My mother was quite a good seamstress. She made shirts for me and my brothers, dresses for herself and my sister, and even sport coats for us boys for Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes. There were times she “took in” sewing; making clothes for other people.
Watching in fascination with my chin on my hands, her Singer sewing machine’s low-pitch hum as it wound thread on the bobbin would hypnotize me. Its rhythmic cadence of marching stitches into place, like obedient West Point cadets, could be heard in muffled sounds from her sewing room.
Her sewing basket was a treasure trove of colors and textures. Large and small spools of thread lay juxtaposed on each other, some full and others nearly used up. (Does anyone still remember wooden spools?) Only an inexperienced hand would thrust itself into that basket without looking because its contents were guarded by the porcupine quills of straight pins, safety pins, and sewing needles.
And woe to any person in the house who used momma’s sewing scissors to cut anything like a G.I. Joe parachute string, or the hair on a dog with a burrowed cocklebur behind its ear, or a magazine or newspaper (even if it was for a school report).
My favorite item in her sewing room was the button jar. It was a quart size (or larger) Mason jar filled with more buttons that a little boy could count. Picking it up and turning it was like turning a kaleidoscope, with colors, sizes, and shapes continuously changing position. Some buttons seemed to be pushing their way to the front eager to be seen. While others, more shy, would slip out of view just when you caught a glimpse of them.
The button jar was a dormitory for orphans. They were cast off leftovers from a card of six buttons when the sewing pattern only required five. Odds and ends. Rarely were any two alike. Though they all lived together in the same place, they had little else in common. Some had one hole for thread. Others two holes. Others four. And some had five.
There were metal buttons that looked like they belonged on a soldier’s uniform, though I never saw my mother make a uniform. Some were simple colors of black, white, or yellow. But others had a pearl cast to them that made them look as expensive as any pearl necklace my great-Aunt Martha might have worn. (Maybe I’ll write a story about “Aunt Martha” sometime.)
Some buttons were as small as the eraser on top of a # 2 pencil. And then there were buttons that were as large as the palm of my youthful hand.
These large ones were known to grow legs and “somehow” escape the prison of the jar. Their accomplice would be a little boy with a spool of thick thread. In the safety of his room he combined the thread and giant button into a whirring, spinning toy.
It’s hard to explain the directions for making this toy. I’m not even sure I could make one for my grandchildren. But I can still remember the incredible speed of the spinning button suspended on the taut thread between my hands as they pulled against each other in a steady rhythm. Its deep whir would increase in pitch as it got faster and faster.
The purpose for the button jar was in the event that anyone lost a button off a shirt, dress, or jacket. The item of clothing would be taken to the operating room and placed in waiting for surgery to repair its lost appendage. Pouring out the contents of the jar, momma would sift carefully through the buttons, searching for a replacement.
Which brings me to the reason behind this entire musing of mine. When I was growing up, buttons were lost on a pretty regular basis. And before you judge my youthful, boisterous spirit too quickly and harshly, let me add that buttons were lost by young and old alike. It seemed a regular occurrence.
But I can’t honestly remember when the last time was that I lost a button. Nowadays my shirts wear out and become rags for my shop while all the original buttons remain firmly in place.
I began trying to figure this out. (As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, my mind is a busy little place.) In my ponderings it occurred to me that several years ago manufacturers started sewing additional buttons at the bottom of shirts; two to be exact. A small one for the oxford collar and a larger one for the front of the shirt. Ever since they started this I don’t believe I’ve ever had a button to desert its post.
Apparently these two extra buttons are the enforcers. During the night, while clothes hang in quiet repose in the closet, the enforcers are performing an inspection. Checking each button for signs of a planned escape and pulling stitches tight that have been subtely loosened during the day, they give out stern warnings. “Hold your position!”
Poor momma. If she’d just had the foresight to sew two extra buttons on all my homemade shirts, she could have saved herself a lot of toil and aggravation.