Buttons

People are often incredulous when I tell them about my mother’s side of the family. It’s true that some of it sounds fanciful: lost limbs, insanity, strange journeys. But the details are true, and so are the stories, and our family has a tradition to tell them and re-tell them. And as a writer, I scavenge pieces here and there, because these gems are much too fine to disappear into history.

So I asked the hive mind (on Facebook, that is) what they’d like to read about. The reply was my grandmother’s button collection. I pulled that suggestion out of my ass, but she did have a button collection.

My grandmother, Greta, was born in 1910 and died in 1996. She had a hump on her back, and dentures, and later on just one leg. She dressed almost exclusively in red flannel shirt and pants, a red kerchief tied around her hair. We called her “Momma”, for mormor, which means maternal grandmother. The other kids in the street were afraid of her, they called her “Wolf-Greta”, because she grinned like one. She played the piano, but only the black keys. She wove rag rugs on a huge loom. She had two cats named Lucifer and Beelzebub (Lucifer was ginger, fat and lazy; Beelzebub the black hid under the furniture to strike when we had our backs turned). Momma had a house full of nooks and little rooms, strange little statuettes and coins from grandfather’s journeys around the world (he was a sailor, dead before I was born), glass jars filled with apple and strawberry compote. She drank coffee in the old Northern manner, pouring it onto a saucer and slurping it through a sugar cube she held between her teeth. And she always had a lump of snus under her lip. Always, in her kitchen, the smell of coffee and tobacco. Her sense of humor was wry and acidic; she was a gifted cartoonist and drew hilarious caricatures of her neighbours, especially those she hated. (In the end, at the hospital, she’d draw caricatures of the nurses on the bottom of paper plates.) She would draw lovely pictures of princes and princesses for me, and color their crowns with real gold paint.

But most importantly for this particular piece, she could sew.

My mother says that Momma took a course or two in sewing, but most of it was self-taught, I think. She made clothes for herself, her husband and her four children, gorgeous well-made garments that we, her grandchildren, have finally managed to wear out (a beautiful double-breasted, figure-hugging black coat made from heavy wool, the slit in the back buttoned with twenty buttons, which made me the envy of all my Goth friends for ten years). She didn’t use patterns. My mother says that Momma would spread the fabric out, put some tobacco under her lip, hum a little and then start cutting. By the time I was old enough to hear about all this, she wasn’t doing much sewing. I think her fingers were getting too stiff. She wove and played the piano. But the clothes she’d once made hung in wardrobes around the house, glittering dresses and blouses too beautiful to play dress-up in.

In the kitchen with the black-and-white floor and the scratched 1960′s dinner table, stood a corner cabinet. Inside, a kid’s dream: a jumble of things in little boxes and bags. Old perfume bottles, half-finished leather wallets, ribbons, crayons, and buttons. Buttons, buttons, buttons. Perhaps there weren’t that many in reality, but when I was a child it was a glittering treasure trove. There were the regular coat buttons, rounded leather things with a loop on the underside. Then the shiny gilt buttons with their three-crown emblem, cut from my grandfather’s dress jackets. There was a wealth of plastic buttons with four holes, brown and red and purple and yellow. Among those, you could find the rare, precious buttons that were shaped like flowers: a yellow daisy, a red rose. Tiny little shirt buttons, too, the unimportant loose change in the trove. There was even a little bag of fish-eyes, glass bulbs with a black pupil and a metal loop underneath. They were probably meant to be doll-eyes, because Momma made stuffed animals too (a panther, and a bunny, I remember those), but they did look more like fish-eyes than anything. She tried putting new eyes on my teddy bear once, but it looked so weird that I tore them off again. I preferred a blind teddy bear to one that watched me with the eyes of something from out of the cold ocean.

Lastly, two big orange buttons with two holes. You see, I was terrified of the Groke. So Momma made one, a small Groke, from brown jersey. We called it a Groke, anyway. It’s possible that she meant for it to be a horse. But I’m leaning towards Groke, because it had those two orange buttons for eyes, and the thread stretched between the button holes looked like an elongated pupil; it looked both adorable and malevolent. It felt very much like a small, evil animal that had decided to be my friend.

I don’t have the buttons. Momma died when I was nineteen, and her things were divided among her children. I (for some reason) got her hallway mirror. I should ask my mother if she has the buttons. What I do have, which almost outweighs everything else, are copies of the correspondence between my grandparents during the 1930′s and 40′s, and between my grandmother and her mother from the 30′s to the 60′s. Almost. Having that little treasure trove, those buttons – daisies and fish-eyes and brass – would be like sitting in her kitchen again, and hear her slurping coffee from the saucer.

That’s my button story. What’s yours?

 

 

 

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7 Responses to Buttons

  1. Mia says:

    I have my grandmothers buttons. All of them.

  2. Mihai A. says:

    My grandparents from my mother’s side still live and it is a delight to see my grandmother at 92 cooking every Saturday for our usual lunch with the family. She doesn’t have a button collection, but she still leaves me as inheritance some magical memories from childhood. I remember that she used to knit and to make these wool socks and gloves that came in handy when it was winter. While she knitted my grandfather used to read her and that is such a precious memory for me. I still have that feeling of quietness, of needles going back and forth, yarn spinning and words pouring. In a way, wool, stories and peacefulness knitted together.
    The backgammon and card games are a sweet memory too. The old radio cracking and hissing while my grandparents listened to Radio Free Europe, illegal at that time in Communist Romania. Of an old lamp spitting smoke, of a night-light shaped as a lighthouse, of the wardrobe with the draw full of old letters and photos. I guess those will find their way to me someday or so I hope so.
    I am not a writer, I didn’t have such desires, my night and day-dreaming are fueled with other things related to writing. ;) But if I did there are so many memories of the moments in my childhood spent around my grandparents that I could find quite a few stories there.

  3. aylin says:

    i don’t know what happened to my grandmothers buttons, exept for one that i have somewhere; it’s a big blue button shaped as a web, with a white spider in the middle.

  4. Maria T says:

    I have a sewing desk. Under that desk there is a small chest of drawers. Each drawer contains a little of my gran. There’s her tape measure. Her scissors. Her thimbles and threads. All the zippers she cut out from old pieces of clothing before discarding them. Belt buckles, patterns and even the chalk she used to mark the fabric. In the bottom drawer, most precious of all: her button collection. It is as varied as your gran’s, Karin, and all stored neatly according to category in clear plastic cylinders with white pop-on caps. The cloth-covered buttons in psychedelic pink and green from my mother’s graduation dress. Big ones covered in grey tweed. Tiny white ones from men’s collars. Any button imaginable, really. I have a hard time bringing myself to use any of them. I fear losing them.

    My grandmother made all my mom’s clothes. My mom was the smartest dressed girl in the small Ostrobotnian town where she grew up. Of course, all she dreamed of was a store-bought coat. I think gran was entirely self-taught. She also printed and painted on fabric, made enamel works, bead work, wove, knitted, crocheted and embroidered. And she never appreciated any of her own work.

    When I sew, I very often screw up. I am self taught, too, but nowhere near my grandmother in skill. When nothing is working out I discuss my problems with gran, out loud. Sometimes it works. Sometimes I can solve the issues and end up with a dress worth wearing.

    I think she would have wanted me to use those buttons.

    More about my crafty grandmother, with pictures, here (in Swedish):
    http://turtschaninoff.blogspot.fi/2010/10/slott-och-minnen.html

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