When the grandkids (and now great-grandkids) come to visit, Judy Headley soon has them on their knees. Along with Grandma, they’re all laughing and hooting as they play an ancient game.

“Nobody sits on the couch with their heads buried in their cellphones,” Headley proclaimed. “When we get together, we’re all playing marbles. Draw a big circle on the carpet and let ’em shoot.

“I’m the Marble Grandma,” she added. “What would you expect?”

Headley, 78, rolls out her vast marble collection for special occasions. Otherwise, she has them stashed in jars all over her house.

Colour-coordinated glass containers packed with marbles decorate the bathroom and kitchen. Over-sized “big boys” or “boulders” fill gallon bottles (and almost need two people to move). Mason jars hold “beauties” and “catseyes” by the thousands.

“I keep careful track of them,” she noted. “You don’t want to lose your marbles.”

With the help of a tiny “Marble Memo” notebook, Headley recorded every marble she’s ever gotten, how she got it, where it came from and any other details that make those little orbs special. So far, she’s totalled 20,824.

Some are special commemorative or themed marbles (such as “Star Trek”, pre-emoji Smiley Faces or NFL, with the 49er logo embedded in the glass). Others look like sparkling gems. Many feature distinctive swirling designs like mini-spheres of Venetian glass.

Headley shows off her collection of 20,824 marbles, collected through the years. Photo: TNS

Headley shows off her collection of 20,824 marbles, collected through the years. Photo: TNS

As a toy, marbles are among the world’s oldest games, dating back about 3,000 years. Ancient Romans and Egyptians played marbles. Native Americans enjoyed marble games, too. Medieval folks in England and German got down on their bellies to shoot little ceramic or carved stone balls. For centuries, marble-based games have been beloved in India, Africa and China.

“It’s really kind of a fascinating hobby,” Headley said. “You learn all this history.”

Headley had collected other things (most notably vintage kitchen equipment). Her mountain of marbles all started simply enough during a cross-country trip.

“In Kansas, I met a woman with a million marbles,” Headley recalled. “She had so many marbles, she didn’t know what to do with them. They filled her basement, probably her whole house. She ended up giving them away to a museum.

“But I thought, marbles are so beautiful! What a fun thing to collect! And you don’t have to dust marbles.”

So, Headley got her first US$1 (RM4) bag of 100 marbles more than three decades ago, she said, “probably from Toys ‘R’ Us – it’s before I started my notebook”.

And it just kind of rolled from there.

“I just love marbles,” Headley said. “I love the feel, the colour. Obviously, they must be addictive.”

Judy and Mick Headley celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this year. His job, when needed, is to move the marbles around; a jar with 3,000 marbles weighs more than 10 kg.

“It seems like she’s been collecting them forever,” Mick Headley said. “It doesn’t hurt that she’s living with a former marble champion – but that was back when I was in grade school.”

Headley has recorded notes about her marble collection since 1992, including how she acquired them. – TNS

While Mick was in the Air Force, the Headleys travelled the world, living in several different states and overseas, till they settled down in their present home 40 years ago.

Marbles travel well, too, Judy Headley noted. They’re small, durable and easy to pack.

During World War II, marbles ranked among America’s favourite games. But their popularity died out during the 1970s as kids gravitated toward electronic entertainment.

Those early days of her collection were during a time when two grandsons and a daughter, Denise, lived with the Headleys.

“At the time, my sons were five and seven,” Denise Headley said. “They’re now 38 and 40 with kids of their own.”

“My grandsons had no idea what to do with them,” Judy recalled. “So, I got down on my knees and showed them; knuckle down, bony tight.”

“Knuckle down, bony tight” is the age-old marble creed. It refers to the proper way to hold a shooter between thumb and forefinger with the first knuckle on the ground.

The Headleys, who now have six great-grandchildren to go with five grandsons, kept up that marble tradition, teaching (closely supervised) youngsters how to shoot as soon as they were big enough to grasp a “peewee”. Visitors are invited to get into the game and take their chances.

Due to knee replacements, Judy Headley does her shooting from a low chair.

“It’s like riding a bike,” she said. “You never forget.”

Although some marbles can be quite valuable, Headley has spent little on her marble collection. Most of them were gifts or picked up at antique stores by the jarful.

“Everybody used to have marbles,” she said. “Now, they’re kind of hard to find.”

Her rarest marbles are little glazed ceramic spheres, dating back to the Civil War. Many are art marbles, valued by collectors for their colourful glasswork. But most were meant as toys.

“Some people might think I’m crazy,” Headley said, “but I know where all my marbles are.” – The Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service