The Button BoxPosted: May 17, 2008
I gave them names. Buttons and marbles. All of them. I must’ve been a really strange child.
I rolled marbles across my hardwood bedroom floor. I had boy marbles and girl marbles and gave them names accordingly. I don’t know how I knew the difference, except for one of them. He was a little bigger than all the rest, a handsome aquamarine color, and his name was Ben. I’d make up stories about the boys and girls.
I did it with buttons, too. I had a lot of buttons to play with because my mama did a lot of sewing. She made most of my dresses. She sewed matching outfits for my sister and me.
She made coats and jackets and jumpers and shorts sets, and she even made clothes for herself. She kept all the extra buttons in an old teakwood box.
I loved that box. It held all colors, shapes, and sizes of buttons. Pink with fluted edges, pink with smooth rims, yellow rounds with square grooves cut in them, brown leathers, white pearl squares, orange smooths, green shiny, tiny white ones, big red ones, big black ones that might have gone on a coat. There were also fabric buttons she made herself out of tweeds, silks, and polyesters. There were used buttons, with thread wrapped through the center holes, cut off of dresses too worn to give as hand-me-downs. There were glass buttons with facets and they were beautiful and my favorites.
Those buttons bring to mind the process I followed my mama through, from concept to finished product.
We go downtown to the department store with its own little sewing nook tucked away in a front corner. I sit at the counter on a tall stool with a round red naugehyde seat and look through big books of Butterick, Simplicity, and McCall’s patterns — pictures of models wearing the styles. When I find one I like, I go to the tall filing cabinet and match the number from the page to the number range on the label of the file drawer. I open the drawer and see if it is available in my size. I have learned to do this by watching Mama.
Then I walk the aisles of fabric, looking through bolt after bolt of material, picking out just the right print and color. Sometimes Mama takes us to Bev-Mar’s in Greenville for patterns and material, and we spend so much time browsing the store end to end that my little sister is reduced to tears, or she just falls out backwards crying and stomps off to the car to sit alone. She can select her pattern and material quickly. I cannot.
At home, Mama spreads out the material on the kitchen table and pins the pattern pieces to it. Then she cuts on the lines. I like to hear the crunch of scissors clamping down on heavy cotton and crinkling the thin tissue of the pattern. Mama sits at the Singer, and we listen to the whir of the machine stitching the pieces together. I sit at her feet and play with the button box, running my fingers through the buttons, listening to the rattle of them, finding the oldest, the prettiest, the most fashionable, the one I’d pick to hold in my hand over all the rest.
I watch her fit in a zipper or make buttonholes and then sew by hand the pretty buttons we selected together that matched the material perfectly. The last step is the hem. I put on the dress, stand on a stool, and Mama kneels beside me with her pin cushion and a few pins stuck between her lips for easy access. She puts the yardstick beside me and begins to pin up the hem by a mark on the stick that is the same height as the top of my knee. I have to stand still, and this is not easy for me. Something always itches, or a leg needs stretching. Or I have to turn to see what my sister is doing. Or slump when I get tired. After the hem is pinned, Mama sits on the couch and sews the last few stitches by hand.
She holds it up to me, and I breathe in the smell of new.
I learned more math with patterns and sewing than in all twelve years of primary and secondary education — numbers and order, fractions, adding whole numbers and fractions, charts. I learned to be precise and accurate and stay on the line. I learned to match colors — zippers and thread and ric rac and piping. And buttons. I spent a lot of time with my mama, doing these things.
When I left home, I asked Mama if I could have that old button box, its lid gone, a lot of its buttons gone. I still like to run my hand through the ones that remain. Some are over fifty years old. I don’t remember their names.