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.

Call for Submissions: New Family Stories Anthology (deadline extended to Sept. 1)

I am thrilled with the response so far to the call for submissions for a new anthology of family narratives (see below for details). Christi Craig and I have had several inquiries and some excellent submissions so far, and we are extending the deadline to September 1, 2016, to give writers time during busy summer months to polish up essays, creative nonfiction pieces, and poems. Please pass along the information to anyone you know who writes about family historical letters, diaries, and other documents.

Call for Submissions for Anthology of Family Narratives:  Bringing diaries and letters alive for present and future generations

Deadline: August 1, 2016 September 1, 2016
Publisher: Hidden Timber Books
Editors: Lisa Rivero and Christi Craig
Printable pdf of Guidelines

Theme, Genres, and Lengths

This new anthology in print and ebook will focus on creative nonfiction, found poetry and other poetry, and essays inspired by diaries and letters, genealogical records, gravestones, and so on.

Our goal is to publish a volume that showcases the telling of historical family narratives for present and future generations, both for our own families and for other readers. We encourage submissions from all cultures and backgrounds. In general, we suggest that the family papers/records be at least 50 years old but will consider all submissions that convey historical, cultural,  intergenerational, or other meaning.

We will consider short pieces of creative nonfiction from 500 to 4000 words (suggested length), found poetry no longer than 200 lines each or 500 words for each prose poem (up to 5 poems), and essays of 1000 to 5000 words (suggested length).

We are seeking new (not previously published) works, the only exception being works that have been published on authors’ personal blogs, in which case authors will agree to remove the works from their blogs upon acceptance.

Learn More about Creative Nonfiction and Found Poetry

Submission Requirements

Submit works through Submittable only. Acceptable formats are .pdf, .txt, docx, and .doc, formatted with 1” margins, double-spaced, and 12 point font. Please include your name on the submission and a cover letter that clearly identifies the title of your piece, word count, the family papers you are using and how they are incorporated into your submission, whether the work is being submitted simultaneously elsewhere, and your contact information. Do not submit the family papers or records themselves—only your original works on which they are based. While simultaneous submissions are permitted, please notify us of acceptance elsewhere and withdraw your entry as soon as possible. Each submitter may submit up to three pieces (each a separate Submittable submission—note that each poetry submission can be up to five poems).

Reading Period and Notification of Acceptance

Deadline for submissions is August 1, 2016 September 1, 2016. All submitters will be notified of the chosen works before September 15, 2016 October 15, 2016, at which point accepted authors will work with editors to make revisions for a planned publication date in late 2016 or early 2017. Editors reserve the right to decline all submissions should there not be enough acceptable material for a full-length anthology, in which case submitters will be notified as soon as possible.

Payment and Rights

Payment will be in contributors’ copies, and contributors will be able to purchase print copies of the anthology at a 40% discount. Author bios will be published in the anthology, and Hidden Timber Books will include the bios and social media links on its website.

Contracts will give Hidden Timber Books permission to publish in paperback and ebook, and translations of both formats and exclusive rights for the first six months after publication. Authors will retain all other rights and are free to re-publish their works six months after the publication date.

Legal Considerations

Note that copyright of diaries and letters is retained by the author of such papers and his or her heirs (or transferred from said owners), who may or may not be the person in possession of the papers. For this reason, please quote only from primary sources for which you have the copyright (or can obtain the copyright) and/or transform the original work using creative nonfiction or poetry or other literary means. Also, please disguise names of any persons still living or for any situations that are potentially libelous.

Please direct any questions to the publisher at lisa [@] hiddentimberbooks [.] com

Submit here.

“a place where everything I have experienced was safe to be remembered”

One of my nephews has recently spent three weeks in Nicaragua as a volunteer for Outreach360. Today he posted the first of three blog posts about his experience. As always, his writing, photos, and perspectives have brightened and enriched my day (and serve as an excellent example of a thoughtful and informative travel blog post):

“I arrived in Jinotega with a skeptical attitude, and a sort of adrift sense of orientation. But I think Jinotega is exactly what I needed. In one week the taste of coffee and honey, games with my new friends, and walking through the neighborhood with our teaching supplies to see the students all became familiar and comforting details. Normally when I listen to music, I will skip a song because it reminds me too much of a place or a time. That song will seem out of place, and will sometimes make me feel out of place. For example, listening to Clément Jacques in Arizona is sometimes too uncomfortable because it reminds me of Montréal. But in Jinotega, I could listen to anything. It was like a place where everything I have experienced was safe to be remembered. Perhaps it is because Jinoetga was so new to me and so unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. But I don’t like to analyze that too much. What I like to notice about it is that Jinotega was exactly what I needed to feel grounded in a time of transition.”

Read full original story

  • Jane Austen's Writing Table

On daily writing quotas, a life spent writing, and reversing destiny

My husband recently forwarded the essay “10 Rules of Writing” by Amitava Kumar that is too good not to share:

“If you have read this essay so far, you are probably a writer. That is what you should write in the blank space where you are asked to identify your occupation. I say this also for another reason. Annie Dillard wrote, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’ Those words scared the living daylights out of me. I thought of the days passing, days filled with my wanting to write, but not actually writing. I had wasted years.

Each day is a struggle, and the outcome is always uncertain, but I feel as if I have reversed destiny when I have sat down and written my quota for the day. Once that work is done, it seems okay to assume that I will spend my life writing.”

Read full original post


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Continue To Tell Stories: Hamilton at the Tony Awards

“[C]ontinue to tell stories…. There are stories to be told and there are people who want to hear them.” Thomas Kail, Director, Hamilton

The following video is of the 2016 Tony Awards performance of the cast of Hamilton. I cannot express how happy, inspired, awed, and grateful this play makes me, even/especially on dark days, and will never apologize for the emotional power of stories and art, whether considered classic or pop culture, to turn the world upside down.


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