For some time now, I’ve been contributing a column to the West Side, a community newspaper based in West Salem. Several years ago, I was actually co-publisher and editor of the paper. My job, if that’s what it could be called, included ad layout, some ad sales, rewriting of news releases, distribution of counter copies, bookkeeping, and coffee-making. In between I also wrote a column, which was necessary to keep me from being driven crazy by the other work, and by trying to squeeze enough nickels out of the business to keep the family in beans. These days, thank goodness, someone else is at the West Side helm, leaving me free to write columns and go hungry without the added nuisance. It’s a good arrangement. At the same time, my West Side days were good days. I learned a lot about newspapers, a lot about people, and a lot about myself. The column below is a recent work. It ran in the May 2002 issue of the West Side and earned rave reviews from my mother, who, to quote the immortal words of Mark Twain, is my most charitable critic.
A Bag of Buttons
My mother, a collector and saver from way back, recently unearthed an enormous bag of buttons she’d harvested from worn-out clothes over the last fifty years. The funny thing was how familiar so many of them were. While it was obvious that only a tiny percentage of them would ever be used, we agreed that throwing the buttons away was out of the question.
Nowadays, of course, people have little time for sewing. Victims of prosperity and convenience, most of our time is spent waiting in line at fast-food driveup windows. But it wasn’t always this way. We used to enjoy long, quiet evenings, when prime-time entertainment meant taking the buttons off of old clothes.
Yes, those were the good old days. I remember them well, my mother sitting in her chair by the fireplace with a pile of old shirts in her lap, my father with his feet up and snoring away, resting so he’d have enough energy to go to bed.
Mom wasn’t satisfied until her work had yielded at least a cup of buttons. But now I wonder. Where in the world did all the old clothes come from? Well, they came from something called the Great Depression — the catastrophic worldwide financial collapse that colored my childhood, and that still effects the way I think today.
The Depression rule was simple. You didn’t throw things away. You kept them for future use. I like that rule. The only trouble now is, nothing much is worth keeping, because manufacturing standards have fallen so low that merchandise disintegrates two days after the warranty is up.
Back in what I’ll call my college days — which was certainly an educational time, though not in the traditional sense — I had a pair of old jeans held together by patches my mother had sewn on. The denim-to-patch ratio of these jeans was, roughly, thirty to seventy percent. Every few weeks, when a new hole appeared, Mom would set aside her bulging bag of buttons long enough to patch my pants.
Using a wide variety of colors and shapes, she gave my pants a design that became the envy of everyone in school. She even sewed faces into my jeans. This went on until I was thirty-seven, which is when I finally realized that being a grown man meant finding more adult ways of expressing myself.
For the next several years, I didn’t think much about buttons, and Mom didn’t talk about them. The fact is, she had moved on to garage sales, and so I spent every weekend moving her furniture to make space for her latest acquisition. Finally, I had to move her. Once, when I dropped by for a visit, I couldn’t find her amidst her collection of clocks, organs, coffee tables, Victrolas, and old sewing machines. It turned out she wasn’t in the house at all, but in the garage asleep on a pile of old quilts.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Buttons. Lately, Mom has been finding all sorts of interesting things in her house. Some break your heart when you see them, such as the letters my father and his brothers wrote during the Second World War. My father was a radio operator in the Azore Islands. Uncle Ernie, a career violinist with the San Francisco Symphony, was in the Battle of the Bulge. Uncle Haig didn’t come home. Mom has Haig’s uniform, his Purple Heart, and the flag the U.S. government gave his parents in return for their son — in my opinion, not much of a trade.
And I’m not sure, really, what this has to do with buttons. Nothing, I guess, except that buttons are a lot easier to talk about than an uncle you never knew, except by way of your family’s long sorrow. The buttons on his uniform are as mute and silent as his grave in Italy. They are as depressing as a hot, breathless Sunday when the work is left undone because there is no one left to do it. And they are a reminder that it is possible to miss someone you never knew.
Also by William Michaelian
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
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