Monday, September 27, 2010

The Great Escape?

I raced up the stairs, unbelieving of what my little girls were claiming as truth.

"There's NO WAY Pip could be missing! Dad just gave her food and water this morning. He SAW HER."

I grasped at whatever straws I could think of.

"She's teeny-tiny, remember. She's probably just buried herself in the shavings somewhere, and is taking a little nap."

Yes, that must have been it.

These are DWARF hamsters we're talking about, here. If any of you have ever seen the size of a Canadian dollar coin (aptly called a "loonie"), then imagine that Pip could have sat herself on top of one, and the edges of the coin would still have been visible. THAT SMALL.

And yet, we combed through every, single little bit of fluff in that cage, and there was only one little brown hamster to be found.

Pip was definitely missing.

The girls were inconsolable. Grief was unleashed, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth could be heard for blocks around.

"How did you manage to LOSE HER?" I hissed at my poor husband from between clenched teeth. "Didn't I TELL you to keep the door SHUT??!!"

His claims of absolute innocence were strongly refuted by the children, who went off to find the cats and check their teeth for further evidence.

"The cats didn't get her... I SWEAR..." the husband wracked his brain for a logical explanation. "I was here the whole weekend, and I certainly would have heard the cats chasing that hamster around. I fed those two little feckers only this MORNING!! There's no WAY the cats could have gotten her..."

"You kept the door SHUT?" I arched an eyebrow at him.

"YES. The bedroom door was SHUT at all times, I promise!" he claimed.

A thought suddenly occurred to me.

"The BEDROOM door was shut... but what about the CAGE door? When you went to the bathroom to fill up the little water dish... DID YOU SHUT AND LOCK THE CAGE DOOR when you were out of the room??"

I saw a flicker of doubt in his eye, as he cast his mind back.

"Those feckers are FAST, man. They are PROGRAMMED to escape. Can you tell me that you are SURE you locked that cage door, each and every time you opened and shut it??" I demanded, every inch the prosecutor of the case, coming in for the kill.

"Well...." he wavered.

I didn't wait for an answer.

Calling the girlies, I raced down to the kitchen and began rounding up as many deep mixing bowls as I could find. They followed my orders to lock both cats in the basement, and then thundered up the stairs after me. I grabbed handfuls of paperback books off of the shelves in the upstairs hallway, and requested that the kids do the same.

What for, you ask??

Hamster Traps, of course.

If Pip had managed to make a lightning-quick escape that morning, then chances were that she was still somewhere in the vicinity of the upstairs. We placed the deep bowls on the floor, all over the bedrooms and upstairs hallway. We poured handfuls of hamster food and yogurt treats at the bottom of each bowl, and built little makeshift stair-cases of books up to the edge of each one. The idea was that Pip would smell the food, toddle up the "stairs", then slip into the bowl and be unable to get out, once she had finished packing her cheeks with the food.

After a long and exhausting evening of fruitless searching-- under furniture, in closets, pockets, and down floor air vents, the children sobbed themselves to sleep.

I, however, was completely unable to rest that night. I kept hoping that I could hear the scurry of tiny feet... Night-time would be the time for nocturnal Pip to re-appear, after all.

I spent a great deal of that night lying wide-awake in my bed, and alternatively, sitting in wait at the top of the staircase, where I had a good view of the entire hallway.

But, in spite of all of our efforts, there was no sign of Pip that night. Or the next night. Or the next.

I did everything I could to try and jolly my children along, as time passed. We made up little stories about Pip the Great Adventurer, how she had cleverly plotted her escape, and how she had discovered a secret passage to the Great Outdoors. She was, we willed ourselves to believe, now living with a gang of field mice somewhere out in our garden. In true "Country Mouse/City Mouse" tradition, we imagined her leaning on miniature mantelpieces late at night, enthralling her audience with tales of her time behind bars, and of her genius at foiling her gaolers.

Time passed. And, eventually, we all began to relax a bit about the situation. After a week of meticulous cleaning, I became fairly certain that she was no longer in the house. The complete absence of droppings led me to believe that she had, indeed, in all likelihood, managed to slip down an air vent and subsequently "met her Maker" (or, at least, the bowels of the air conditioning system).

Eventually, the deep mixing bowls were gathered up, as we began to need them for cooking and baking... The books were put back on their shelves.

And all this time, tiny Freckle, the lone Hamster In Residence, frolicked in the cage that was now ALL HERS, and didn't seem to miss her sister one. single. bit.

Life returned to some semblance of "normal". Or, as normal as it ever gets around here.

Truth be told, the "bloom was off the rose", as far as hamsters were concerned. The girls lost interest in Freckle, which is not actually in their natures... They have always been ferociously protective pet-owners, and taken their responsibility for the animals in their care very seriously. But, Freckle was living locked in the spare bedroom, in order to keep her safe from the cats. Out-of-sight can sometimes truly mean out-of-mind.

It fell to me, then (of course), to remember to tend to Freckle's teeny-tiny needs. It isn't hard, actually. She doesn't eat very much. Her water dish needed refilling only every-other-day, once Pip disappeared. And, her cage needed cleaning only once a week, which I grudgingly performed. In true Ungrateful Rodent fashion, Freckle ceremoniously took large chunks out of my fingers every, single time, which made her even less appealing to me as a pet... if that is possible.

Strangely, I was beginning to understand how my father had felt about that rabbit, all those years ago.

My sleep patterns finally fell back into their normal routine. I no longer waited up to hear the scurry of little feet, or dreaded meeting the tiny furball under the sheets of my bed. (*shudder*)

The kids were finally sleeping again, too. Child Number Two and Wee Three had just acquired a brand new bunk bed, and were delighting in their new arrangement. It took a few nights, trying to figure out who would take possession of the top bunk, and who would sleep below... but as I had originally thought, Wee Three quickly decided that being closer to the floor was the better place to be. By her own reasoning: Monsters are Big. Therefore, if Monsters were to attack in the night, they would eat the child in the top bunk first, giving the child in the lower bunk a chance to escape.

Well, hey. It worked for me. And, it worked for Charlotte and Maude the cats, who were having a perplexing time trying to navigate the bed's ladder. At least they would have ONE of their little girls to sleep with at night.

All was peaceful.


In the wee hours of a morning more than two weeks later, I heard scuffles coming from the girlies' bedroom.

Cats, I thought. Drat that ladder... Maude must be lonesome for the Monster Bait child in the upper bunk. I said a silent prayer that the flailings of a small, fat cat would not be enough to rouse the girlies from their slumber. Because, once those two little stemwinders were awake, there was no going back-- whether it was two o'clock or ten o'clock in the morning, awake meant AWAKE, and there would be no peace to be had after that.

The scuffles continued.

"Muuuuuumm?" a small, muffled wail rang out, "Maude'n'Charlotte are playing in here, and they just woke us up."


"Never mind, sweetie. Is Maude trying to get into the top bunk? Maybe you could give her a boost, and then she'd settle down. I'll bet she just wants to snuggle with somebody. Boost her up, and go back to sleep."

The scuffles continued.

"Muuuuummm?" The child had clearly not yet roused herself from her bed. "It's Charlotte. I think she's brought a toy in here, and she's whacking it around on the floor."

Well, that explains it, I thought. I had just given the cats a fresh package of jumbo-sized pom-poms to play with on the kitchen floor the day before. They must have carried a couple of them upstairs in their mouths. Tomorrow night, I vowed, cats would be shooed into the basement for the night, toys and all.

"Don't worry," I called, not wanting to actually physically appear in the girls' bedroom, since my awake-ness would be seen as a signal that it was time to get up and start the day. "She's playing with a pom-pom. I bought them some yesterday. She'll get bored in a minute. Turn over, and go back to sleep."

There was a pause. (Which, I have learned, is usually a signal that all hell is about to break loose.)

"MUUUUUUMMMMM... Do the pom-poms you bought have little pink ears... and FEET???"

Charlotte had chosen that exact moment to pick her "new toy" up in her mouth, jumped up on Wee Three in the lower bunk, and plopped it down on my little girl's chest.

Charlotte cocked her head to one side, as if to request, "This needs new batteries???"

You can pretty much guess what happened next.

The whole wide world came tumbling down.

Charlotte and Maude went streaking from the room, as soon as the screaming started. My hapless husband was finally roused from his sleep, and went pealing into the girls' room, where he whisked the deceased corpse of Pip quickly out of sight. I was left to console... which was mightily hard to do, let me tell you, after all of the wonderful yarns we had spun about Pip the Adventurer in the Garden.

It was? not. nice.

Pip was buried under a lovely clump of lily-of-the-valley later that day. Her tiny body was perfect-- Charlotte had not acted in an even remotely Darwinian fashion. She had simply found a "new toy" that eventually ran out of energy, and died of exhaustion when the game went on for too long.

The girls have forgiven both their father and the cats. Strangely enough, though, they have had a much harder time forgiving Pip for the entire experience. They talk about Pip in heaven, and how she and George, our dearly departed ferocious monster, are likely having happy games of cat-and-mouse in the great green fields in the sky... But interestingly, they seem to have come to some sort of conclusion about the whole thing that encompasses the ideas of right, wrong, and consequence. Somehow, in their minds, they have decided that Pip plotted her escape, which was something that she should not have done. Her choice to "run wild" in the house, instead of showing up in one of our primitive hamster traps, was wrong of her... and she eventually faced her "consequence", much like a naughty child put in a (permanent!) kind of time out.

Pip has been personified to such a degree in our family, it doesn't even seem to occur to my children that she was an animal-- an extremely small-brained animal, at that-- who was simply following her most basic instinct.

I firmly believe that a there is one idea that pulsates in the mind of all hamsters.

No, not "food".

Not "water".

Not even "reproduction".


"That's what you get"
--Wee Three

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Exterminator

"What about Pip and Freckle???"

This was the question demanded of me by my two youngest daughters several weeks ago, when I announced that we would be spending a long weekend at my parents' house in Stratford.

"What about them? Dad's staying home to work, and he's going to look after the pets, " I tried to soothe my children... And yet, I was feeling a little bit nervous about leaving no fewer than ten pets in my somewhat absent-minded husband's care.

"HE'LL FORGET. The hammies will die if he forgets to fill their water bowl!!"

My little girls had a point, there... We had discovered that Pip and Freckle were so minute, they were incapable of using a regular tube-style water dispenser. Their little mouths simply couldn't budge the ball bearing in the mouthpiece, no matter how hard they tried. We had resorted to a dollhouse-sized water dish, since anything larger would have seemed like a swimming pool to them-- and given them the opportunity to drown themselves, as well.

For a few brief moments, I was highly tempted to declare a hamster road-trip weekend. But a cooler head soon prevailed, as I imagined my parents' reaction to bringing rodents into their pristine home...

Years before, my sister had brought home "vermin", in the shape of a small and extremely cute black rabbit. Sis had had the (mis)fortune of being a lab worker at her university, where she studied biology. This tiny rabbit was slated as one of the creatures that would be used for various experiments, and my highly sensitive sister simply couldn't bear the thought... On the day that she left her job, she left with a tiny, black, furry bundle under her jacket. Jazz the bunny lived very happily with her in her apartment for nearly a year... until my sister was accepted at an international university for graduate studies.

Sis managed to talk my mother into looking after Jazz for the year that she would be away. However, when my father heard about this promise, he allowed his emotions to get the better of him. Always one to take advantage of the opportunity for a good rant, my dear old dad loudly and fluently cited every reason imaginable under the sun NOT to allow vermin in the house... It would keep him and my mother from being able to travel freely. It would force them to be slave to a feeding schedule. It would need endless looking-after and coddling. It would make a mess. It would smell.

My father carried on in this manner for several weeks, driving my kind-hearted, guilt-ridden mother to distraction. However, at the same time, my father was dividing his attention between nurturing our ancient and much-beloved Little Cat, who was ailing at the time... and planning and constructing an elaborate, multi-level bunny hutch, which resembled a large chicken-wire-and-wooden palace, in the basement. He planned for that rabbit's every need: exercise, bed, and bath. Jazz would even have a good view of a television set, should he be so inclined.

My parents drove in to Toronto to pick up my sister, and mum, dad, and the bunny bade her good luck and farewell at the airport, before making the long trip home. Jazz was lovingly transferred from his travel case to his new abode, and fed gourmet greens for dinner, before it was time for everyone to retire to bed.

My mother swears that she did not have any inkling of what would happen during that night... Jazz had eaten well, been treated with the utmost TLC, and had behaved himself in a normal, bunny-type fashion.

The horror of finding Jazz stretched out on his soft, "livingroom" floor, dead as a doornail, was more than a slight shock for my mother the next morning.

There were a flurry of phonecalls, in which my mother was consoled, and my father was told in no uncertain terms that Jazz was NOT "a completely ungrateful little $#@! of a rodent".

It was decided that my sister should not be told until the stress of settling into her new life had settled down a bit...

And poor little Jazz was "put on ice" until his mistress returned for Christmas, and could be interred under the big pine tree in my parents' back garden. I will not go into further details... Except to say this: that for the next several months, whenever one of us was sent to the cellar to fetch something-or-other from the enormous deep freeze, my mother would shriek, "KEEP TO THE RIGHT-HAND-SIDE OF THE FREEZER!!!" as we tromped down the stairs, in a voice so alarming, it nearly caused us to trip up and fall the rest of the way down.

Unfortunately, this is not the only time The Angel of Death has decended upon small animals in my mother's care. Only a few months ago, my nephews left their hamster, Rosie, with my parents when they went on holiday. My mother enjoyed Rosie's company tremendously, and even my father showed a poorly-concealed enthusiasm for watching the hamster roar away in her wheel in the evenings.

The day my sister and her brood arrived home to collect the hamster, it was clear that Rosie was not long for this world. Her wheel-roaring had stopped for good, and it was determined by a vet that a resperatory virus had killed her, in only a matter of a few hours.

My sister was inconsolable, while my nephews recovered more quickly, with the purchase of their current hamster, Dots.

We were, however, beginning to wonder about my mother.

Our doubts was all but confirmed when she confessed that another hamster in her care, who belonged to a neighbour's child who had gone on holiday, had suddenly and inexplicably expired. Bob the Hamster had been elderly, it is true. Very elderly, in fact. Still...

Child Number Three put it most eloquently:

"Gramma's the EXTERMINATOR."

And so... with our weekend away looming before us, I reflected upon the track-record of hamster survival under my parents' roof. It was not that they did anything deliberate to seal the fates of their small, furry guests... but it was undeniable that they seemed to induce the "touch of death" among all who visited.

"I don't know, girls... I'm thinking that this hamster holiday thing might not be such a good idea, after all. I think Pip and Freckle might have a much better chance at surviving a weekend with your father, than a weekend at Gramma's. Don't you?"

I watched as the penny dropped for Wee Three. She turned her enormous brown eyes to me.

"I don't think I want to go to Gramma's, either."

After assuring her that it was only small ANIMALS that were at risk, not small PEOPLE, it was agreed that Pip and Freckle would remain at home, in Child Number Two's bedroom, with the door firmly CLOSED.

"KEEP THIS DOOR CLOSED" read a large sign, scrawled in orange crayon, scotch taped to the door.

"Don't ferget to giv Pip and Frekle water and CLOSE THE DOOR," read a hand-written note, left on the kitchen table.

Wee Three even insisted on telephoning her father's cell phone every half hour or so, to leave messages reminding her father of all his various weekend duties. (As well as being the Hamster Police, Wee Three also patrols the activities of Maude and Charlotte, the cats, and administers love and attention on guinea pigs Toot, Puddle and Cupcake. She's our resident Doctor Doolittle.)

We had a blissful weekend. Perfection. The weather was lovely, the theatre was in full swing, we visited all manner of toyshops, chocolate emporiums and farmer's markets. Then, as daylight faded, we lay on our backs on the grass in my mother's back garden, listening to crickets chirping, and watching shooting stars streak across the sky.

It could not have been better.

To top it off, the husband was reporting complete success on the home front: no animals had yet perished, and everyone was happy and well fed. Doors that were supposed to remain closed, remained closed. Everyone was present and accounted for.

We made our triumphant return on the Sunday evening. Husband was helping me to haul the luggage from car to back door, as the children went pealing into the house to greet their furry friends.

"Everything REALLY ok?" I asked, as we crossed the threshold.

Before my spouse could respond in the affirmative, their was a blood-curdling shreik from upstairs.

"PIP!! Mummy!!! My hamster is GOOOOONE!"

oh, God...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In which I disregard The Gospel...

"Have cats and hamsters. But not at the same time."

We have too many pets in this house, there is simply no denying it.

And of course, by "we", I actually mean ME. Because, even though I may not actually physically be "The Hand That Feeds" in the most literal sense, I am most definitely "The Nag Who Reminds" those whose responsibilities include the duty of providing care and sustenance to the aforementioned pets.

Two kittens, three guinea pigs, one bearded dragon lizard, four guppies, numerous snails, three kids, and a husband all reside alongside me in this smouldering heap we call home.

So, why on earth I felt that it would be an even remotely tolerable idea to bring two more small, furry creatures into this house last month, I still have no idea.

I blame the dentist, actually.

The orthodontist, to be specific.

Those of you long-suffering readers who have been around the block with me will remember that there are few things that I have an abject terror of. Any sort of association with these things can cause me to act in such a manner as it would appear that I had completely taken leave of my senses.

The Dentist? Is Thing Number One on that list. The fact that The World Economic Crisis comes second gives you an idea of the scale we're talking about, here.

My eldest child has had to endure many years of dental treatment, due to an "overcrowding" issue, which, naturally, she inherited from my side of the family. Because of my own history with dentists (of which I shall spare you the gruesome details), I made every effort to spare my highly sensitive little girl from emotional suffering during this process. Many of the procedures were performed in hospital, by highly competent and capable medical professionals, under general anesthetic. We both came through these ordeals much less the worse for wear than we otherwise might have, and happily, she is now safely "embraced" for the next two years.

Her megawatt smile makes every, single minute of effort, and every ounce that our wallet was lightened in the process, absolutely worth it.

Last year, while things were so hectic and stressful on the work and school front, my children's dentist called me into her office to examine Child Number Two's latest panoramic xray. To say that the sight was mind-boggling would be an understatement. That wrap-around view of the unseen treasures stored within my second little girl's jaws resembled the mother-of-all jumble sales. There were teeth EVERYWHERE, just bustin' to make an appearance.

"YES. Well. So, you see..." began the good doctor... and I could feel the room spin a little.

Child Number Two is an entirely different creature than her older sister, however. And even though it is very true that I have long felt an unreasonable amount of anxiety about her safety and welfare, due to her dramatic entrance into this world, and her determined efforts to undertake dare-devilish feats that should surely have caused her to make an even more dramatic EXIT... I conceded that this child might be a better candidate for in-office dental procedures, with the assistance of local anesthetic and "laughing gas", rather than an operating room drama.

True to form, she has been braver and more stoic than I ever imagined she would be... And what's more, so have I, as I have stood at the bottom of the "operating chair", and gently rubbed my child's feet as each of the surgeries progressed.

Finally came the day when Child Number Two was fitted with what our orthodontist called a "twin block": upper and lower retainers, which encourage the growth of the palates and jaw, while (hopefully) providing more room for all those enormous choppers to grow in.

The retainers were no problem. She lisped a little at first, and it was a pain to remember the plastic cases every time she wanted to take them out to eat... But she's a conscientious little thing, and very independent with her oral hygiene, so things went swimmingly.

Until the headgear appeared.

The day that spacers were put between Child Number Two's back teeth, and the rather industrial looking strap-and-mouthpiece was presented to her, was a dark, dark day in this household. She was mortified... she felt beyond unattractive, and totally humiliated, in spite of all our reassurances. She would not let me help her put it on or take it off, and tried numerous ways of combing her hair over the thing, even though she was only required to wear it for twelve hours at night. You know, that time when it's dark, and everyone is supposed to be ASLEEP.

We tried everything to console her, to no avail. And eventually, she confessed that her biggest worry was having to take the dratted appliance on sleep-over visits. She was due to spend a week at her cousin's house, and simply could not face him with a "CAGE" (as she described it) over her face.

Now, my 8-year-old nephew, Iman, is Child Number Two's best friend. He's a "boy's boy", which is part of what makes him such a perfect companion for my boisterous daughter. He loves Harry Potter, Super Mario Bros., and anything with wheels, in that order. And, true to form, when he eventually got his first glimpse of headgear, he reacted as though his pal had turned into a real, live transformer. Two words said it all:

Iman: (a huge grin spreading across his face) "Woah. AWESOME."

It took many weeks of encouragement before Child Number Two dared to sport her new dental appliance in front of even the closest family members, however. Backing up the story a little, though, Child Number Two was adamant, at first, that her headgear nights would NOT START until after her week-long holiday at Iman's house was over.

Once I had my daughter's solemn promise of "NO WHINGING, NO SNIVELING" once the circled date on the calendar arrived, I agreed to the bargain.

Child Number Two had a glorious time with her cousin, and arrived home on cloud nine... They had been to art day-camp... they had eaten sushi... they had played for long hours at the water park on some death-trap called a "Slip-'n-Slide" (which sounds to ME like a pediatric orthopedic surgeon's DREAM...)

But, the most wonderful tale of all was of Iman's brand new hamster. He was a little more than a handful of white fluff, with tiny dark patches all over him. He was called "Dots", and it was clear from the way that her eyes shone, that Child Number Two had fallen in hamster-love.

I half-listened to all of my daughter's stories... to be truthful, I was dreading the evening, when all happiness and promises would be forgotten, as the headgear was strapped on for the night. And slowly, an idea began forming in my desperate, unhinged, and exhausted brain.

Why not get the little girls a hamster to keep in their bedroom? Hamsters, after all, are nocturnal creatures, and so feeding and entertaining the dear little soul would surely distract them from the headgear issue. We could get a "silent" wheel, and what the heck-- if it did turn out to make too much noise, I could always take the tiny cage down to the kitchen and put it by the guinea pig hutch during the night. Heck, they'd be company for one another, right?

The joy was truly unconfined that evening, as not one, but TWO dwarf hamsters, each about the size of a Canadian Loonie coin, took up residence in my young daughters' bedroom. Pip and Freckle seemed sweet, but soon gained a poor reputation with me, as they raced to take large chunks out of my fingers as I changed their water dish at night. We chalked it up to "new hamster jitters", as I disinfected and bandaged myself up. Mercifully, Child Number Two headgeared herself up without complaint, and we actually laughed our heads off as we learned to stretch our lips waaaaaaaay out past the little metal wire, to kiss one another goodnight.


(There's ALWAYS a "but" in my stories. Just my luck.)

What I had failed to factor in... or, rather, WHO I had failed to factor into this equation, were the cats, Maude and Charlotte.


Unbeknownst to any of us-- least of all HIM-- their unwitting co-conspirator:

The Hapless Husband.

( be continued... if you can stand it...)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Universe and Me.

I sit here, in a QUIET house.

Too quiet.

My children-- all three of them-- are in school.

And I? Am not.

This has got to be the toughest "fall" I have ever experienced... even more so than the one when my first wee girl toddled off to her first morning of kindergarten, leaving my outstretched arms wide-empty.

Child Number One began high school last week. (I KNOW. Gaaaa.)

Child Number Two began grade four this morning.

And my baby? My Wee One? Is in grade one. That's a full day of school, people.

Here I sit. A mother with time on her hands; a teacher with no job, and no one to teach.

Woe is me?

Well, hardly, if you really want the honest truth. My husband found a job last spring, at long last, and so there is a steady (enough) paycheque coming in. We have managed to keep our house, and what snippets are left of my sanity. Since "coming home" last spring, after the ten month slog of Furthering My Education, I have enthusiastically engrossed myself in cleaning, reorganizing and generally improving our living arrangements.

That is luxury. I know it. And I am thankful for it.

Yet, perhaps foolishly, my brain yearns for more. I need work-- a classroom of my own, a LIFE of my own, to help keep me on this slow, yet steady upward path towards self-awareness and validation. I know that getting a job would mean another total family upheaval, and a mad scramble to find another Mary Poppins to step in and help me keep all the aspects of life that I constantly juggle up in the air. It would be hard as hell. And once again, time would speed up and run like sand through my fingers. My children would grow another year, almost without me.

Is that what I really want?

Yes, and no.

My girlies need me right now, to help them make these huge life transitions into their new routines. I was essentially absent for a LONG time last year. Now that I am back, their need for me is palpable during every second I spend with them, and resonates in my heart even when they are not physically with me. Right now, I am in the right place at the right time.

The unanswered questions remain, however: Where the universe will propel me next? And how? Why? Most importantly... when it does... will I choose "right"?

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