As I sit here at the computer, I hear the fresh, yet familiar sound of gerbils skittering around in a cage not ten feet from me. They chew and scratch constantly, and this sound transports me instantly, as if by magic, as if in a magic time machine, to my childhood.
It’s 1970-something and I’m sitting on the floor in my cozy, cluttered room in Nelson. I have bell-bottom pants on. My mother made them for me, and then when I threatened to outgrow them too quickly, she added ruffles to the hems. Yessss, kids, I’m a fashion plate. I’ve gotten out of doing the dishes tonight on two counts: I’ve pleaded homework, and my room is a mess and wants cleaning. Both of these claims are true, but actually I am sitting on the floor in my room, watching my gerbils scamper around me on the floor. (Sorry, Mom, maybe you’d better skip this story!) I’ve let them out of their cage, so my bedroom door must stay shut. (“Don’t come in, Anne, I’m doing my French homework, and cleaning my room!!”)
We live in a huge barn of a house, and I’d never find Charlie and Susie if they slipped out the door. They love being free from the confines of their cage, racing about under my furniture, leaving their little pellets wherever they please, chewing on edges of whatever they find appealing to chew on. (Sorry again, Mom)
I loved those gerbils. They afforded me lots of hours of companionship, many opportunities to go to my room by myself and shut the door, and many baby gerbils, almost effortlessly. Win-win-win.
Baby gerbils, like most baby creatures, are adorable, and disregarding the warnings in the gerbil-care books (“Gerbil parents are extremely protective of their young! NEVER touch their offspring, or they will react in undesirable ways! Cannibalism is not unheard of!!!!”) I would hold them, and Charlie and Susie didn’t mind. Baby gerbils are born with their eyes glued shut, like kittens, so for a few days they are blind, and very still. I could hold them for hours without their ever trying to get away. Once their eyes open, though, watch out! They are tiny, and fast as quicksilver. Whatever quicksilver is. I’ve never really taken the time to find out, but I get the feeling that it’s pretty doggone fast. I suppose you could Google it, if you care. Then you could share your newfound knowledge with me!
My Grandpa Young, a dairy farmer, used to regard my gerbils with a steely eye and say “If I saw one of those out in the barnyard, I’d hit it with a board.” Grandpa wasn’t a gerbil person.
Anyway, I’ve always encouraged my own children to choose gerbils, when they reached the age—and they all do—when they started hankering for a small pet. Amalia was the last gerbil owner in the house. Gerbils are relatively long-lived, don’t cost much to feed, are easy to care for, and they’re not as stinky as other rodents. And they produce baby gerbils, which is the best part about them.
A few years ago when the Gerbil Fever was upon her, Amalia saved her money for—oh, forever–at least a week! The patience that required, you have no idea! She was fervently desiring gerbils. Feverishly. Passionately. Ardently. Single-mindedly.
May I give you a glimpse into this darling daughter’s character? One day, we were running errands in town, and we stopped at the pet store. We didn’t have time to make a purchase, just to look. We stopped to have a look-see, not to buy, hoping that that would be enough for her for the moment. Bad idea. She was so filled, so utterly flooded with disappointment when we left a few minutes later that she burst into tears as soon as she jumped into the car, and sobbed in despair for precisely nine minutes, as we lumbered toward home in the Suburban. On minute ten, she was laughing heartily at 2-year-old Malachi’s knock-knock jokes. (And who wouldn’t? “Knock-knock.” Who’s there? “A Jeep.” A Jeep who? “A Jeep is passing us! HAHAHAHAHA!”)
So now you understand why, at noon on Easter Sunday that year, when we had 30 people coming to our house for dinner in an hour, we had to stop at Earl May’s in Lincoln, after church, to buy two gerbils. And that’s why I typed this article, at the computer, with the background noise of “shuffle, shuffle, chew, skitter, skitter, rustle.”
Years ago, our older sons Matthew and Andrew had two different pairs (“Boys only, please! We don’t want any babies!”) of gerbils. The first pair, Ax and Sparky, had a hard time staying out of our cat Matemeo’s mouth. It’s not easy to keep gerbils separated from a bored housecat, in a house with less than one-thousand square feet, with 5 children living there. The door to the boys’ room had to stay closed at all times. This was especially tricky in the wintertime, since we were living in Iowa during the coldest winter in recorded history, and our tiny, 100-year-old house not only had no insulation between the inner and outer walls (true fact–not even old newspapers!) but no furnace vents upstairs. Only masochistic Eskimos could be comfortable during the winter in that second story. So to keep Ax and Sparky from freezing into little, furry popsicles, we had to leave the boys’ bedroom door open for part of the day.
Enter bored Matemeo. The first time he took off with little Ax hanging out of his mouth, somebody grabbed him as he stole down the stairs. Ax was none the worse for wear. The second time, Matemeo was a bit more desperate for his chew toy/snack, and he slipped down the stairs, through the first floor to the basement stairs.
I was in the kitchen when I heard the cries of an irate boy on the second floor. With a mother’s uncanny foresight and keen instincts, I knew what was happening as I caught a glimpse of the cat’s tail disappearing down the basement staircase, which was at the far end of the kitchen. We had a little cat door in the basement that would allow our cats to come into—and go out of–the basement. I’m not sure why we had this little door. Just to add to the general chaos of our household, I suppose. I assumed the cat was heading for that door.
My assumption had been correct. Once outside, he—and innocent little Ax—would be gone, gone, gone. Instantly acting on this assumption, I darted out the back door, around the side of the house, and took a flying leap to intercept Matemeo, who had just exited the cat door. I can still see myself, as if in slow motion, Super Mom in all her glory, as I flew through the air, my hand landing on the back of the cat’s skull as my body hit the ground. All I lacked was a fluttering cape. And, perhaps, a cunning mask. (Sadly, nobody witnessed this brilliant feat, and to this day Matthew still says I made it up. Which, it must be noted, I certainly did not.)
Matemeo, not expecting this humiliating turn of events, popped his gerbil-clogged mouth open, gasped, and Ax was free. Free, that is, to race over the grass through the back yard! But, once I had already done the superhuman feat of catching that cat, scooping up the gerbil, as they say, was child’s play. I dusted myself off, returned the gerbil to the boys’ room, and went back down to the kitchen.
A common enough story of the unsung hero of the ages . . . the common Mom. Doubtless many of you moms do similar, impossibly brilliant stunts before breakfast nearly every morning. I have no doubt of this. None whatsoever.
I don’t know why the word “Gerbil” has always made me smile. Gerbil-Gerbil-Gerbil. It’s just a funny word. Other small rodent names aren’t humorous at all. Rat. Mouse. Hamster. But Gerbil is a funny word. I wonder that not more poets turn the word into a humorous poem.
The boys’ second (“males only this time, Mom,” as if it was my fault that it’s so difficult to tell boy and girl gerbils apart. Please.) pair of gerbils, Bolt and Lightning, turned our little world on its ear, for a few hours one day, at least. Matthew came stomping down the stairs early one morning, looking like a disgruntled thundercloud. “Bolt is most certainly not a male,” he announced, darkly, leaving all of us to come to our own conclusions. Of course the rest of us were all delighted that Bolt—now renamed Boltina—was obviously a female and now a mother, after all, with a little nest full of babies, and we dropped what we were doing and clattered up the stairs to the boys’ room, where the new family proudly nestled. (Refer to earlier part of article regarding cuteness of gerbil babies). But Matthew wasn’t happy to be in the gerbil family business. Perhaps it was a tad embarrassing for a 13-year-old boy to suddenly be a witness to gerbil procreation. I don’t know.
I need to ask him about that someday.
(Just an FYI: I just Googled “Gerbil Poem” and instantly found more gerbil-related poetry than you can shake a stick at, including a poem to be read at a Gerbil’s memorial service–I am not making this up. It ends with:
“If someone ever asks what happens to an animal that dies,
Just give a gentle smile of joy and look them in the eye.
Take their hand and comfort them well and tell them not to cry.
For gerbils don’t die, they simply cross a bridge to paradise.” (author Dan Atcheson)
I just thought you would enjoy that.
More from my site
- Six Lessons My Garden Taught Me This Year
- “The Only Writing Advice You’ll Ever Need,” a guest post from NaNoWriMo