One of my most enduring, and endearing, memories as a little girl is that of the box of buttons belonging to my grandmother. Made of blue and gold tin, round and gleaming, with flower petals painted on the lid, the box was a treasure of buttons from years and years of clothing – sweaters and dresses, baby outfits and men’s vests, coats and blouses and more.
My grandmother lived with us as I was growing up, and one of her prized possessions was a Singer foot-pedal sewing machine, black and gold in its wood table. And right next to the sewing machine, among spools of threads in a myriad of colors, pincushions, dimpled thimbles, and an old silvery scissors, sat the button box.
As a child, I loved to play with the buttons, running my hands through the seemingly endless collection, making piles of them on the floor, sorting them by shade to match my crayons, and loving the feel and the sound of them. Each one had a story, and my grandmother would tell them all to me.
That eye-catching, bottle-green button that seemed to glow with a marbleized finish? “That was from a sweater you wore when you were just two or three,” she told me. My mother had knitted that sweater and a matching hat, I remember, in the perfect shade to match my eyes, and the buttons went all the way up to my chubby little chin. Those buttons were sold on cards of two, and the extra went into the button box “just in case.”
The amethyst colored sparkler? That one, she told me, with a bit of a faraway look in her eye, was from the dress my grandfather liked the best on her. It was a luxury for her to have purchased the lengths of secondhand velvet at the time, and her attention to detail had turned the worn fabric into a beautiful garment.
“This one, tell this one!” I must have said a thousand times, begging for another tale. I remember once holding up two buttons from the box; the first, a flat mother-of-pearl disk, rimmed in gold; the other, its tinier matching counterpart. She smiled at me. “Those were from a special blouse,” she said, “I think it was for your mother’s high-school graduation, or maybe it was your aunt’s.” In those days, when there was little money to buy fine clothing, buying new buttons could dress up a garment like nothing else.
The stories that button box could tell! Buttons from my father’s cardigan – brown-leather-wrapped domes – the one he wore when fall set in. From my brother’s first little sailor suit – navy blue with tiny anchors embossed on them. Pieces that held the scents of the past – a curious mix of plastic and shell and metal and leather and time – the history of a family as told through the clothes that warmed us.
Every family has traditions and keepsakes that pass down from one generation to the next. In my family, the button box that my grandmother started became my mom’s, to which she added years more of buttons and ribbons and even pieces of yarn (“just in case” a handmade sweater needed mending).
When I moved across the country from the house I grew up in to our home, I started my own button box, almost without thinking. And while I don’t have my grandmother’s talent for sewing (the woman could sew a hem by hand with practically invisible stitches) or my mother’s talent for knitting (no pattern was too complex), I can sew on a button perfectly. Buttons that adorn and attach, that secure and hold together. Like the memories that carry from one pair of hands to the next.
© 2021 Claudia Grossman