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I am tugged into the past by a string

Mom saved string, although I don’t believe she’d save it if it were less than two feet long.

John Kehe
  • Murr Brewster

A piece of string just showed up on the carpet the other day. It was about a foot long. I picked it up and ran it through my fingers. Real string! I hadn’t seen any in years. It was like an artifact. I drifted back in time: Arthur Godfrey murmured from the melamine radio, bottles of milk were at the back door, and a Fuller Brush man was at the front. I don’t know where this string came from, but I’m sure it arrived through the agency of my cat Tater, who carted it around the house for a while in case there was a rodent at the end of it. That’s just how she rolls.

When I was a kid there was always string around. You could buy it in balls. People used it to tie up packages to be mailed, after first wrapping them in brown paper. When I started as a postal carrier in 1977, the guys used twine to bundle up their mail. 

I’d watch them slam together a perfectly straightened bunch of mail and take the twine and whip it around, once, twice, and twice more widthwise, then snap it off using the twine itself as a cutter. The whole bundle was secured in three seconds flat. It was a beauty to behold. “I’ll be able to do that someday,” I said to myself, keeping to my life strategy of small ambitions, but in fact I never did learn to do that. I dented up my fingers trying for a few months, and then we went over entirely to rubber bands, except for the old guys, who guarded their twine stashes as though they were their very youth and glory.

The thing about string is that it’s almost impossible to throw away. That’s a staple of obsessive-compulsive comedy – the string hoarder. You develop a character who lives with 19 cats and saves string. That’s all you really need to know about that person. Mom saved string, although I don’t believe she’d save it if it were less than two feet long. She was Depression-thrifty but she wasn’t a nut – unless you think maintaining a linen closet packed floor to ceiling with toilet paper is nuts. 

But toilet paper was among the things strictly rationed during World War II, and the entire experience brought her lots of clarity about the important things in life. (Sacrifi­cing during wartime is another one of those artifacts, like string and bottled milk at the back door. Back in the day, they didn’t even think about putting a whole war on the credit card. They were backward that way.)

Mom used string for packaging and odd jobs and keeping the roast beef from getting away. I couldn’t think of anything I would need a foot of string for. Roast beef must not be as unruly as it used to be. I coiled the string around my fingers to throw it out, but then I set it down. It’s on the windowsill. In case we need it. You can’t throw away string. That’s just how we roll.

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