From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

The Button Jar

I wish I had known my grandparents when they were young. By the time I was old enough to be interested in them as people, they were very elderly. My grandfather always wore dark blue or brown overalls and was a tobacco farmer who also worked in the coal mines. My grandmother was a housewife and mother. Her daily chores included cooking, cleaning and feeding the farm hands, who consisted of many friends and cousins who helped my grandfather.

When I was a child, my parents would take my sister and me to my grandparents’ farm for the weekend. During one of these visits, we discovered the Button Jar. It was a typical winter day in Kentucky, cold and drizzling just enough rain that our mother wouldn’t let us go outside. We hadn’t brought any toys with us, thinking that we were going to explore the farm all weekend, and we were disgruntled and gloomy at the prospect of staying inside.

Trying to entertain ourselves, we picked at the leftover cornbread Mamaw had left on the kitchen table. In the back room, we spit on the little coal stove, watching the spittle bounce and spew until it evaporated. Bored, we lay down on the thick quilts on the iron bed where we slept, and imagined pictures out of the water spots on the sagging ceiling. We played Riddle-Mer-Riddle-Mer-Riddle-Merie until we couldn’t stand it anymore. I had that lonesome, empty feeling that often comes with childhood boredom, and I was determined that we do something.

My sister and I looked at each other and knowingly, without saying a word, decided to eavesdrop on the adults. We wandered into the living room and listened to the men sitting around the potbellied stove, telling hunting and fishing stories. Bored with that, we went into the kitchen to listen to the women talk about the task of raising children and what they were preparing for supper that night. This bored us too. Mamaw noticed we were fidgeting and said, “You girls come here a minute.”

She led us into her bedroom and reached for a large glass jar that sat on top of the old mahogany chifforobe. The jar was full of every sort of button you could imagine!

Delighted, we climbed up onto her high four-poster bed and watched as she lovingly poured out all the red, blue, yellow and purple—every color—buttons onto the chenille bedspread. She smiled and said, “Maybe you’d like to play with these for a while.”

“Yes!” we cried in unison.

We began by trying to count the buttons, but there were hundreds and we always lost count. That’s when we actually looked closely at the buttons. At first glance, we thought that they were made of every color imaginable, but when we looked more closely, we realized what a real treasure we had. One that caught our eyes was a gold metal button, covered with sparkling rhinestones. We turned it over in our hands and marveled at its beauty, wondering how our plain country grandmother had ever come by such a valuable jewel. We carefully sorted out other unique buttons. There were silver buttons, shaped like tiny love knots and large gold buttons set with tiny red, blue, green and gold rhinestones. And although we had never seen silk before, we were quite sure that the fabric-covered buttons were made of silk. As we sorted the buttons, I noticed a tiny clipping of black velvet fabric and thread still attached to a glittering rhinestone button. I looked over at my sister in awe and whispered, “These buttons are off real clothes! Just imagine the kind of dress Mamaw must have had with this button!”

“I’ll bet it was a long black velvet dress that she wore to a big dance or party!” my sister said.

We imagined how Mamaw must have looked when she was the mayor’s daughter and clearly the prettiest girl in town. We saw before us the life of a popular young socialite who, at age fifteen, had traded that life for marriage.

We found large, chunky black buttons cut from some old coat of my grandfather’s, and we pictured him climbing down into the cold, dusty coal mines. We envisioned him wearing this coat at night, with his miner’s helmet and carbide lantern so he could see to plow the garden and fields. Inlaid anchors adorned a large pair of jacket buttons that we thought Grandpa must have worn during his Navy days while traveling the world.

We spent hours that day pretending, imagining and creating our own stories about our grandparents. We began to see them as they were when they were young adults just beginning in life, as real people, and not just elderly grandparents. These were people who had loved and served life well.

From that day on, every time we were housebound, we shyly asked Mamaw if she’d get down the Button Jar for us. She always smiled knowingly, stopped kneading her biscuits or shelling beans, and got it for us.

My grandmother died soon after I was grown and married, and I regret that I never even thought to tell her about the valuable gift she had given me and my sister when we were children, but I’m sure she knew.

The buttons illustrated that we were part of a continuing story—a story larger than ourselves. Buttons are inexpensive little items, made of plastic or metal, and they are used to hold things together. Mamaw’s buttons were fasteners, too, but they did much more than hold clothes together. . . . They held our family together with stories from the past and present. They formed a lasting legacy for our current family and for generations to come, one that continues to warm my heart and nourish my soul.

Susan Wells Pardue

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners