Before Television, There was String

By Anna Chapman

Before television, before radio became entertainment and was only utilitarian, there was string. There were shirt buttons and brown corrugated cardboard boxes. There were leaves, grass blades, and tufts of grass. There were tin cans. There were small willow branches. There was the muddy beach down by the river. There was even a dead mouse.

String was for playing cat’s cradle with a friend—a little couples dance done with fingers and intricate loops. A few yards of string, two tin cans, and two shirt buttons made a telephone—the only telephone in the village—but it never lived up to our expectations. The top of a tin can, one third folded over to form a protective handle, became a knife with which we cut diagonal slashes into leaves before hanging them on twigs, in imitation of our elders cutting salmon before hanging it on long racks to dry. Grass blades, of course, were for whistling. So were willows, with a little more effort: some carving and trimming, then a careful twisting off of bark and carving out of an air passage, then replacement of the bark and a final trim to make a little whistle. Small tufts of grass, pulled up by the roots and rinsed off in the river or in a handy puddle, became dolls, the roots their hair.

Not all these pastimes grew out of the land. A corrugated cardboard box was the scene for Beulah’s Birthday Party, a game discovered in a children’s magazine. We lined out squares on the floor of the box, drew pictures of birthday cake and ice cream in the squares, and then stood back and tossed shirt buttons into the box to see what we had won.

The dead mouse had never been shown in any magazine. We didn’t have to conduct research to know what to do with a dead mouse. Cora and I skinned it, turned the skin inside out, scraped it, and put it on a stretcher to dry, just like the skins of beaver and muskrat that the grownups prepared in winter. Of course, there were no stretchers small enough for a mouse skin, so we had to search around in the wood box by the stove in Cora’s cabin to find a flat wood chip that we could whittle down to the right size.

When the beach down by the river was just muddy enough, after the high water went down and before the mud dried out, we could tramp in it with our bare feet, sinking lower and lower—all the way up to our knees—as the mud softened. Sometimes we cut our feet on hidden fish bones and sharp rocks, and then our mothers scolded us. But Gloria’s father showed us an even better use of beach mud. He took off his boots and socks, rolled up his pant legs, leaned over, and walked stiff-legged in the mud on his toes and clenched knuckles to make imitation bear tracks. Gloria had told me he was old—at least thirty—so we were startled to see him surrender his dignity by making bear tracks in the mud. I don’t know which we admired more: the fake bear tracks, or Gloria’s father with his rear end in the air, waddling on all fours for the entertainment of three little girls.

Anna Chapman lives in Vermont, has not skinned any mice recently, and does not plan to do so, ever again.

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