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Buttons, Buttons

Common Currency in a Time of Uncertainty

By Catherine KenwellPublished 2 years ago 4 min read
Buttons, Buttons
Photo by Clever Sparkle on Unsplash

“Buttons, buttons, who's got the buttons”…it’s a refrain from an old children’s game that few recognize nowadays. It harkens back to a time when children weren’t parked in front of computers or TVs; when gaggles of youngsters played together, with whatever they had on hand.

When I was a small girl, I was fascinated by my mother’s button jar. I could spend hours sorting by color or by size, counting and regrouping to count yet again. Shiny ones, real or faux mother-of-pearl, shiny jet black or tiny baby pink ones…bold, bright, mod ones, and old rusty metal ones that would never ever be reused.

Any afternoon with those hundreds of buttons was always time well spent. As a child, my primary goal was to stay out of everyone’s way, to avoid the inevitable conflict of raised voices and odd accusations. My favorite activity was solitude, a place I could find peace and let my imagination flow freely.

I welcomed the clinkering of the initial dump on the linoleum floor. The cacophony of color, waiting to be sorted and counted and used as currency. I would arrange them in separate piles, or place them horizontally, end to end in a line that was subsequently echoed by several other lines. The resulting formation resembled a chart of sorts. The color with the most buttons reached furthest and would win the imaginary competition. I’d create mandalas (although I didn’t know what they were called at the time); swirling, concentric jewel-like circles that were readily dismantled to create others.

Eventually, I came to welcome some of my favorite buttons as old friends. They were constant companions, twinkling with secrets shared between us.

Bright and soft pink were Barbie colors; dark green reminded me of my Dad’s plaid shirts, and brown was reminiscent of winter coats and the flannel cowboy sheets my brother had on his bed. Pink pearlescent buttons still bring back memories of the ones sewn onto the most fabulous pink mohair sweater my Mom knit for me when I was about six. That sweater, those buttons, and even my Mom are now long gone, but the warmth remains.

Almost 60 years later, a hobby I took to meant that I’d begin my search for those buttons, the old friends of yesteryear.

I gathered the ones I’d saved over the years, the extras that would be included with shirts or pants or jackets. I bought a few small bags of bright new buttons to hold me through until I could find vintage ones.

I put out a social media “ISO” request (that’s In Search Of, for non-social media folks) and received a note from an old friend and classmate.

“How many do you need?” she asked.

A few days later a sizeable box arrived. Hundreds of buttons, plus other vintage hardware I’ll use elsewhere. I had to laugh. I’d certainly help my friend rid herself of the collections she’d gathered over the years…maybe I was providing a kind service to a hoarder who needed to clear out her garage. Turned out, it worked for both of us. And when I employ those buttons, I think of my friend and the mischief we used to get into. The trouble we created, and the over-the-top laughable times we had.

My Dad joined the effort; he pulled out some ancient sewing baskets he’d had in storage. The inventory wasn’t large but garnered some wonderful little metal and mother-of-pearl gems. And as I walked home from his apartment, I was halted with a poignant revelation. There will come a day when I will be tasked with emptying his dwelling; I will inherit a well-worn shirt or two and garner the buttons for a very memorable tribute to him.

Buttons are common currency, and sometimes they are worth more than any bank balance.

Today I dropped off a jar of buttons at a neighbor’s house and exchanged it for a jarful she’d left for me. We decided to measure out a cup each, and with great glee I returned home and sorted the treasured currency she’d chosen for me.

I discovered eyelets with threads still attached, and my mind reflected onto who wore those buttons, and on what type of clothing. Some are easy; shirt buttons are universally designed. Sometimes, I can discern between the front placket buttons and the ones used on cuffs. Huge domes in neon orange make me imagine mod, late ‘60s flower-power dresses worn by the likes of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton.

In isolation once again, this time caused by a worldwide pandemic, these shiny old friends of mine remind me of the tenuous moments of safety from my childhood. They help me realize the tenacity of my entire existence. I only wish I’d had those companions through my darkest days. The colorful troops might have given me something to cling to.

These days, they’ve renewed my sense of imagination and joy. What a gift, this common currency.


About the Creator

Catherine Kenwell

I live with a broken brain and PTSD--but that doesn't stop me! I'm an author, artist, and qualified mediator who loves life's detours.

I co-authored NOT CANCELLED: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19. I also publish horror stories.

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