I’ve got a button tin, a nice red one with a plaid pattern that matches my own mother’s button tin. When she first gave it to me I filled it with buttons snipped from worn-out clothes and buttons I’d bought at fabric stores. Once I brought home a big bag of assorted buttons from Value Village, and that filled the tin right up.
We regularly dip into the button tin, because there are so many lovely things to do with buttons. Sometimes I open it up and just stir my fingers through it like I did as a child. The girls like to sift and sort through the buttons, making piles of their favourites. They also enjoy stringing buttons together to make a gift, like Laura and Mary did when they lived in their little house on the prairie. Some of the very nicest buttons hang on a pipe cleaner loop, proudly displayed in our kitchen – a gift to Tom and I from the girls on our 11th wedding anniversary.
However, there are some buttons in the tin that I like to look at but never want to use. I always pass over the black ones that have obviously been snipped off a Canadian Naval uniform, and the little gold ones with the same Navy insignia on them. Who wore those buttons on his uniform? Whose fingers pushed them through buttonholes? There’s a matching pin too. I’d never wear it on my own coat, but at the same time I don’t feel right throwing it away either.
Seeing these particular buttons and pins as personal is illogical, I know. All the other thrift shop buttons were probably used on someone’s clothing just as much as the sailor’s buttons, and I have no qualms about using the ordinary buttons for my own clothes or projects. It is the weight of the symbols and the untold story that makes the sailor’s buttons special. I imagine his wife snipping those same buttons off a coat when he returned home and placing them in her button tin. When she died, I suppose the people going through her things sent all the buttons off to the thrift store, and now, somehow, they’re mine.
I wonder if it would be different if those buttons came from my grandfather’s uniform? Would I sew them onto a coat of my own and proudly tell his story every time someone commented on the buttons? Maybe.
Those black buttons with the crown, anchor and rope imprinted on them will continue to float around the button tin awhile longer. I’m coming to accept that some buttons in the button tin will never be used. They serve a purpose simply being there, reminding me every time I pick through them that every one of these tiny objects carry their own life story, just like everything else in the world. Our objects interact with people from their creation until they biodegrade, and in most cases that is a tremendously long time.