My 8-year-old daughter wanted a pet. Her friend had a turtle and a beagle named Bagel. Our building didn't allow dogs, I felt aloof about cats, and fish weren't cuddly.
"I need something to hug," Amy pleaded. "How about a hamster?"
I was adamantly antirodent. I know they're called hamsters, but in my view they were all rats. Amy's friend Monica adopted two baby hamsters from their teacher: two females, Popcorn and Oatmeal. Two weeks later, a startling discovery: Oatmeal was a boy. Hoping that there would be a litter some day, they gave Amy a hamster cage for her birthday. The card read: "Be patient and wait for a baby hamster."
I remember wanting a pet so badly and waiting years until my mother caved in. How could I deny my daughter a pet?
"I won't clean the cage," I vowed. "And I won't love it, either!"
We babysat Oatmeal and Popcorn while Monica was away. "Good morning, Oatie," Amy lovingly said in a lilting voice she's never used with me. "Want to hold him, Mom?"
"No, thanks," I said.
"Let him give you a kiss." She pushed Oatmeal's whiskers toward my cheek. Hamsters don't kiss. Only little girls believe they do.
Amy fed them lettuce and put them in their exercise ball. We watched them do acrobatic tricks and clean themselves like cats. I was beginning to admit they were fascinating ... from a, well, scientific point of view.
When Monica's mom picked them up, she looked at Popcorn and said, "You either fed her too much ... or she's pregnant."
A few weeks later, hamster babies were born. Because Oatmeal was a threat to the babies, he was banished to our house until Popcorn had weaned her brood.
I refused to look at Oatmeal. But how could I criticize a hamster who made my daughter so adorable when she announced that his middle initial was "L," for lettuce? And wasn't he cute standing on his hind legs, peeling a sunflower seed? The way he burrowed under shreds of newspaper when he slept? And slept. All day. Like a teenager. Partied all night - racing on that exercise wheel, going nowhere, but with such determination.
"Want to hold him, Mom?"
It's not the way I like to be awakened on a Saturday morning - whiskers in my face.
I held him. How could anyone resist that cute hamster face? I even started to research hamsters online, perusing "Does Your Hamster Need Dental Care?"
The babies were ready to find good homes. But first we had to return Oatmeal. Amy casually kissed him goodbye. I nearly started to weep. Oatie! I'll miss you! How could I feel this way about a hamster?
"Maybe we'll keep him," I heard myself say. But Amy wanted a baby, so I bravely bade farewell.
Later, Amy picked out the baby hamster that "came to her."
"I named him Macaroni," she said. "Monica named her baby Cheeze."
"Where am I?" Macaroni seemed to wonder. Frightened, he nipped at Amy when she tried to touch him. He was so tiny that we put his cage in the bathtub, lest he slip through the wires. After Amy went to bed, I checked on him every 10 minutes. Did he miss his siblings? Would he be as affectionate as Oatie?
"He's just a rat," my husband reminded me.
"No, he's a hammie," I said, echoing the way Amy chatted with these golden-haired creatures.
Mac grew used to people and didn't mind when Amy held him upside down, sang him show tunes, or paraded him in front of houseguests. And I have to admit he was cuddly.
We've been taking photos of Mac at every stage of his development. For his one-month birthday we gave him a tiny hammie house with a slick red slide. At six months we invited his siblings for a birthday party - did I really pack each hammie a goodie bag of yogurt drops and lettuce leaves? There's even a photo of Mac on my cellphone.
"I love you too much, Mac," Amy tells him. "Want a kiss?"
She pushes him toward me, but I still resist that much closeness. What Amy doesn't know is that when I check on her before I go to bed, I stop to wish our nocturnal family member goodnight, too. He seems to wink "nighty-night" with his cute little black eyes.