The button box.

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.

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11 responses to “The button box.

  1. Your blog today about the button box and it’s stories, and your mother, made me feel quite sentimental about the loss of my own mother (and best friend. ) It also brought back many of my own childhood memories.

  2. It’s the little things that a mother does for her children that last a lifetime. My Mom was a sewer and I just miss her so much. She was my best friend, too. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I love this story and find myself turning to my sewing machine with the rest of my life gets hectic. This afternoon as I sewed Emersyn was interested. I hope to pass on this gift to her in a few years as your mom did for you and my mom for me. This story was a beautiful tribute to your mom. I believe she smiled as she watched you write it.

    • I think Emersyn will have to figure out how to make hats. I know I certainly wanted to. Thanks for coming by the Bus Stop; I think there’s still a serger story here somewhere.

  4. I love this post! My Mother also had a button box…it’s a little treasure of history in that box. I totally identified with everything you wrote. Thanks!

  5. Pingback: Spending a year at the Magic Bus Stop. | The Magic Bus Stop

  6. This was so touching and I can really relate. i am feeling a bit sad that I gave my mother’s 2 sewing machines to charity. The charity was “God’s Helping Hands Ministries” that helps the needy, and so I feel good about giving it to this charity. There is some loss though, since these were so special to me. I feel that she would want someone to make use of them since they have been sitting in my closet for 18 years now. I still have many of her buttons, materials, pictures, clothes she made, and above all, her memory. When it’s time for me to take up sewing again, I suppose I’ll just have to buy a new machine. Thanks for this article.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Lynne. I recently handed off the serger that my mother bought for me and that took several years for me to do. But as you say, it serves no good purpose for the machine to be unused. At some point I have to write a blog entry about finding a new home for the serger; it was very much a “from a mother to a mother” happening. Good for you for being able to help someone else with your gift.

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