And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
My 7-year old granddaughter, Maya Mae, discovered string games this week. You remember string games – where you would tie a big string into a loop, wrap it around your palms, and then make figures with complicated twistings of string and fingers, like Jacob’s Ladder, Witch’s Broom, Japanese Butterfly, Open Gate, and play games with more than one person, like Cat’s Cradle. Maya’s mom found a string for this on sale at work, and she remembered her own string games (she likes the Witch’s Broom) and so she brought it home. Maya learned the Witch’s Broom pretty quickly, but then, as she showed me, it became about wrapping the string around things, crumpling it, and doing all sorts of stuff to it.
I told Maya that I played with string too. And my big thing was Jacob’s Ladder, though I played many games of Cat’s Cradle.
When I was eight or nine, I was home sick with strep throat. In my home, even when my brother or I were sick, we had to be out of bed by 9:00 in the morning, so my mother could make the bed. There was no such thing as an illness so dire that beds couldn’t be smoothed and made up. So that day, my second or third day home, I got up, pulled on my robe, grabbed a book, went out to the living room and stretched out on the couch. I was covered with a special “home sick” blanket and my head rested on a special “home sick” pillow that were left in the closet when they weren’t used.
It wasn’t long before I was bored out of my mind. I couldn’t get on the floor and play because I was “sick” which meant stuck on the couch. My mother watched soap operas, so daytime television was stupid. I finished my book in no time flat. And you can only draw so many pictures. My mother was cleaning the house, as she did every day, and so there were no board games. I didn’t yet know how to play solitaire.
After lunch, my mother brought me a piece of string. She tied the ends together so it made a loop. Before she gave it to me, she put it on her own hands and showed me how to make a Jacob’s Ladder, the only pattern she knew. Cross fingers, drop thumbs, drop pinkies, grab first string, tuck over second, in and out and up and down, and suddenly…there was what could be a rope ladder between her thumb and forefinger. “It’s Jacob’s Ladder,” she explained. “He uses it to climb to heaven.” And then she taught it to me. It took a few times, but I got it.
And I was enthralled. I could hold the Jacob’s Ladder up and imagine all sorts of stories involving climbing ladders. I could carefully lay the ladder on my lap, without losing its shape, and turn my fingers into people and animals who used the ladder for escape and adventure. I didn’t need my toys, which were put away neatly in my closet, waiting for the day that I would be well enough to play on the floor again. Fingers. String. That’s all I needed.
And now my granddaughter, stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had a string too.
My daughters, now 33 and 19, both went through string phases and I enjoyed it with them. I bought them each a book called Cat’s Cradle, which came with its own colorful, durable string and a bunch of recipes for different games and figures. And now…here was the string again. I went online, found the book, and had it delivered to Maya.
In the meantime, a photo of her appeared, with the string wrapped around her ankles. With or without the book, she was finding her way, and this string, in the middle of massive technology, was capturing her imagination.
It made me think of other things I did as a child, that kept me busy in so many different ways.
*Jacks. I never played Jacks the way you’re supposed to. I thought it was silly. I tucked the ball away with my other balls and focused on the jacks, trying to get them all spinning at once and imagining a great ballroom of dancing couples, or a stage filled with ballerinas.
*Another Jacob’s Ladder. Five wooden blocks, held together somehow with elastic, and when I tilted the first in a certain way, it streamed down like a clacking waterfall. I have one of these now, with the blocks painted to look like books, and it’s a wonderful way to spend a few moments in thought.
*Yoyos. Marbles. They came out every spring. I had a purple Duncan yoyo that I loved. And there were cat’s eye marbles, peeries, and steelies. Mine had names, and I never played for keepsies because they were family.
*Fishing with a stick, a string knotted at the top, and another bent nail for the hook. No bait. No fish. Who cared?
*Collecting rocks. I never had a rock tumbler like many of my friends had, though I asked for one every Christmas and birthday. But I collected rocks anyway and kept them in an old cigar box that my mother originally used for her art supplies, then passed on to me. Those rocks were jewels to me. And sometimes, they were characters, set up in complex scenes to match the story going on in my head.
Watching Maya with her string, I felt shot through with joy. It took the sting away, a little bit, of not being able to be there with her. But I did go downstairs and dig through the junk drawer until I found a spool of string. It was just plain string, not colored, not thick, but I cut a length of it, tied the ends together, looped it around my palms, and made Jacob’s Ladder. I watched my fingers fly, then smiled proudly at the result. There goes Jacob, climbing the ladder to heaven.
It’s all still there, you know. The joy of simple things. And especially the joy of something in your past connecting with a child of the future.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.