©2009 by Donna Cunningham
Does the term “button jar” evoke any memories for you? If it does, I’m guessing that you were born no later than 1950 and most likely in a farm state. Me too, and on a recent visit to one of the Goodwill Superstores here in Portland, I picked up a book off the 3/$1 table that brought it all back.
Clyde Edgerton’s heartwarming 1987 novel, Walking across Egypt, is about a spunky 75 year old woman in North Carolina who takes in a delinquent boy and a mangy stray dog. When she’s finally decided to keep them both, she washes the boy’s clothes, and finding a button missing, gets out her button jar to replace it. I set the book aside at that point while an entire thread of in my childhood unraveled in my mind, as vividly as anything happening today. (You may call that sort of unraveling getting old; I call it being a writer.)
Button jar. Oh, my. In those days we wasted nothing. Every housewife had a button jar, and any time an article of clothing wore out, she’d cut off the buttons, tie them with a loop of thread, and put them in the jar. She made most of her family’s clothes, you see, and the buttons would be reused. Then she’d cut up the fabric for quilt blocks–or if it was really shabby, for wash rags. Ewww! In these times of ubiquitous Bed, Bath, and Beyond outlets, we call them face cloths and don’t blink if they cost $6 and up. (I can tell you don’t believe any of this, and you wonder why we didn’t just go to Wal-Mart, but I swear it’s true.)
At that age, I was quite the little hobbyist, with collections of stamps, coins, and even postmarks from my many pen pals across the US of A. I became fascinated with my grandma’s button jar and decided to collect buttons. For whatever reason, I was a favorite with her crowd of lady friends, and she’d take me along when she visited them. While they bickered amiably over cribbage hands, I’d sort through their button jars for pretty, interesting, or particularly old buttons.
I conned–I mean, enticed–my pals into collecting buttons as well, and they’d raid all their aunts’ and great aunts’ button jars, only to lose interest and pass their hordes on to me. Best of all, my mom had a job for a while in the sewing department of J.C. Penny’s. She’d bring home sample cards of really exotic or expensive buttons. I’d be popping my own buttons with pride over my growing collection, surely the premier button aggregation in all of Monona County, Iowa.
When the number topped 2000, I entered the hobby show at the fairgrounds. My dad, a fine carpenter who built our home out of lumber salvaged from abandoned farmhouses, made framed plywood panels to show the collection off. I sewed every one of those buttons onto pieces of twill tape. (What’s twill tape for? Heck if I remember, just that it’s long and narrow and white.) I won an honorable mention, but was so burnt out on sewing that from that day to this, I won’t sew a button back on if it falls off. I just toss them into my Good Intentions drawer.
So is this just a pleasant little vignette of rural life in the 1950s, or is there a message for today’s hard times? In those days, we didn’t talk about sustainability–wouldn’t have understood the term–we just lived it. Farmers fertilized their fields with manure from their own livestock and rotated the crops to enrich the soil. Even those of us who lived in town grew and canned most of our own vegetables. We burned locally-grown corncobs in our heaters and cookstoves. (Now that we’re using so much corn oil and corn syrup as well as growing corn for biodesel fuel, what on earth are they doing with all those corn cobs?)
Most of us didn’t think we were poor, we were just prudent. And, okay, there might not be much here that an urban person could use in stretching that paycheck, but the point is that we’re probably going to have to learn a different way of life solidly based on living within our means, and maybe looking back at time like those could help us move forward.
Do you recall a part of that way of life? Memories and comments welcome.
A CHALLENGE TO WRITING STUDENTS: A “telling detail” is a specific phrase or sentence that evokes a time, place, mood, or sensory impression so vividly that readers feel they’re there. I purposely larded this short essay with as many telling details as I could. From the comments I’ m getting, the words “button jar” alone are a telling detail. Another example would be the part about using corn cobs as fuel. And wash rags (yuck!!) are another.
If you need to learn how to include more concrete detail in your writing, you might print out this piece and highlight all the bits that were evocative in this way. I’m planning a writing seminar in March, so if you’d be interested in knowing more, go to http://www.moonmavenpublications.com/writingseminar.html.