“String Too Short to Use,” New Era, May 1973, 32
I like chemistry, football, fried chicken, a cute girl, and strawberry malts. I guess you can say that I am an average American guy—except for one thing. I don’t think anyone who has a sister like mine can be all average. I mean, she doesn’t just giggle, comb her hair for hours, fill your nostrils with the aroma of hair spray, and monopolize the bathroom to put on her make-up, but she saves things too. Like when she came home from kindergarten the first day carrying an empty milk carton. That’s when it started.
“You’re not supposed to bring that home,” I told her. “When you get through drinking the milk, you throw the carton in the trash can.”
“I know,” she answered as she opened a drawer and tucked it neatly inside, “but I want to save it.”
“What for?” I persisted. “Are you going to make something out of it?”
“No,” she said, closing the drawer, “I’m just going to save it.”
“Boy, that’s dumb. Mom,” I called, pursuing the subject further, “Lisa has a milk carton in her drawer, and it will probably sour and smell the whole house up. She isn’t going to use it, so why is she saving it?”
Mom smiled. “Well,” she said, “this is her first day at school, the first time she’s been given milk in a small carton. I guess it represents a happy memory.”
That was just the beginning. She saved everything. I mean I can understand kids saving useful things like marbles, bicycle valve caps, and bugs for scientific research. I could even understand my sister saving outdated clothes to remodel, because Mom said that was being conservative, but I think everything that came into her possession she kept. The older she got the more she saved. She saved test papers, banquet favors, pressed corsages, ticket stubs, and programs.
Now, I suppose all this would have been tolerable if it hadn’t been for the string. Suddenly she started saving string. Not long lengths, but bits and pieces.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“For nothing,” she snapped defensively. “I’m just saving it. Is there a law against that?”
I couldn’t believe it. I decided she was a real dumb-dumb. Now, don’t get me wrong. Just because I thought she was dumb didn’t mean I didn’t like her, and it didn’t mean that anyone else could make fun of her, for if they did they would have me to settle with. Like the time Mom said I couldn’t go fishing with Jim unless I took Lisa along. She and Dad were planning to be gone for the day, and she didn’t want Lisa to stay home alone. Boy, I was pretty burned up over that. A twelve-year-old guy having to take his kid sister fishing! I grumbled and complained and yelled at her all the way. But when Jim started yelling at her and grumbling because she was along, it made me plain boil.
“What’s the matter with Lisa going fishing with us?” I bristled. “She’s my sister, and if she wants to go fishing, she can.”
Jim was so surprised he didn’t say anything. Lisa was so surprised she dropped the rock she had been holding, and I was so surprised at what I had said that I picked it up and gave it back to her—to save.
But what really takes the cake about all this saving is what I discovered the day Mom was helping Lisa clean her room. I stepped in to see if either of them could tell me what had happened to my blue sweat shirt. I knew if Lisa had seen it, it was safe, but Mom sometimes got carried away and burned things just because they were ten years old, full of holes, and covered with paint smears and grease spots. She never burned things like banquet favors or pressed corsages, just sweat shirts.
“I didn’t burn it,” Mom said patiently. “I didn’t throw it away. In fact, I haven’t seen it since the day you were washing the car with it.”
“Oh, yes!” I remembered and was standing there wondering if I had hung it up to dry so it would be wearable to goof around in, when I caught sight of the curler bag on Lisa’s bed. It wasn’t the bag that captured my attention exactly, it was the fact that instead of curlers it was full of string, bits and pieces.
“What in the world!” I picked it up and read the small neatly handwritten note pasted on the outside, “String too short to use.”
I started laughing.
“Give it here,” Lisa cried, snatching it out of my hands.
“String too short to use!” I doubled over with laughter. “Man, I can’t believe you’re for real.”
“Mother!” Lisa was close to tears.
“Son—” Mom started.
“But she says herself that the string is too short to use.” I defended myself. “If she can’t use it then she isn’t being conservative, and I don’t believe this represents memories. No one has that many happy memories,” I teased as I darted out the door still laughing.
Actually the string incident came in very handy, for I used it constantly as a weapon. For instance, when Lisa started teasing me when I let my hair grow longer than usual, I reminded her of her useless string, and she said no more.
Then I met this kind of special girl. She liked football and fried chicken and strawberry malts; and I liked her.
When we got married, I decided I was the luckiest guy ever. It was somewhere around this time I decided that I was pretty lucky not to be all average. In fact, it was the evening Ann and I were looking at our wedding gifts in our apartment. I picked up this one gift, and as a kind of lump came in my throat, I realized that if it had been a large amount of money, it wouldn’t have been as nice as it was. The homemade article represented many things, among them a kind of forgiveness.
Ann came up in back of the chair in which I was sitting and put her arms around my neck. “I wonder who that is from,” she said as she leaned over and read the unsigned note pinned on the pretty velvet cushion.
I started to tell her, but the lump in my throat kept me from speaking. “I’ll explain later,” I said finally.
Then I unpinned the note and read the neatly handwritten message once more.
It said, “This cushion is filled with all my love and the string too short to use.”