I remember sitting under the low, wide tree in the front yard of my grandparent’s farm. I do not know now what sort of tree it was, it may even have been a bush, but I was a child covered by branches and gentle shade, and it seemed a tree to me. Nearby was an aging pear tree, whose branches offered a safe haven. Across and opposite, just a scamper away, was the front door of the farmhouse. Next to me was my grandmother’s button box: an old coffee tin with a black lid, a tall square-ish shape, the outside depicting workers with kerchief wrapped heads bending over bushes in a field. Inside, full most of the way to the top, was a mesmerizing jumble of buttons.
There is a great deal of work on a farm. We were left to figure out what to do with ourselves if not being useful or doing chores. Yet, my grandmother must have taken the time to thread the needle, knot the thread and get me started on a strip of fabric. My memory only holds the quiet shade, the concentrated effort of sewing, and the fascination of the buttons themselves as I worked to affix them to the fabric scrap.
When my grandmother died, I asked for her button box. In it I found the strip of fabric worked patiently by my small hands one summer afternoon and tucked away in the tin for all these years.
When I pulled out the sample scrap, memory and present moment merged as I saw the big plastic heavily textured turquoise button with large holes. A 60’s treasure. A lumpy brown leather button, likely one of Grandpa’s, off the cuff of a tweed jacket. Flat military brass buttons emblazoned with anchors, Grandpa’s again, a loop on the back for affixing to heavy woolens. Small white buttons with four holes. Difficult to navigate, they hung on by a single stitch, done wrong, from the outside of the button’s edge in. A buckle from a kilt.
That small box holds a family history of out grown clothes, stories told in fastenings. I plunge my fingers in from time to time, sorting through the smooth and bumpy, bone and mother-of-pearl looking for something that will match the cardigan with a missing button, and there in my hand is a memory instead - my gentle Grandmother wearing the green jacket she saved for special occasions, my Gandfather in his heavy coat. In those moments I can almost smell the tobacco-gunpowder-mothball-cedar-smell of the bureau in the front hall at the farm, the bureau which held the hats and scarves, lost gloves, pins, coins, loose buttons, and books of matches, and I am suddenly small again, my grandparents nearby once more.
Forgive me if I sound like a scold, but all this has made me wonder about what we are giving our children to play with now. What will our children find amongst the plastic and gagets to bring them back to calm afternoons in the time of their childhood when they felt safest? Hand held video games? Re-runs of Dora? Do we leave enough space for them to tuck quiet into the corners of their hearts so that in years to come they may find small stores of grace.