I’m reluctant to really clean out my sewing machine cabinet. It’s full of remnants (no pun intended) of another life — zippers salvaged from discarded garments, thread in 64-Crayola colors, a miniature pizza cutter tracing wheel, and silver-toned needle threaders that my older eyes require. The real treasure of this now neglected realm, though, is my mother’s button box: buttons in pairs and more, orphans, shanked and not, most of unknown or long forgotten origin. To remove the box’s lid is to release a confetti-toss of personal memories of my mother, my best friend.
My mother preceded me on the storied sewing path, from necessity. She began by making diapers for my oldest brother. The scratchy feeling of the mint green dotted Swiss dress she made for me, a smaller replica of hers, remains in my mind, 50 years later.
On snowy days when I was young, I would empty her button box on the floor and sort them by color. In my eyes they were jewels, currency for my imagination, tiny rainbows, complete stories in themselves. Like a waterfall, I would pour them over and over back into their box, watching them slide through my fingers.
The button box took on new importance when my mother passed the sewing baton to me, or rather, when I commandeered her sewing machine after she showed me the basics. In my early teens, I began sewing constantly, using cheap fabric to maximum effect through striking and unusual color combinations and styles. Every new clothing fad churned from the sewing machine and I could go thirty days at my part-time job without wearing the same thing twice. Where once my mother had sewn for me, I now sewed for her. Nearly everything needed a button and my inherited stash rarely failed me.
I sewed, buttoned and zipped my way gaily through school, into the working world, and right into a horrendous marriage. I quickly became a blurry outline of my original free-spirited self: downtrodden, frightened, exhausted, trying to keep peace and quiet in the house. Eventually sewing became my only permissible means of self-expression, and Mom’s button box supported me. A slight addiction ensued — I could stand at a button bin for an hour, digging around the 5 for $1.00 cards, matching, discarding, feverishly digging again, triumphant with new additions to the button box. My ever-patient mother would find a seat somewhere and wait out the episode.
The button box, and very little else, followed me out of those terrifying years. When I finally gathered the strength to save my life, I ran, leaving everything behind except my sewing supplies. Across country and back I traveled, stumbling and struggling to begin a new life. My mother was there to support me, without judging me for some of my more questionable actions as I thrashed about trying to find my way. She sacrificed much of herself trying to help me become whole again.
Gradually my world reformed around me. At last there was time for other pursuits — reading, theater, travel. The sewing corner was quieter now, the buttons more for mending or updating rather than new creations. Clothing and sewing became much less important as I caught up on many years of missed opportunities.
The button box reappeared for the sunny day of my mother’s funeral. Caught unprepared by her sudden death, the clothes I was compelled to buy for the service came with the usual unsuitable buttons. Off they came, on went a selection from the box. Mom went to earth, I went to pieces. Wine bottles kept me company for long shaky months.
However, the buttons did not completely disappear. The world blithely kept turning and I plodded my grieving way through its days. By chance, my interest in the Civil War rekindled and once again the button box found its niche. Wide hoop skirts and little girls’ dream ball gowns, with contortionist button-up back openings, rustled off the sewing table. All manner of hooks & eyes, fasteners, and buttons enveloped me as I Virginia-reeled into the next stage of my life.
The dress I wore when I remarried was sewn with the skill and knowledge my mother had taught me nearly 30 years earlier.
The sewing corner is again quiet. But I still have that box of buttons and always will. I handle it very gently, fully aware of its fragility. It contains the story of a significant part of my life, and entwined with that story, a glimpse at my incomparable mother’s brief life.
My mother died May 12, 1998, two days after Mother’s Day. She was 68 years old.