Grandma’s Ball of String

The following flash non-fiction essay was first published in the December 2015 issue of HippocampusThis version includes a few links and photographs of my grandmother. And, yes, the header photo is the ball of string.

String Theory

The ball of string fits reassuringly in my hand, smaller than a softball but just bigger than a baseball. Its perfect sphericity seems impossible against my palm, testament to the care and diligence with which it was wound.

For a long time after I brought it home from my grandmother’s kitchen, where it had been stored in a coffee can in a low cupboard drawer, the orb sat as a kind of museum piece on a bookshelf in my house. The string itself is aged, not quite yellow but certainly not white, smoother than one might expect, and tied together in pieces of about two feet with knots so secure that only magic could pry them apart. I have looked in every hardware store I pass for string of the exact diameter and strength and texture, without success.

Grandma, born in 1902 and the youngest of 10 children, is the girl with the white bow in her hair
Grandma, born 1902 and the youngest of 10 children, is the girl with the white bow in her hair. Her father left his New York state home just shy of his 16th birthday to fight in the Civil War.

In recent years I have begun to use the ball with college students in a classroom creativity activity that requires exactly one yard of string. Each time I cut three feet of string, I am struck that my grandmother would have added her final piece long before any of these students were born. Will I ever get to its center?

Do I want to?

Grandma, late 1920s
Grandma, late 1920s

Grandma Louise raised four children on a farm and ranch in Todd County, South Dakota, the third poorest county in the United States per capita income, with a population density of six residents per square mile. My parents lived on the same farm, so I spent much of my early years at Grandma’s compact, white, two-story house, especially after the birth of my brother when I was two. He was colicky, my mother was depressed, and it was good for all involved for my chatty, impulsive self to be out from underfoot.

Tucked near the center of my being are long, delicious, formative hours watching Grandma roll dough for cinnamon rolls and wipe the flour from her hands onto her ever-present faded, calico apron that slipped over her head and tied loosely in a bow at the small of her back. From her I learned how to embroider dish towels and crochet potholders and iron men’s handkerchiefs. Together we listened to a radio program called Kitchen-Klatter, during which I would be shushed several times as I impatiently waited for it to end.

Yours truly, with Grandma and Grandpa
Yours truly, with Grandma and Grandpa

While rarely idle, she would have never described herself as “too busy.” She was a farmer’s wife, accustomed to waiting for bread dough to rise and cookies to bake, for crops to sprout, cattle to fatten, alfalfa to dry and wheat to ripen. For children and grandchildren to grow up.

Office of War Information poster, 1943.
Office of War Information poster, 1943.

A member of the “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” generation, Grandma repurposed long before repurposing was a thing (logophiles take note: the word “repurpose” was coined in 1984). The women of my youth never remodeled for the sake of remodeling nor bought anything new before the old was useless. Threadbare work shirts that could no longer protect from the sun willed their buttons to the button jar, their fabric to rags and quilts. Gravy turned any leftovers into feasts. Even dryer lint was transformed into stuffing for pincushions.

String was repurposed perhaps more than anything else. In an era before cellophane tape or plastic bags, grocers wrapped food in brown paper and string for its journey home. Parcels to be mailed were similarly packaged, as were holiday gifts. As I use my grandmother’s string one yard at a time, my appreciation swells for the simple and useful and for the cumulative significance of time. I imagine her unwrapping each package in her measured way, pulling the string taut to remove any kinks, knotting it expertly to the waiting naked end, then rewrapping the new addition tightly before returning it to the coffee can. Later she would cut new pieces to bind turkey legs or secure climbing bean plants to poles or show children how to play Cat’s Cradle or Jacob’s Ladder or telephone with tin cans. Then another package, another measure of string, and it all would start again.

In String Theory, everything—planets, trees, human beings, computers, energy—is ultimately the same at its core, a simple, one-dimensional, vibrating thread that unifies the universe. I cup my ball of string in my hands—hands that look with each passing year more and more like my grandmother’s, age spots and all—and the theory of everything slowly unfolds.


Do you write about family papers and other historical records, or know someone who does? A new anthology of family narratives currently is calling for submissions of creative nonfiction, essays, and poetry based on family diaries, letters, and other artifacts. Click here for more information. Deadline: September 1, 2016.

8 thoughts on “Grandma’s Ball of String

  1. Love this piece! I’ve just started writing my story starting in 1900. I’m going to try to get a chapter or something done so I can submit it. We’ll see. On the road right now so very limited time to write. Thanks for the extension.

    BTW..I think your date of first printing might be off a bit 🙂

    • Sally, thanks very much, and I’m so happy you are thinking of submitting something! Thanks for the heads-up on the date, too–all fixed now. 🙂

  2. Oh, Lisa, How beautiful and how serendipitous: I’m reading an incredible book, The Jazz of Physics, by Stephon Alexander, Cosmologist and Prof. of Physics at Btown U, and his analogies between jazz (particularly the music theories of John Coltrane) and string theory, woven into the fabric of his personal narrative, are his own “ball of string”! Thanks for this touching piece!

    • Brenda, thank you, both for the kind words and for writing about Stephon Alexander’s book (serendipitous, indeed!). I hadn’t been aware of The Jazz of Physics, and it seems like something I would very much enjoy and a good example of cross-disciplinary thinking. Another title for my summer reading list. 🙂

  3. I dearly love this post..
    it brought back memories I’d forgotten … growing up in Wisconsin,
    I can appreciate your grandparents life in S. Dakota. Survivors for sure.
    The teachers, when speaking of S.D. and N.D. always spoke of the
    severe conditions and poverty that the people endured. I admire the
    people who chose to live there and raise families and create wonderful
    roots for generations to come.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Sigrid, thanks very much for taking the time to share these thoughts. Yes, survivors is the perfect word, especially the women (or at least I think of them the most).

  4. I just watched the Marshmallow Challenge (creativity challenge)
    …thank you for sharing that ! Listened to the audio part and looked
    at all the photos… A great project for team building. I passed this
    along to others who will find it interesting, and I hope some might
    even try the challenge.

    Peace,
    Siggi

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