BUTTON BOX – WHO’S GOT THE BUTTON? April 22, 2010

My granddaughter looked around my apartment and the stacked and labeled boxes that were to be moved to New Jersey. “It’s not as cluttered as it was now that everything is packed,“ she said quietly. I detected a note of gloom in her tone. “But I miss the collections you used to have when I was a little girl.”  Rachel is nineteen and a sophomore in college. “You’ve given so much away during this move.”

“Well, I happily gave you the little things you always wanted, but I’m through with collecting. Through.  Genug.”

“Uh-oh!  When you say genug, it means you have made up your mind, Oma. That’s kind of sad. No more knick-knacks, books, doodads, travel souvenirs, hat pins from places you’ve visited, nor magnets for your refrigerator.”

“And no more buttons, either.” I smiled at the memories.

“Buttons! Oma!” she howled. “Buttons?” Then my granddaughter paused for a moment before starting what she calls “the deeper thoughts to myself”.   “But I do remember your button box. I loved playing with them.” She looked intensely at me. “Do you still have it? When I was little, you used to tell me family stories about some of those buttons.”

            “Goodness, I’m amazed you remember those buttons.” No, I no longer have the button box. It disappeared during one of my moves in this past decade.”

“Well, Oma, that’s truly infamy. You and I weighed the buttons once, when I was ten. They weighed almost five pounds, as I recall.”  She smiled fondly and patted my hand. “How did you get started with button collecting, anyway?”

 “It’s a collection mania I inherited from both my mother and her father. Mom always had a large, two-quart, round, tin button box for what she called the strays.  She would reminisce and tell family history about nearly every button.”

“That’s what you used to do! And then you would tell me how much money you could save when a lost button had to be replaced.” Rachel said with great animation.
         I laughed delightedly. “My father used to complain about her collection, but she placated him by pointing out how reusing buttons save a great deal of money. Then she would furtively buy a set of new buttons so she didn’t have to use any from the box. She taught me to keep uninteresting buttons in another box so husbands won’t complain.  I inherited that family button box after she died and melded its contents with my own similar collection. Eventually, it disappeared. But from that point in my life, I no longer sewed buttons. Safety pins work just as well.”
         The two of us grinned conspiratorially at each other and gave each other a high five.

            On the other hand, as I explained to Rachel, Mom’s parents were, like my mother, skilled quilt makers and owned a thriving feather and down quilt business in New York City’s Harlem. Their area of expertise was making European style down quilts and pillows, as well as the specialty covers for them. My Oma Feld invented a pillow case that could be closed without zippers or buttons. “You and I use that method on our own beds.”

            Rachel nodded in agreement. Then she voiced another thought. “Weren’t you also a skilled quilt maker, Oma? And you know what? I forget the difference between European and American quilts.”

            “Indeed, yes! My sister and I were both trained in the family business, and both of us had our own shops at different times in our lives.”

            I then enlightened Rachel by explaining the tradition of European down quilts. The size is always sixty inches by eighty inches. The quilt is sewn into ten inch squares that act as individual sections and keep the down from shifting.  A one-inch-wide, flat margin surrounds the squares on the outer edges. Genuine mother of pearl buttons are hand sewn onto both sides of these margins. Next, an overlapping cotton coverlet is fastened to the bottom side of the comforter. This coverlet is not like a contemporary duvet, which encloses the quilt rather like an oversized pillow case. Rather, the coverlet overlaps the top of the quilt by only fifteen inches, also fastened by buttons. Thus the quilt itself decorates the bed, while the overlap keeps the quilt clean from human contact. When the bed is changed, the quilt is flipped over.

            After several decades, the materials would start to show wear. In addition, the quilt and cover became grimy. Quilt makers like my family skillfully refurbished the quilt “like new.”

            At the shop, the renewal process began when the down was taken out, then cleaned and restored. Before being put between four new layers of finely woven material, it was weighed, and, if necessary, additional down was added. Once this was accomplished, experienced seamstresses used heavy duty sewing machines to sew the complex margins and squares.

            By custom, the buttons still attached to the margins were cut off and disposed of, they were replaced with new mother-of-pearl buttons. These new buttons were hand sewn onto both sides of the new comforters. It was an odious job, and one I detested.

            My granddaughter was intrigued. “That sounds so peculiar. Why was that done?”

            I replied. “It makes sense. American and European button sizes are different. Also, buttons change over the decades, and it would have taken too long to match existing buttons by color and thickness.”

            “What happened to the cut off buttons?” inquired my granddaughter.

            “By time-honored custom, buttons were just cut off and thrown into button bags, which my grandfather kept in a special storage closet in his store. Twice a year, I would help him pull out more than a dozen drawstring bags from the closet. The bags were four feet high, eight feet around the horizontal diameter, and too heavy to lift. They were stuffed full of removed buttons. Occasionally, when Opa found a unique replacement button that had been sewn on a quilt, he would remove it to a five gallon jar of special buttons. Especially beautiful buttons were sometimes gifted to me, and I had them for decades.”

            “They were what you called your Opa Feld Buttons’, breathlessly interrupted Rachel. “Oh, they were so beautiful!”

            I smiled with fond remembrance of all delightful shimmering, multihued buttons spanning the colors of the rainbow and beyond.. They were made from abalone and other deep sea shells . “You know, I think that those buttons got me started in conchology. To this day, the beauty of iridescent shells gives me the greatest of pleasures.”

            “So, will you be collecting shells again when you go back East?” she asked.

            “Hmmmmmmmmmm.  No. I’ll leave collecting to you, dear child.”

            “When I eventually get married and settle down, I’ll start a new button box. I have about a dozen that have your family stories attached to them, which you gave me, Oma. Then there are another twenty or so that have my stories attached.” She said.

            “Any other collections you might have?” I asked quizzically.

            She giggled. “Well, someone has to continue the family traditions. Of your four children, only Barbara has followed in your footsteps. So I will carry on the family custom and become this generation’s Clutter Bug.”

            Another high five followed.

            The empty rooms no longer seemed so empty to me.

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