How a Hamster Funeral was the thing our family needed

“Mom, Doris is dead,” Baby Girl called from down the hall. What? It was the early afternoon. I’m sure Doris, a Syrian hamster, was just taking a disco nap. She had probably been doing the Hamster Hustle all night long. She was nocturnal, after all.

“No, Mom. I’m sure. I tried to move her and she wouldn’t move. I think she got crushed somehow under her wheel.”

Freaking Doris.

I had been trying my utmost this year to impart the gravity of the historic events of September 11 to our two kids. I had taken them to Ground Zero on our move from Tennessee to Boston this past summer. I had talked to them at length about how many innocent lives had been lost and how different our world was post-9/11 and how important it was to strive to be peacemakers in it.

Then our fat hamster goes and kicks the bucket on September 11 and ruins everything.

I put my arm around Baby Girl and we sat on my bed. Our voices became hushed and hers got a little quakey and we hugged and hugged and hugged.

I told her how Doris was loved her whole life with us. And that she had been such a fun pet.

“She knew exactly what to do. She just crept into her little burrow where she knew she would be safe and could rest,” Baby Girl consoled herself, tears starting to pool in her eyes, “She was the smartest hamster ever.”

Doris had come to us by way of one of my former students just before Christmas. He was preparing for his study abroad semester and knew a hamster was not a welcome companion in his dorm in Italy.

I didn’t tell the kids that a hamster was going to be making us a family of five. I wanted them to be surprised. So I simply told them that on that very night, we were going to have a visitor and her name was Doris and not to freak out so they didn’t scare her.

Christmas 2016

They waited on our front porch in their pajamas as my student rolled up and pulled out Doris in her cage, with all her hamster accoutrements. Christmas came early, with this creature stirring–not a mouse, but a close cousin.

Doris

I didn’t grow up with pets (besides the 5 fish we all named Mr. Belvidere) but I have a heart for certain fluffy animals. Baby Girl, however, is animal-obsessed. Every evening before bed, she visited with Doris and earned the favor of this rodent who was overfed and overstimulated. I had asked her before our move if she would consider rehoming Doris so we didn’t have to transport her over what would be a 3-day voyage. “No, Mom. Not for all the money in the world would I give up Doris.”

Doris had made the cross-country journey and had been one of the constants in the kids’ lives during a year of difficult transition. Little Man was fairly unfazed by our move, but Baby Girl was struggling. She missed her school friends in Tennessee. The presence of this little rodent had been a comfort to her and had been something of a conversation piece in meeting new friends. I realized how pets are the social glue for so many people, softening introductions and bridging commonalities among fellow pet lovers.

I also realized that pets can be a vehicle for our feelings. They can shoulder the feelings that are too clumsy or too hefty to explore otherwise. You can cry into their fur and they won’t mind at all.

Baby Girl is a fairly sanguine child and very uncomfortable with crying, even in front of me. She frequently chokes back tears and prefers to retreat to her room to work out emotions in her journal, or, as she reminded me recently, “Everybody knows you just scream into your pillow if you’re angry, Mom.”

The day after Deceased Doris was discovered, we planned to bury her after the kids got home from school. There were some complications, however. Chief among them was that we were renting an apartment in the city and so the burial grounds were not exactly ours. Further, as Baby Girl noted, we weren’t always going to live in this apartment. What if the kids wanted to “visit Doris” in the future? Also, my husband reminded me that we had lived in Tennessee for the last six years wherein it was not necessary to own a shovel. So doing any kind of digging, wherever we chose the burial plot, would require some implements not yet in our possession.

We settled on a flower bed next to our apartment building. We dug with a garden trowel we found in the basement.

The kids both said sweet things to Doris as though she were present for her own Hamster of the Year award ceremony.

Then we all sniffled and cried and we all hugged some more. Kids walking home from school passed by, probably wondering what this family was doing, falling apart in front of a flower bed.

Baby Girl put on some gloves from our first aid kit and laid Doris to rest. Doris was so peaceful looking, her eyes closed, her paws turned in.

We troweled dirt on top of Doris, hoping no neighborhood dogs would sniff out our Pet Cemetery.  Then Baby Girl remembered she had wanted to bury a letter she wrote to Doris along with her, so I encouraged her to just dig a hole next to Doris and to bury the letter there.

It was one of the most cathartic, beautiful moments of my life. We buried in the ground that day a beloved pet, but we also buried some of the complicated, thorny feelings we had all experienced over this recent move. Pets let you do that. We hugged it out as we had not yet done in our new home. All because of a four-legged fluffball.

Rest in peace, Doris.

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The things they found when they were moving

Everyone always hails the purge when you move, the commendable, enviable ridding of Excess Stuff that one accumulates from living for too long in a particular place. We could all Marie Kondo our way through our domiciles on a weekly basis but sometimes you still open a door and lo! The entire Oriental Trading catalogue appears to have been deposited, in glow-in-the-dark form, where your cookie cutters should be.

I do not exaggerate that the moving out of our Tennessee rental home was a six-month liquidation of crap. I don’t know if my kids are just at that fringe age where they are still clinging to ye toys of olde whilst embracing the accoutrements of Tomorrowland but they were categorically unhelpful when it came to parting with any of their possessions. I was all, “I put this in the basement for a whole year and you never asked about it once,” and they were all, “Wait, Mom, that’s my favorite band-aid of all time!” So we sent them to my parents’ house for two weeks. Seriously. This was hard but necessary. Separate, stop, collaborate and listen. We sent them away and made 23824390234 trips to the donation bin at Goodwill and finally we only had one truckload of stuff to move into our new Boston apartment and we’re here. Yay. Somehow still unpacking boxes of stuff. Weird.

In the wake of this move, here are some interesting artifacts discovered:

UntitledExhibit A: Charlie Sunshine Lotion – The lotion itself is starting to sort of ferment but you can open the tube and catch a whiff of Summer 1999. The sense memory is fierce with this one. One sniff and I am transported to  early college years and all of the homes of my high school friends who were still working high schooly jobs for one last summer. Lifeguarding and nannying and working at the mall and whatnot. This perfume smells of being young and mostly dumb and patently irresponsible and yet I always had enough money to fill my Honda Civic’s gas tank. So basically this lotion reminds me of a time and a metabolism I will never get back.

Exhibit B: Costco Calling Card – This item is not only completely obsolete but is incredibly sentimental. This was The Calling Card that made possible the 1.5 year long-distance relationship between Loverpants and myself. Any time one of us would get paid, we’d load a hot $20 onto that ticket. For a time, Loverpants had the phone number and code memorized. It’s a hell of a thing to be able to look at a 2 x 3 sheet of plastic and think, you were indispensable. Upon you were all anecdotes about his grad school endeaCalling cardvors and my undergraduate misadventures and all the sighing and crying in between. I’ll never know how much money we logged onto that calling card, talking about everything from the ridiculous to the sublime, but kids today will never understand why one was necessary and this makes us Betty and Barney Rubbles: The Long-Distance Courtship

Exhibit C: 8th Grade Math Trophy – It may not have had my name on it (because I was part of a team! A team of mathletes!) but kids, there is now proof. Mama was once smart enough to do math and get a trophy for it. Nevermind that I was 12. Nevermind that it was on a Saturday and everyone else who could add and subtract was probably playing football or watching VH-1 Pop-Up Video. Mama got herself some heavy metal for her mad math skillz. I took a picture of it so it’d last longer, yep I sure did, Pee Wee Herman.
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Why no one tells you how to be a woman

You hear this refrain often. You hear it in fond toasts by groomsmen. You read it in Father’s Day greeting cards with pictures of old timey vehicles on the front, the hood popped open. “You showed me how to be a man,” they say, and these tributes are usually followed by specifics. You showed me how to shave,  how to parallel park, how to hook a fish,  how to cook a perfect ribeye on the grille. Or maybe it’s just a general platitude offered to someone a man admires. A salute to a strong oak of a man who stood firm even when the winds of change or his son’s mood swings or his son’s girlfriend-of-the-month swept through.

I take no issue with this tribute, even if it is sometimes an affectation. We need men to mentor well, to usher in a new generation of moral leaders. We need good men to model virtuous manhood. I don’t think anyone is arguing against this the business of Showing a Boy How to Be a Man.

But no one ever tells you how to be a woman. Never, never have I ever heard a bridesmaid tell another woman,”You showed me how to be a woman.” Mother’s Day Cards are usually covered in flowers with floral script, populated by words like “sacrifice,” “patience,” and “love.” There is no mention of womanhood–there is no holiday or occasion to salute Being a Woman. I have several theories about why this is.

The first is that the business of being a woman is murkier. Womanhood cannot be boiled down to feats like tying a bowtie or changing a tire as are the hallmarks of manhood. Womanhood is evolving for each of us, by its very definition. The entry into womanhood is often marked by a change so profound it is uncomfortable. Just now, for instance, I have lost all 2 of my male readers who are afraid I’m going to mention something about menstruation. The horror. But if we are honest, this is part of the reason womanhood is so veiled in mystery. Each girl will go through a reproductive change at a time over which she has absolutely zero control. If you think about it, it is incredible how something that has been happening since the beginning of time to girls is still something each one has to learn how to navigate for herself. She has to listen to her body, understand its rhythms, overcome the discomfort and pain that reminds her regularly that the business of being a woman is so freaking fluid.

Another reason is that we seem to be afraid of proactive womanhood. Instead, womanhood is often reactive. You don’t have to look far to see evidence of this. We could spend a lot of time discussing what this past presidential election taught us about proactive versus predatory behavior, but it is just a microcosm of a larger culture that favors women tossing up the white flag of surrender rather than canvassing for a cause about which she cares.

This is why Wonder Woman blows us away–because a girl reared by all female elders to fight evil is so radical an idea we don’t even have a context. Then she goes and partners with a mere mortal of a man and doesn’t emasculate him? Holy Novel Narrative, Batman.

If machismo is the affliction of believing too fiercely in one’s manhood so that he belittles women, there should perhaps be an equivalent for women. There is no womanismo, though. Women who are independent to the point of self-sufficiency are often portrayed as simply man-hating. What a shame that no one tells you how to be a woman because that might threaten men.

There is a final reason I believe we don’t tell girls how to be women, and I think it’s the saddest of all. I think it’s because we lack creativity about what it means to be a woman. 

Forgive me if I am too strident here, but why am I more likely to read an article about “How to fight an attacker” than I am “How not to raise a rapist”? Why do colleges and universities need to teach matriculating co-eds about self-defense, about not being ruffied, about the protocols one should follow if one is sexually assaulted?

What if we spent half the time and energy expended toward reacting to the inevitability of rape and instead fueled our energy reserves toward cultivating an equitable world for girls and boys. What if instead of raising awareness about rape culture, we poured a modicum of those resources into investing in the awesomeness of girls and their interests?

Vancouver

Remember those Nike commercials “If you let me play sports…” and all the gnarly residue of girls who are allowed to participate in athletics? Well, it’s 2017 and we don’t need to use that kind of weaksauce language anymore. We don’t let girls play sports. Boys rarely have to ask to be let to do anything. We just encourage them to play sports, if that’s their jam. And we should not be surprised if they grow up to be men who don’t ask permission. Who don’t need consent. In 2017, we don’t let girls play sports. We expect girls to play sports. And we expect them to be the ones coaching us in 10 years.

How sad that our definition of what it means to be a woman is often so lacking in scope and imagination. I’ve heard of so many friends giving their daughters smartPhones and the attendant restrictions. All the things not to do, the people not to follow, the behaviors not to replicate. This is all incredibly important, but what does it leave us with in terms of cultivating creativity in girls? Is there a Girlfriend’s Guide for How to be Awesome Online? A crib sheet for how to be a woman who inspires?

***

I recently was feeling the freight of all this as I sent my daughter to camp. I was nervous about what she might encounter in girl world, bunking with all her besties away from me for a week. I met her counselor who introduced herself with a confident handshake and told me about her plans to become an English secondary education teacher. I was smitten and grateful for Counselor Raquelle. I was reminded how my nervousness could infect my daughter in negative ways, how it sent the message once again that being a girl was a liability and not a plum assignment.

Missing my daughter one evening, I logged onto the online portal of camp photos for that day. My son saw it first, the image of big sister at camp. It was as if she had memorized the Amy Cuddy Ted Talk.

Once again, I was smitten and grateful for another girl. Showing me that being a girl can be proactive, creative and awesome, lest I forget.

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