The contents of the old silverware tray told the story of a family.
By Mary Daily
From my earliest memory, my mother, who was an accomplished seamstress, kept spare buttons in a wooden silverware tray with blue flowers painted on the outside. I see now that was an excellent choice to store them, because she could spread the buttons out to survey what she had. She could even have categorized them, but with a full-time job and four kids, she never got around to it.
All of us knew to put any extra buttons in the tray and to look there when we needed one, to find the closest match to one we had lost. My three brothers and I knew how to replace our own with needle and thread. When my dad discarded a shirt and turned it into a rag, he cut the buttons off, still threaded, sometimes with a tiny piece of the shirt still attached, and tossed them into the tray. “Don’t want to scratch the car when we wash it,” he said.
Gradually, the buttons told our family story. There was the ornate one, saved from our Great Aunt Zula’s wedding dress when she married diminutive Riley Malone, who resembled Doc on Gunsmoke. I later had that one made into a pendant that I wear on a bronze-colored chain. There were cream-colored buttons with two extra- large holes, from my grandfather Tom Denton’s long underwear (“long handles,” he called it). Dozens of four-holed pearl buttons were from the white dress shirts Daddy wore so often as a minister. Miniatures of those, sometimes inscribed with flowers, were from our baby clothes. Still others reminded me of dresses my mother wore when I was small. And then my favorites — buttons left over from the hundreds of dresses she made me, or that, as a teenager, I started making for myself. Seeing those not only reminded me of the dresses, but also brought back memories of where I wore them, from first grade to first date. The tray also held the odd piece of chalk, metal belt buckle, cloth tape measure, spool of thread, and our little hospital bracelets from when we were born.
After Mother and Daddy died, when I cleaned out our house, I brought the button box home with me and slid it under my dresser. Over the years, I’ve been gradually taking out buttons I want to keep. Who knows if I’ll ever use them? But good buttons are harder and harder to come by now.
The button box makes me think of the intimate details we learn about our parents and siblings as we pursue family life together. Those habits and mannerisms stay with us as trademarks of people we’ve loved. I wonder where the tray came from. Was it a wedding gift in the 1930s? Had it belonged to my grandmother?
Now I’ve taken the last of the buttons worth keeping and tossed the battered tray into the garbage. Seeing it there is like seeing a piece of six lives that are now all gone except mine. The stories the button box told are silent, but loud and clear in my memory.
Mary Daily is a writer in Los Angeles.