When I was but a wee lass, I asked my parents for a hamster. My cool neighbor Karen had a hamster, Lizzie in my class had one, and so did Diana’s older sister. Obviously I had to have one, too.
My mother said ‘yes’ because she loved me, and because she thought the secret to raising good children was to indulge their every whim. My dad made six figures, and Mom was happy to spend it on anything that would help her sweet babies be happy, healthy Americans.
So one Saturday morning, mom and I set out for the pet store. Oh, the pet store! I wanted one of everything. Mom steered me to the hamsters. Cages and cages of cute furry things with heartbeats! How was I supposed to pick just one??
I chose carefully before pointed to the one I wanted to hold first. I suspected there was a limit to how many times the nice man be willing to reach in and pick a different one for me; I knew enough not to waste my chances. The first one I picked was white with brown spots. He squirmed in my hand and practically jumped back in to the cage. Clearly this was not the cuddly creature I had hoped for. Next I pointed to one with soft grey fur. He sniffed my hand, walked around on it. This one was a definite possibility. My mom was asking me, “Well? Do you like this one?” when I spotted it. In the back of the cage, hidden by an ugly buck-toothed creature, was a blob of pristine white fur. The blob escaped from under the mutant that was resting on it. Pure white. Pristine as our back yard the morning after a snow storm. “That one,” I pointed. “That’s then one I want.” Didn’t I want to hold it first, my mom and the nice pet store man wanted to know? “No, I don’t need to,” I replied. “That’s the one.” My mother insisted that I hold it anyhow; that way, if I later said that I didn’t like it she’d be able to say “Well, you liked it in the store.” I dutifully let it walk on my hand and up my arm, and giggled as it made its way around the back of my neck. I named it Marshmallow in the car on the ride home.
I loved Marshmallow, deeply. That is, until my neighbor Karen got a second hamster a few months later. Mom took me to the pet store that very same week. The one I chose this time was a brownish little chubster that I named Burnt Marshmallow. My brothers and I briefly toyed with the idea of calling him BM for short, but that hardly seemed fair. Eventually I settled on Burney.
Who knew that hamsters came in different sexes, and that if you got two of the opposite sex they would automatically make babies? Were not hamsters at all discriminating? Didn’t they at least discuss Habitrail politics or what material they prefer for cage lining to see if they were compatible before…doing that nasty thing that made babies? Apparently not.
True to all gender stereotypes, it turned out that Burney–the larger and darker of the two–was a boy, and the fair haired Marshmallow a girl. Within a month of bringing her home, Marshmallow’s belly grew so heavy that she pretty much kept to one corner, gestating. She might toddle over to get some food once in a while, but otherwise I’m pretty sure she spent her time tripping on some invisible hamster version of Days of Our Lives being projected on the glass walls of her cage.
Soon enough (No, I don’t remember how long it took, and Yes, I’m too lazy to look up hamster gestation times), the mini Marshmallows appeared. I was at school when they were born, and I came home to find them all, sleeping around their mother in a sweet little heap. There were six in all. I was instantly in love with the cute tiny bald things. The school bus could never seem to get me home fast enough in the days right after their birth. I loved watching them lay supine in their food comas drinking mama’s milk, their mouths sucking even while they seemingly slept. Each day, they would stretch their little feet with their impossibly small toes just a little bit further, teetering and tottering as they learned how to stand on their own.
My mother, meanwhile, was trying to figure out what to do with them. Hell no, I wasn’t keeping six more hamsters. Honestly, that was fine by me; I didn’t really want to have to clean that much poop anyhow. So we watched them grow and tried to figure out when they would be old enough to give away. This was before the internet, so finding out stuff like that meant taking a trip to the pet store. Eventually we went, we asked, and we were told. (And, No, I don’t remember how old was old enough to wean them, and Yes, I’m too lazy to look it up). The nice pet shop owner said that he’d be happy to take them off our hands when they were ready. (At $9.99 a pop, that was going to be $60 in his pocket, it later occurred to me. That was six rounds at the bowling alley, plus beer, plus pretzels for the kids).
Within a matter of days or weeks there was already too much poop. The time had come. After asking all of the kids in my class if they wanted a hamster, and having each and every one of their mothers call my mother to say ‘no’, back to the pet shop we did go. I poked holes in a shoebox, lined it with some litter, and my mom helped me scoop the little molecules inside. At the last minute, I decided that I didn’t want to keep Marshmallow. Frankly, she had always been kind of boring before the whole baby thing. I did, however, want to keep one of the babies. It was super cute and I wanted to watch it grow. My mom said it was OK.
M2 grew rapidly. Just like her mother, she was white, with a lithe frame. And just like her mother, she was a girl.
Now how was I, a nine year old girl, or my mother– an immigrant who had grown up poor without any pets, only some dairy cows for milking– how was either of us to know that incest was condoned in the animal kingdom? Aren’t certain things just, like, not done? So when M2 became pregnant and the only possible culprit was her father…well, just…eww. Gross.
The more pregnant M2 became, the meaner she got. She hissed at her father, the rapist. She’d go to nip my finger when I tried to stick some food in the cage. The pet store man suggested separation—and he had just the thing. A separate little Habtrail room all of her own. And it was only $9.99. We brought it home and managed to get her inside. She quickly set up shop. 300 thread count newspaper bedding, an Atari system, a pile of carrots right next to her so she wouldn’t have to get up to eat. I tried to keep her cage clean, but mostly I just left her alone. Eventually she gave birth, but she still wouldn’t let us near her.
A few days after the birth, my tender third grade head awoke to some strange sounds coming from M2s penthouse. I pushed aside my blankets and walked over for a closer look. I could hear tiny little squeals. Her majesty had created such a dense nest of bedding in her sanctuary that it wasn’t easy to see what was going on inside. I looked closer. There was a tiny foot, but where was the body it was attached to? Was it buried in all that bedding? Were they suffocating, and that’s why they were squealing so? I took off the top of the cage. Look, another foot. There’s some more feet. Um…ahh.. My tiny brain began to register that something was sorely amiss in the palace. When I saw the first disembodied head, I screamed and ran out of the room.
How the hell was I to know that hamsters, after engaging in incest that results in pregnancy, EAT their young?? This was so not in the cute and fuzzy thing handbook. When I told my family about the homicides occurring in my bedroom, the all ran in to make sure I wasn’t making it up. When it was clear that I wasn’t making it up, my brothers pushed my mom aside for a closer look.
I was given cookies and a brother was assigned to me for distractionary purposes while my mom cleaned up the mess. M2, sordid beast that she was, was immediately isolated. Despite the carnage, there were actually still several babies that remained unharmed. My mom poked some holes in another shoe box, lined it with litter and stuck them inside while my brother flushed the rest down the toilet. This time, we just called the pet store instead of making the trek over; by now we were on a first-name basis with Barry, the owner. The first thing Barry told us was that there was no way we could put M2 in with the rest of those babies as she would most likely destroy them, too. So my mom asked him what we should do with her. Did he want her? “Oh, no”, Barry said. “Once a gal does something like that, she’s never gonna be right in the head again. She’s unsellable now”. My mom asked him again what we should do with her. “Well that’s up to you,” Barry said. “You do what you think is right.” The remaining babies were too young to live without their mother’s milk, though. He told us how to make a milk and water solution that we were to feed them by eyedropper every few hours. “I can’t promise you it’ll work, though,” he said. “They might be too young to save.”
After hanging up, my mom and oldest brother discussed out loud what we should do with M2. Well, that was an easy answer. Flush the bitch. My brother cackled. My mother held my hand.Was I sure that was what I wanted? Could I handle that? “You’re positive?” she asked. “Yup,” I replied. And so it was that my eldest brother sent M2 to her watery grave. I want to say I stood and watched a said a final goodbye, but I so doubt that was the case. My nine year old girl balls were only so big.
My brothers and I worked feverishly to try to save the survivors. We put them under a heat lamp and dutifully tried to get them to drink their milk substitute. One by one, though, their tiny little bodies withered; they were all dead within a week.
Burnt Marshmallow took a swift decline after ‘the incident’. We were assured by numerous people that it wasn’t his fault that he had raped his daughter, and that we shouldn’t blame him. It was instinctual, it turned out, for hamster fathers to impregnate their children. It was all Barry, the pet shop owner’s fault. He should warned us to make sure that the hamster we kept from the first litter was a boy, not a girl. Burney was just an innocent victim of Barry’s careless shoptending.
Burney began to pile tons of litter in his little hamster wheel, and he soon started sleeping there. On top of the litter, he piled food. I don’t remember if he got up to poop, but somehow I doubt it. Suddenly one day, Burney sat up, knocked all the bedding out of his wheel, and he started running. Like Forrest Gump, Burney ran. He ran for days; I would fall asleep to the ‘whoosh, whoosh’ of his wheel. For weeks, nobody saw him sleep. And finally came the day when I looked in his cage and poor Burney was dead, his front paws hanging off the edge of his wheel. My brother and I put him in a shoebox (we went through a lot of shoes in our house) and buried him in the back yard.
Sometime later, we were back in a pet store (a different pet store) to get a fish for my brother’s aquarium. I told the man who worked there the sad tale of Burney, his wife, his daughter, his grandchildren, and his ultimate demise on his little blue wheel. The man shook his head in disbelief. “Your hamster had himself a nervous breakdown,” he said. “His tiny little heart probably gave out from all that running.” This made sense to me, somehow. As the years went by, it became clear that Burney was only the first of my family members to have a nervous breakdown; he would definitely not be the last.