. She died at the tender age of six months; I suspect it was suicide.
But the lifespan of a rodent was a degree of commitment that was willing to consider.
“No guinea pigs,” I said.
“Why not?” asked Bea.
“I want no critter too big to flush down the toilet.”
“How ‘bout a hamster?”
“Yes, you may have a hamster, but only if you promise to be responsible for feeding and cage cleaning, and accept that a hamster’s lifespan is less than that of a guppy. “
The girls agreed to my conditions, and soon we were dabbling in the world of hamster husbandry. Why they call it that, I will never know, because my husband didn’t have anything to do with it. “The Little Baggage” was a black and white Teddy Bear Hamster. By the time we added up the cost of her cage, the purple igloo,color-coordinated water bottle and bowl, half a ton of cedar bedding, blueberry yogurt drops, vitamins, and, of course, the hamster potty, our six dollar hamster far exceeded the dollar-a-month investment I had anticipated.
All we needed was a name. That, at least, was free. Since she had come to us for Hanukkah, I voted for “Herschela.” I was the only one who voted for Herschela. I was also the only one who voted for “Wildfire,” “Hamlet,” and “Fido.” Finally, the girls settled on “Pandora.” An apt name, for her appearance was and still remains a mystery. Her purple cage became the infamous “Pandora’s Box,” and we opened it again and again. Like that divine creation of the Gods, our Pandora inspired story, song, and poetry. Within days of her arrival, the girls had adopted a new family crest, a black and white hamster wearing a tiny golden crown. Clearly, Pandora, the Princess of Petco, was destined to rule.
Feral gerbils feed on brand-new bed sheets, and hide the leftovers under the refrigerator. I learned that in the third grade when Napoleon, the school gerbil, stayed at our house over spring break. In sixth grade, when Linda Witkowsky put her hamster, Winky, into my hands, it struggled so furiously that it went winky all over my blouse, its eyes bulged, and so did mine. I hadn’t touched a rodent since.
Now I was learning more about hamsters than I ever wanted to know. Hamster is from the German root word for “hamper,” as in laundry hamper, container, storage bin. From observation, I judge that a hamster can hold eight to ten times its own weight in cheek pouches that stretch the full length of its body. No wonder they don’t carry purses! This was graphically illustrated to me after the first time the kids loaded up Pandora with peanuts, sunflower seeds, yogurt drops, carrots, and Cheerios, then turned her loose in the bathroom. Let me tell you, she left an impressive hoard in the corner behind the toilet. We left it there for three days, as a sort of monument.
Pandora was a good-natured little creature, surprisingly tolerant of handling and mishandling. Her paws were so human-like that when she gripped a cracker and nibbled, she looked just like a kid with a peanut butter sandwich. She used the same technique when nibbling buttons off the front of a shirt. She was cute, the way other peoples’ grandchildren are cute; in a wallet. I was still convinced that I could ride this out without any Close Encounters of the Third Kind, until the first time the girls changed the bedding in her cage. They held out the Beast and cooed, “Go to Grandma.”
I was soon babysitting on a regular basis. Not content to sit in your lap and purr, Pandora was a perpetual motion machine. We got her an exercise ball, and soon the house rumbled like thunder as she raced down our long hallway. The girls made seltzer bottle airplanes, Lego mazes, palaces of toilet paper rolls. She could become a hula girl, a Renaissance Queen, a Greek Goddess, or a bikini-clad bathing beauty, depending upon which hole in the Kleenex box she peeked out.
They warn you against looking into a snake’s eyes, but no one ever said a thing about hamsters. I’d drop clean laundry in Elly’s room and see Panny in her cage, sitting back on her fat furry bottom, staring up at me with big brown eyes. I knew what she wanted. I half expected her to run a little tin cup along the bars of her cage.
I recall the first time I gave in to impulse. It wasn’t Pandora’s good breeding that brought her scurrying to greet me at the door. It was because mine were often the hands that fed her. Still, I marveled when she stepped out of her cage and put her life into my waiting hands. Dogs love and trust their humans, but what drives a hamster? Is it trust, or are they too stupid to know fear? Are we simply too big to be regarded as anything but a landscape? In any case, when I felt Panny’s tiny heart beating against my palm, it was strangely touching.
One night the cage was not properly latched, probably due to my own carelessness. Panny climbed from the second storey of the cage to the top of the dresser and down to the floor to take a walk on the Wild Side.
That night, Bea had been especially concerned about losing her, and she awoke knowing that Pandora was gone. Tears were shed, but then we got down to business. As we searched under beds and in closets, I tried not to think of Cousin Jean’s grim story of the family gerbil that set out to seek its fortune. Months later, she found it trapped in a half-open dresser drawer in the basement, keeping the company of maggots. While emptying the hall closet, I heard a sound from the basement, a really big sound.
“Elly,” I called down the stairs, “try searching more quietly, so you can hear her.”
“What, Mom?” asked Elly, appearing at my elbow.
“Oh! I thought you were downstairs. That can’t be Panny; it sounds like a chainsaw!”
We placed three peanuts in each room and closed the doors, blocking the crack underneath with towels. If the peanuts went missing, we’d know which room she was in. In the central rooms we placed treats in buckets with little ramps leading up to them.
“They check in, but they don’t check out,” I explained.
“What if she’s not hungry?” asked Bea.
“Maybe she forgot to pack her cheeks before she left. Sooner or later she’ll come out to forage,” I assured her. “It’s the Hamster Way.”
I had a feeling that Panny had followed her bliss into the bowels of the basement. Silence was crucial, so we read books in the gloomy basement waiting, listening. The furnace clicked on, and we jumped. Tick, tick, tick went the clock. Then we heard it: that grinding noise that I’d heard from upstairs. We looked at each other, and nodded.
We called our downstairs rec room The Forest. It was a jungle of silk vines and fake trees, with a cave of chicken-wire and ivy-covered survival blankets built around the fireplace. I dreaded having to conduct a search in The Forest, but it was even worse than that. We followed the sound to the foot of the stairs, and it was coming from inside the staircase. That could mean only one thing…
Pandora had entered the Black Hole, where no hamster had gone before. Our storage room sucks everything into another dimension, where it morphs into high density matter; cardboard boxes, styrofoam packing material, skis, roller skates, camping equipment, the girls’ baby things that I am saving for my unborn grandchildren, stacks of Rubbermaid containers holding every object d’art my daughters have ever created, a slide projector and countless cases of old slides, my medieval tankards and sci-fi dinnerware, my dead uncle’s stamp collection, carpet remnants that we might need someday, the hardened dregs of house paint to match the color before the last, the meat grinder my Mom used to make the bologna and relish sandwich spread that I loved s as a kid, but will never make, because we are vegetarians. Blacker than a Black Hole.
“At least she’s alive,” I told Bea. We followed the noise to the darkest corner, to the underbelly of our basement stairs. We peeled and hauled away the layers, beginning with folding chairs that come out for parties, and working down to stained glass scraps from a class taken twenty-five years before. Then I saw her, snuggled up in a sawdust nest built by gnawing the wooden underside of the stairs. Panny was just out of reach, protected by a framework of two by fours. I was afraid to make a grab, for fear of scaring her into hiding. I held out my hand. “Come on, Sweet Pea…”
Hamsters are loners, pairing up only long enough to mate, and even that brief interaction is not pretty. They are so territorial, that even the most tender hamster mothers will drive away their offspring after they mature. Why would Pandora give up her newfound freedom? What could we offer to match a brand new house in the sub-suburbs? Would she respond to the whispered promise of a yogurt treat? Not likely: there was enough macaroni art down there to last a hamster lifetime…
“Come on, Panny. Come to Grandma…”
Panny looked at me with her big brown eyes, then crept out of her cozy nest into my outstretched hand. I cannot describe my relief. My wonder! And love…definitely love.
One night, soon after, Bea demonstrated Panny’s newest trick. “Up, Panny, up!” she called, and Pandora climbed the bars to the ceiling of her cage in response to Bea’s voice alone! I beamed with pride at my grandbaby’s cleverness, and ran for the camera.
The next morning, it was clear that Pandora had been sick in the night. She was trembling and listless. I cleaned her up while the girls cleaned the cage. “Maybe she just needs to rest,” I said, setting her in the bathtub with some nesting material, and her little purple igloo, but she lay down listlessly in the corner of the tub. While the girls finished the cage, I whispered to my husband Thom, “I’m afraid she’s really sick.” Thom picked her up, softly stroking her. She looked especially tiny in his big hands. Her condition worsened. The next morning, before Thom left for work, I confided, “I don’t think she’s going to make it.” My sometimes-too-practical husband replied, “We have a big emotional investment to protect. It might be worth a trip to the vet.” I knew at that moment that I would love Thom forever.
In for a Panny, in for a pound. The vet gave our $6 hamster $100 worth of fluids and antibiotics.
“Do other people bring their hamsters in?” I asked the vet, feeling a little foolish.
“Oh, yes,” she assured me.
“And do they get better?”
She hesitated. “Sometimes.”
Hamsters get the flu and bacterial infections, just like people, but they are fragile creatures. In the wild a delicate constitution is irrelevant, as few hamsters die of old age; most become fodder for foxes and hawks. Whatever happens, the vet said, better to face it at home, where the girls would be a part of it, and where Panny would be more comfortable. So it had come down to hamster hospice. That night, we gave her a few CCs of water, and tucked her into her little nest.
The next morning, Elly discovered Pandora’s lifeless body in a corner of the cage. Before leaving for school, she wrote a letter of consolation to her little sister to read when she awoke. But there was no comforting Bea. Bea looked up at the rain pouring down outside and sobbed, “Even Mother Nature is crying.”
Bea was in no condition to go to school. Between bouts of overwhelming grief, she stitched a tiny purple quilt and pillow, made a little golden casket, and decorated it with plastic jewels. She fashioned a tiny golden crown from cardboard, as befitted a princess. Solemnly she tucked in Pandora for the last time, with a tuft of her favorite nesting material and a peanut. She engraved the inside lid of her casket with Pandora’s favorite lullabye, “So it will be like I am singing to her forever,” she said.
It was an open casket funeral. Elly made the headstone out of popsicle sticks, while Bea planned the service. I made copies of Bea’s hymn, “Hamsters We Have Heard on High,” so that the mourners could join in. Elly and their friend Sophia played flute and recorder to accompany Bea while she sang, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep,” one last time.
Bea’s tearful elegy was simple, but eloquent. “Her Grandma said that she never knew she could love a rodent, and her Grandpa never said he loved her, but he did. She is an angel now. A furry little angel.” I looked at Thom, and was surprised to see him wipe away a tear.
“Does Daddy love her?” Bea had asked, when Panny first fell ill.
“Yes, in his way,” I told her. Now I knew it was true. Did the girls love her? Absolutely, passionately, unconditionally. And did Panny love us? Yes, I’m sure she did, in her Hamster Way. Panny taught us all a great deal about love, and the sorrow that is the price we gladly pay for it. And even the passing of a hamster is a reminder to us all to appreciate every moment of this precious, fleeting gift of life.
Bea will tell you that Pandora Athena Baltuck Garrard lived a very full life, and packed a great deal of love into her 18 short months. And I will tell you that my first grandchild will always be the one with fur on her face.