From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Of Wings and Strings

The voice of parents is the voice of gods, for to their children they are heaven’s lieutenants.

William Shakespeare

How long had it hibernated, I wondered, in the corner of Daddy’s garage?

There it slumbered—an ancient ball of string—afloat in the puddled lines of cobwebby cane poles, shoehorned between tins of crackled boot polish and rusted coffee cans full of assorted nails—both straight and bent.

Rousing it from its sleep, I plucked linty wisps from the knotted wad. We children—grown now and scattered to the four winds—had been reeled home to cull and pick through the hoarded relics of our beloved father’s life and, as familiar as a favorite cousin, the ball of string was the treasure I snagged. It tied me to family, to home, to Daddy.

I claimed it; I pocketed it; it was mine. And so were the memories it evoked. Way back when, in an era before America was prepackaged and disposable, our family valued the virtue of thrift: holding fast to our possessions to lengthen their lifespan. Daddy glued broken dinner plates, replaced chair legs, patched flat tires; Mother let down hems, salvaged odd buttons, and washed and reused tin foil; Grandma split worn sheets down the middle and stitched them together, outer edge to outer edge, good for another six or seven years of service.

And we kids saved string.

Twine from packages, leftover ends of crochet thread, whatever we could salvage and add to our burgeoning balls. After all, string had its uses. It was good for fashioning macaroni into necklaces, pulling a loose tooth, tying around a pinky as a homework reminder and finger-weaving Cat’s Cradle, Jacob’s Ladder or Crow’s Feet.

But string also had a darker side.

Calling her “bear bait,” Jimmy Winslow, our neighbor two houses down, once tied his sister Marla to a telephone pole until her mother rescued her and told Jimmy she’d show him bear bait! Not to be outdone in our own grisly play, Connie and Donna and I built miniature gallows and attempted to lynch condemned—but top-heavy—horny toads.

Mostly, though, we saved string for flying homemade kites.

Mother flattened and ironed crinkled gift-wrapping paper she’d hoarded since last Christmas—faintly scorched gold foil with jolly faced Santas and candy-cane stripes that we pasted and spliced crazy-quilt style onto paint stir-sticks scrounged from the corners of the garage. Finally, we pawed through a mildewed cache of rags (bed sheets even Grandma couldn’t salvage) on the back porch to rip and tie on as wispy tails.

Knotting our string to the diamond-frame contraptions, we answered the siren call of “the hill,” a gemstone of undeveloped and overgrown property ringed by our rural neighborhood. The hill: where ghosts roamed, imaginations soared and victories triumphed. I trailed the others as they scurried ahead, slowed by the firm knowledge that mine would be the kite that couldn’t fly.

No matter how brisk the breeze or how diligent my efforts, my kite dogged my feet like a temperamental toddler. It waddled across the grass then actually rose a bit, right along with my hopes, before it flapped and fluttered and flopped to its back like a wounded goose.

Oh, how I wanted it to take flight. Marla could fly a kite. Connie and Donna could fly kites. Even wicked Jimmy Winslow could fly a kite. Mine was always doomed.

On this particular day, Daddy must’ve been watching from the front porch. He appeared beside me and laid his large workman’s hand on my shoulder. “You need to give it more line,” he explained.

“It still won’t work. It never does.”

“Just let it find its way.” He turned his tanned face into the quickening breeze. “Run!” he shouted, grabbing the string above my clinched fist and racing with me into the wind as my cotton play dress slapped, then flattened against my thighs. “Okay, give it some slack . . . now!

In spite of the kite’s insistent tug, I held back. “But what if it breaks away? I don’t want to lose it.”

“Now!” he repeated.

Reluctantly, I reeled out the string with Daddy urging for more. And even more. The kite caught an air current, staggered, then nosed its way upward like an uncaged bird winging toward freedom.

“It’s flying!” I flashed a wide grin at the sky.

“Hold on firmly, but loosen the line some,” Daddy ordered.

As I eased out the string, I felt the kite’s heart thrum an erratic beat down the taut length of it. My own heart echoed the rhythm. Farther and farther the kite flew, gliding yet hesitating to glance over its shoulder as if asking permission to continue on. Sipping a first taste of liberty, it dipped and bobbed and whirled, dancing to the strains of music I felt but couldn’t hear.

I turned to Daddy. “What holds it up in the sky?”

“Why, you,” he shrugged, “. . . and, of course, the string.”

“Oh, Daddy, that’s silly. The string holds it down, not up.”

“Look over there,” he pointed at a tree whose branches impaled the bleached bones of a kite. “That’s what happens when you let go of the string. The kite flies away but eventually it falls, see? The thing that anchors it lets it soar.”

So, the string—those odds-and-ends pieces we had virtuously conserved and diligently collected—really did keep the kite up even while holding it down. And that oddity made sense to me, the young child.

The very things that anchor us actually let us soar. Things like values and family and love—virtuously saved and diligently strung together—create the lifeline that offers us freedom even while it connects us to home.

Yes, I caressed the raggedy ball of string nestled deep in my pocket. This is the heirloom—and the lesson from Daddy— I’ll treasure. And I looped the loose end around my pinky, just as a reminder.

Carol McAdoo Rehme

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