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?