Sunday Brunch: Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?


One of the wonderful things about social media is that a random conversation with a friend can send you down a path of memories, a veritable rabbit hole full of fragmented images and bits of conversations. Recently, someone I know mentioned something about buttons (I’ve lost the link to the original thread) and it triggered a visceral memory of my mother’s button box.


My mother is a self-described “sewist,” and has been for as long as I can remember. For much of my early childhood, my clothes were handmade originals, often, when I was very young, produced from scraps of the outfits she made for herself. As a teen, I was spoiled by her ability to see something I liked in a magazine and reproduce it for me, often in the space of a busy weekend.

Sewing is, to my mother, like writing and music are to me.

I do not share her affinity for fiber arts. I resented every moment of standing in line at JoAnn’s or Hancock’s because there was a fabric sale and I was a warm body who could use a second coupon and increase her stash. When she visits, I dread the day she designates for fabric shopping, because the lights and the colors and the sizing on the fabrics literally make me sick. As it has been since I was a kid, my job, on these days, is to push the cart, and hunt down the patterns she wants in the great big drawers.

ButtonBox-02But there is one thing about my mother’s sewing habit that has always intrigued me: buttons.

My mother’s sewing desk, when I was young, was a lovely wooden piece, with a central opening that hid her black, metal, Singer sewing machine from view when not in use. It was often in a window, sun-warmed, it’s French-inspired claw feet darkened from age, but still beautiful. When the sewing machine was stowed, it was a writing desk, but somehow the wood had absorbed the special scent of pins (really machine oil, I’m told). Being near it was like breathing in the essence of my mother’s soul.

My mother was most interested in what lived inside the desk – her machine. I, on the other hand, was completely captivated by the old, red, tea-tin that resided atop it: my mother’s button box.

The tin has been ancient for at least as long as I’ve been alive. Bleecker and Simmons, it said on the front, those names seeming somehow mystical to me. Or at least mythical. And within its brass-colored depths? Oh, the treasures that I found!

It wasn’t all buttons of course.

And it wasn’t buttons that would be used in every-day projects.

For making blouses or pants or jackets or… whatever… my mother would buy new buttons. A sailor-themed outfit might have plastic anchors as fasteners. A jungle print shirt would have tiny lion heads holding it closed. ButtonBox-03

The buttons (and other tiny trinkets) inside the box, were one-offs. An extra button from a new dress, a lost button from a favorite jacket. A metal button that was leftover after a project. An ancient clip-on earring that might one day be turned into an ornament for a hat or lapel. A jingle bell that had probably been part of one of my ballet or Halloween costumes at one point.

That tiny red tin seemed to hold endless wonders, each with its own history, its own future, its own magic.

My mother’s button box lives in my house now. I keep it on the dresser in the guest room, so she can see it when she comes to visit. It didn’t make the cut when she was packing to move to Mexico nearly twenty years ago, but neither of us could bear to just toss it away.

Sometimes, I think about discarding the buttons that are in it now and starting my own collection of tiny objects. But mostly, I just like that it’s there. It’s a lesson in object permanence – we may not have pictures of many of those garments, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist – but it’s also a glimpse into my mother’s soul, and a reminder that while our creative outlets are different, the need to create connects us both.

Postscript: As this is my final “Sunday Brunch” piece, I just wanted to take a moment to thank all of you who have read my stuff both here, and in All Things Girl over the years. Your support has meant so much. And for my fellow editors and contributors, I look forwarding to reading your work in other places, and enjoying it as much as I’ve enjoyed all the words and images you’ve shared here.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.