One sunny morning when I was eight or nine, my sister Ellen found a hamster in a cellar window well off the back steps of our house. We never knew how he got there (in hindsight, he had probably escaped from a neighbor), but his miraculous heaven-sent entrance into our life was eclipsed only by the fact that my mother agreed to let us keep him. He was white with a tan hourglass-shaped patch on his back that wrapped around to his pink velveteen forepaws. We named him Muffin. His house was an old fish tank furnished with an exercise wheel and cedar shavings for nesting, where he kept my younger siblings and me spellbound for hours. We wrapped him in fabric scraps from my mother’s ragbag and lulled him to sleep in our cupped hands. We fed him whole peanuts in the shell and watched in fascination as he gripped each one and deftly maneuvered his sharp incisors to reveal the nutmeats hidden within, not to be eaten but instead hoarded within expanding cheeks.
My mother was expert at identifying illness through visual cues. A trained nurse, she had once correctly diagnosed a case of tonsillitis in me by spotting a tentative swallow. This skill became particularly useful during a stretch of hot summer weather when I was seven or eight years old. It was the late 1960s, and my family attended weekly Catholic mass in our suburban New Jersey town. After a string of stifling Sundays in the church — an upgrade to air conditioning was still a few years away — it became apparent that I was prone to fainting spells. Each week, about halfway through mass, I would begin to feel lightheaded. The full standing-to-kneeling repertoire of the Catholic service didn’t help matters. When my countenance crossed a certain threshold of paleness — recognizable only to my mother — she would skillfully steer me through the narrow pew, past my siblings and other parishioners toward a side exit, sparing me the embarrassment of public collapse.