The Button Box

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.

Kathy and Judi

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.

Mama\'s Button 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.

McCall\'s Pattern

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.

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6 Comments on “The Button Box”

  1. corey says:

    I remember that box. I used to love digging through it.

  2. John says:

    Kathy-

    I was in my master’s program with a young woman who was working on a collection of memoir articles about her relationship with her mother. When I first heard of her project, I was not very interested. Then, when I had my workshop class with her, I came to love the stories she shared with us. She was a brilliant and talented young writer. I’ve never really found anyone with quite the same voice.

    This piece you shared today really reminds me of her voice. Her description. Her ability to share the visuals of memory. The way you’ve included the underlying ties between past and present, mother and daughter. Thank you so much for sharing it. I haven’t enjoyed reading anything this much in quite some time.

    John

  3. inktarsia says:

    My mom sewed my clothes, too. Can still feel the prick of pins when I tried things on, or the too-tight armholes that resulted when I tried to sew for myself. One of my vivid childhood memories is of a billy-goat nibbling the hem of my brand-new striped shortset that Mom had made. It was red, white, and blue terrycloth knit, and I never ever forgave the old goat for ruining it.

    A lovely piece. I can hear the sound of the buttons in the box as you run your hand through them.

  4. Eric says:

    ….. I know that this may sound odd, but your story reminded me of a scene from ‘Lonesome Dove’….. have you seen that mini-series?…..

    …. there is a scene where Gus is comforting Lorena after a horrible ordeal… and they decide to play poker…… Gus finds a box of buttons and marbles and tells Lorena, “well, will you look at that….. we’re a lucky bunch…. there must be a hundred gold pieces in here….. let’s play us some high-stakes poker.”….. he then lays out the buttons and marbles for them to use as chips….. deals the cards…. and then Lorena breaks down…… crushed and unable to pretend – absolutely raw…..

    … it is a beautiful scene….. and now, after reading your post, it makes me wonder if there was no some sort of unwritten connection between Gus finding that box of buttons and Lorena connecting with him on a more pure, naive, and innocent level……

    ….. I’d just thought that Gus was making it up to ease the time – ease her pain, but perhaps the writer of the book put that in there to connect Lorena with a time when the world was less complicated, angry, and brutal……. back to her childhood and her box of buttons and marbles……

    …. just a thought, anyway…… beautiful piece of writing, ma’am…… thank you for sharing…

  5. kathyrhodes says:

    John, thanks for the wonderful compliment. Sherry, thanks, and I’m sorry the goat ate your shorts hem. Eric, than you, too, and that’s an interesting observation about Gus and Lorena…

  6. All the other comments echo my feelings about this lovely piece of writing — and you know what? I still keep a button box, too, even though I don’t have a sewing machine or ever replace lost buttons. They are stories-in-waiting, and memories, and I could never get rid of it.

    Thanks, Kathy.


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