by Cassondra Murray
I've been cleaning again.
Y'all know, by now, of my ongoing mission to rid myself of stuff-itis and clear the extraneous junk out of my home and my life. I've been tossing out stuff left and right.
Earlier this fall I unpacked a box which had been stored in the garage since we moved into our present home. I tore off the tape, pulled back the flaps and dug through the wadded up newspaper. Inside was an old basket which was so much more than it appeared. It was a treasure box of memories.
It was my grandmother's button box.
Y'all know how you can spend a gazillion dollars on toys for kids, but at some point they'll end up making forts out of the boxes because their imaginations can do so much more with plain cardboard than the toy makers can ever do with plastic, lights and bleepy noises? Well, I was that way with buttons, and to some degree, I'm still that way.
Buttons are magical.
Some of my clearest and most tactile memories were of MotherGrant's button bag. For then, it was not a box, but an old cloth bag, made of flour sack that was probably older than my mother, once white but now stained, so well-worn it was smooth as silk, and with a hem sewn over at the top and a piece of twine run through it as a drawstring to hold it closed. About as humble as a container could get.
But inside? That was a whole 'nuther world.
There were a lot of things at MotherGrant's house which I could play with whenever I wanted. The pots and pans were always available for pretend meals. The kitchen chairs could be moved at will and the quilt closet plundered to make a huge fort out of the living room. I was careful, so even the family photo albums or the drawers full of vintage hats were available. But if I wanted to play with the buttons, I always had to ask.
The button bag was kept on a high shelf in the hall closet, and I remember the dull rattle-jangle when MotherGrant or DaddyMike got it down. I remember pulling the drawstring loose through the soft cloth and tipping the bag over and the ssssluice sound as the buttons flooded out of the bag onto the nappy green carpet.
Gold and silver, flashing diamonds, rubbies and sapphires, and single pearls as big as the end of your thumb. Buttons covered in costume jewels. Buttons in every color of the rainbow. Buttons half as big as your palm and buttons so small they could have been for a Barbie doll dress.
I'd run my hands through the pile of buttons, feeling them sift through my fingers and searching for certain ones I liked best. There were three enormous buttons, pale pink mother-of-pearl, shaped like big, carved flowers. Those were easy to find in the pile, even with my eyes closed. Then there were my second-favorites. They were about the size of your thumbnail and shaped like half of a small black ball. They were completely encrusted with diamonds. There were only two of the diamond buttons, and each time I had to check to make sure no more had fallen out. A few of the "diamonds" were loose in the bottom of the button bag.
My absolute favorite button was almost two inches across and was one giant flat ruby with a gold rim.
I remember when the flour sack button bag started to tear. The following Christmas, it disappeared and was replaced with the new button box. That same box was the one which has been packed away in my garage for all those years.
It was actually a little old sewing basket of a kind which used to be sold at flea markets and craft fairs. Exactly the kind of thing a little girl might "buy" her grandmother for Christmas. I don't remember picking it out for her, but yes, it's possible that I, the Goth Martha Stewart Mini-Me, committed this travesty.
The basket was cheap and stapled together. The blue and white checked cloth wouldn't have been all that bad except that the cover was padded and made into a puffy pincushion. But the screaming tomato-red pom pom glued to the top for a handle? Yeah. That's the point at which this goth chick started to scream and run. That's a picture of it, with some of the contents, there on the left.
So in my quest for Zen I knew the basket had to go. But the buttons?
I sorted them all out and was amazed at what had found its way into the button box over the years. Some of the items, like the buttons made of wood and the I'm A Happy Booster promotional pin, I remember from childhood. Others I don't remember at all, but they make an interesting collage of who and what my grandparents were. DaddyMike was born in 1905, and MotherGrant in 1908. They lived through two world wars and the Great Depression before I was even born. DaddyMike built his house with his own hands and made the furniture to go inside it, though he never learned to read and write. MotherGrant grew a two-acre garden, the most beautiful flowers in the county and could feed a table full of workhands at the drop of a hat. They were poor in money but rich in love. They saved used aluminum foil and bits of string.
Some of that string, wadded up into a little tangle, was now in the button box. There was also a thimble, a small white rock, several safety pins and a hickory nut. There were also some rusty washers, a few bent, rusty nails, a mounting bracket for a curtain rod, now so deformed it took a while to figure out what it was, part of a ticket to something indecipherable and a tiny tube of dubious-smelling ointment which, according to what I could read of the label, would cure dang near anything. There were "straight pins" which were bent and a small piece of white chalk.
It's interesting what you can notice about people by the bits and pieces of useless stuff they keep and hide away in out-of-the-way places like the kitchen junk drawer, the mason jar under the sink, or, once the kids are grown up and gone away, the button box.
These are pics are of some of the strange stuff that was in MotherGrant's button box.
If you'd grown up like MotherGrant and DaddyMike, barely surviving and saving bits of string, could you throw away those diamond-studded buttons? Even if you knew they were really only cheap sparklies?
I couldn't. I didn't. All of my favorite buttons were gone from the basket, perhaps lost a few at a time by a generation or two of younger children as they discovered the magic of buttons. But still, I separated it into a bag of buttons and a bag of other stuff and tossed the decrepit basket. I gave the buttons a new home in a bright-blue silk sewing box.
I don't understand button magic, but it's still with me. I go to the fabric store now and then, to get my scissors sharpened or to buy something for a house project, and I always stop to check out the buttons, attached to their little white cards, hanging on the wall in neat rows. I have absolutely no reason to buy cards of buttons, but I admit it. The urge is there.
MotherGrant and DaddyMike have been gone for years now. But the older I get, the more I realize just how much of my grandparents lives on through me. Part of it I "got honest" as they say around here--my love of gardening was born into me and taught to me as I put my hands in the dirt with MotherGrant. My love of the smell of sawdust came from DaddyMike's shop, as did dexterity and the satisfaction of working with my hands and making something. And I think my artistic abilities came from him too, passed down through my mother. From both of them I got the sense that things are just better if you can do for yourself instead of always relying on other people to fix stuff, or "store bought."
I also brought from their teachings a tendency to be way too sentimental, which finds its way into all of my writing, from my news articles to my fiction...and as y'all have probably noticed the past three years, to my blogs.
Oh, and the whole "Noooooo! Don't throw that away! Save it just in case" thing...this may be the last holdout of that early-childhood indoctrination.
I toss things in the trash without much thought nowadays, but a few weeks ago I was about to throw away an old, torn-up shirt. I had the scissors out and was cutting off the buttons before I noticed what I was doing, then realized the ridiculous amount of time it was taking, and stopped myself. I threw the whole thing away,
But I felt guilty about it.
I felt my new, pretty blue sewing box mocking me.
And I mean, really, you never know when you might need a button. Right?
Do any of you sew? Even for minor repairs like sewing on a button?
Do you save stuff for "just in case?"
If you toss it immediately, is there a twinge of guilt? A voice from your upbringing that says, "you might need that!"
Did your mother or grandmother have a button box?
And did you like to play with the buttons when you were little?
Do YOU have a button box?
Does anybody else in the lair have a thing for buttons?