My grandma saved buttons, too


Old house

My grandparents raised three daughters in the Great Depression. During the dust bowl they had to put wet towels around the inside of their windows to try to keep dirt from blowing in, but every monring there would be a mound of dust on the sills anyway. Also, there was hunger. Mom told me there were times when all they had to eat was popcorn. She told me that was because the hoboes had broken into their cellar and stolen all their food. I wonder whether that isn’t a story she was told to explain why they didn’t get enough to eat. I only learned this long after I had kids of my own, and it is still hard for me to believe that my Mom’s family had suffered through all that. My memories of my grandparents are different, but they may explain why I am a conservative, at least in part.

I cherish my memories of our visits to Wetmore, Kansas as a touchstone of my beliefs, values and principles. My grandparents’ way of living and looking at the world have settled deep into my heart and bones. Gone to their eternal rest many, many decades ago, I still react to situations in ways that bring them to my mind and heart, and always in a good way. Grandma may have had a refrigerator back then, but she kept a drawing of mine taped to the kitchen threshold for probably ten years. She didn’t have to tell me she was proud of me; seeing those Crayola tulips hanging there year after year said so. The stability of their love and attention is a treasure irreplaceable and, as grandparents are wont to do, they filled in the gaps left by day-to-day parenting of Mom and Dad.

A few years back I went on a quest on the internet to see if I could find a button box. Only it had to be a special button box, just like the one Grandma used to let me play with when I was little. It was round, maroon lacquered, with small flowers painted on the top. But it wasn’t the box that enchanted me. It was the pretty and fascinating buttons that she kept inside. There were not many playthings around my mother’s parents’ farm. Just an old kaleidoscope, a metal spinning top, and the antique version of the ViewMaster, called a stereoscope. None of these were my cup of tea, for it was the buttons that delighted me.

I can remember a lot of things my grandma saved. Ribbons discarded from gravesites that she wove into throw rugs; dishes, glasses and knick-knacks that she told us she had found “in the ditch;” old Army blankets she cut and stitched into quilts for the cots and beds we slept in at her house; large juice cans that she covered by the fives together and upholstered to become footstools for her living room. (Footstools were handy in old houses warmed by an ancient stove with a black pipe that disappeared into the second story.) We also learned the use of a chamber pot in winter, which was a darn sight better than visiting Mr. Outhouse in the middle of the night, even if there was a plank walkway for avoiding the mud in the yard.

The wonderland became more pleasurable with better weather. Our favorite haunt was the front porch, where after dinner the family sat in chairs and rockers, watching the tree in the yard get dimmer and dimmer, while Grandpa cracked jokes and laughed at our stories. And, on quiet summer afternoons, there was a seeming fairyland, where I could gaze at the myriad pansy-faces which my grandma’s loving hands had planted under the draperies of the willow tree in the side yard. A play-house and a garden, rolled into one.

Grandma loved to work. She kept a big kitchen garden and canned her own fruit and vegetables. There was a large room on the second floor, lined with jars that she had put up. And, of course, Grandma cooked. A lot. And the first thing you heard on waking up was my grandma, whistling hymns as she made breakfast on the wood-burning stove. It was really a concert, because she also raised canaries in her bedroom. There was a competition between her and the birds in the kitchen cages as to who could out-whistle who, as we rubbed our eyes and realized we were at Grandma and Grandpa’s! And there would be bacon and eggs! No Rice Krispies!

Grandma had a boundless energy. She used a push mower to cut the entire farmyard by herself, partly ‘cause of Grandpa’s rheumatoid arthritis, but partly ‘cause she wanted to. I remember one little new-born lamb Grandma had to care for in the house because it didn’t have a mother. We got to feed it with an eye dropper. Grandma could grow anything. She had tiers of glass shelves in her windows with African violets on them. Grandpa had his prize rose garden, and his sheep shearing. But mostly he tended to listen to his humongous floor-model radio, and later on watched his television. There was very little that transpired without Grandpa finding a way to get us to laugh along with him. His inner curmudgeon was cynical, but not mean about it. I’m sure my poor Grandma prayed for patience many times a day, but in our innocence we thought she probably wanted to pound him on the head with her ever-busy rolling pin.

Honestly, the only downside I remember to going there was, their farm dog was pretty unsociable. He took being a guard dog very seriously, did old Tinkie. Oh, and it was a bit creepy going up the long, narrow and very steep stairway to the second floor because we knew there was a rug at the top of the landing with a real bear’s head that looked like it didn’t like kids, either.

After all this longwinded story, I have to disappoint you. I didn’t find that button box on E-bay. But my Dad made me a new one that is very nice, so I can save buttons in it, too.

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March 25, 2011 5:42 pm

red, it is the old and wonderful stories about the hardiness of our ancestors that weave the fabric of the American tradition. You wrote so beautifully – I could visualize and almost reach out and touch the moment in time.

March 25, 2011 8:04 pm

This is great writing, RH…I continue to be amazed at how much we all have in common…but then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be, because it’s what we have in common that brought us all here.

My grandmama, mother’s side, had a stereoscope and button box, too! Not maroon lacquered, though…it was maroon cardboard (Old Spice box), but it is a favorite memory from childhood. I have it still, and it is one of my treasures:

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Queen Hotchibobo
March 25, 2011 10:44 pm

How neat. We have even more in common than I knew. My grandma didn’t have a button box, but one of the drawers in her old treadle sewing machine was *full* of neat old buttons. We used to spend hours in there looking through them and sorting them all out. And she crocheted rag rugs, gardened, farmed, tatted, and all that stuff too. I was always amazed watching her tat. She taught me to crochet, churn butter, garden, milk, and make home-made apple cider, but she could never teach me to tat. She could make that little shuttle go so… Read more »

March 26, 2011 8:46 am

That’s a magnificent story, Red, magnificently told. The key to everything in America is remembering the shoulder we stand on. And the button boxes that store up our memories.

March 26, 2011 8:59 am

Redneck, thank you so much for this lovely remembrance! As with nearly all of us, your beautiful word-pictures brought back a wonderful tsunami (not always a negative word!) of memories, many not visited for years or even decades. I find it comforting so many of us have these common touchstones buried in our heritage; it’s one other element which binds us all together. My keepsake isn’t a button box, but an outboard motor! Our folks sent us to stay with Grandma & Grandpa for a month (or three?) as they struggled with the difficult pregnancy which resulted in our baby… Read more »

Brian Hibbert
March 26, 2011 9:10 am

Thanks Red, as the comments suggest, we all seem to have so many similar background stories, though we live is vastly separated areas of the country. We owe a great debt to our grandparents who taught many of us how to endure hardships at need and to appreciate the riches we now have. Mark, did that little motor happen to be a reddish brown color and started with a pull rope that you wrap around the pulley at the top? My grandpa has a little motor like that. We all loved to motor around the lake when we could get… Read more »

March 26, 2011 11:05 am

Oh, red! how your piece took me back in time…… I was just thinking of my own mother’s button box the other day, and lamenting that my own grandkids don’t have one of those to sift through on rainy days. I remember all the “special” buttons, those that were very dressy-looking, like the ones with rhinestones on them, or the ones that had colored stones of some sort. They seemed so mystical to me back then, as if each one held a story that was waiting to be told. And I remember my own grandma, who lived in Chicago while… Read more »