Friday, September 18, 2009

#128 - Pressing Buttons

Pressing Buttons

9/18/09 (#128)

Visiting with Nick and Lindsey recently, my pass through their living room was interrupted by a seismic jolt from the past: Sitting on their desk was a large jar filled with hundreds of random, colorful sewing buttons. The stash, I learned, had belonged to her mother, and Lindsey's fondly recalled memories of these buttons elicited pangs of nostalgia. Plunging my hand into the bowl felt like I was reaching into my memory, recalling my own mother's sizable collection of random buttons. While Lindsey spoke of her history with the buttons (they had only recently arrived at her house, and she was freshly excited about them), my head drifted miles and years away.

Of all the toys I remember from my youth, the tin full of buttons that resided on my mother's sewing machine ranks among my favorites. My mother sewed a lot when I was young---with four kids, the ability to make/modify/repair was surely a cost-effective skill---and had collected pounds of buttons over the years: extras from button-cards purchased for particular garments, odd buttons that had become detached from a shirt of unknown origin, others snipped from garments destined for discard. My mother had built the collection over years, the span of time revealed in the diverse button design.

Mom's collection was stored in a pale blue canister that once held some arcane brand of chewable caramels, dented and dinged but stalwart in its duty. Shaking the can produced a fantastic sonic as buttons of various sizes and weights clanged the walls, though it was an unwieldy maraca for a young boy. When that container was eventually outgrown, the buttons were transferred to a larger tin, this time a vessel produced for transporting hard candy. I missed the familiarity of the original tin, but I reveled in the extra space that I knew would one day be filled.

What's so fun about a big can of buttons? Quite simply, they were a sensual delight:

Sound: For a fan of everyday sonic experiences (the erratic symphony of traffic, the honking of geese flying overhead, the industrial rhythms of machines), dumping several pounds of buttons onto a tabletop is an aural delight. Swishing the pile, hearing the quiet friction of hundreds of bits of plastic, wood, and metal; the sharp, thin sound of tapping thin mother-of-pearl buttons together like castanets; later, the noisy chaos as I scooped them in handfuls and returned them to their metal container.

Touch: Diving my hand into the depths of the little discs offered a tactile splendor. I reveled in the soft resistance of the hard buttons, my fingers clearing a path that was immediately refilled by cascading clicks as they nestled into the disappearing gap. Plus, there were the textures of the individual buttons---old buttons weaved of hardened leather, the textured edges of newer buttons (this was the 70's, mind you), and the cool smoothness of jacket buttons that seemed to be made of stone.

Sight: Like hundreds of puzzle pieces that would never fit together, the buttons could be arranged in infinite number of creative patterns---a ring of small orange buttons around a large center button to make a button black-eyed susan; a sloppily arranged universe, each planet represented by a different color, size and style; vertical stacks, trying for maximum height with a tower of regularly smaller tiers; experiments in symmetry, shifting shapes and colors into familiar and fantastic patterns.

I recognized several of the buttons in Lindsey's jar as twins from my mother's collection, as if Lindsey's home had been a parallel universe to my own. (Fairly parallel to many of our friend's youths, I'm sure. Especially those homes with sewing machines.) Like our minds collect moments in a cluttered and disorderly manner, small handfuls from Lindsey's jar invoked random recollections: wooden dowel buttons like those snipped from a worn-thin camelhair coat; bright orange plastic discs that we had used when my mother made a tiny shirt for my stuffed chimpanzee Zip; even a couple of those large mother-of-pearl buttons, their original use a mystery but forever locked in my memory as playthings.

There's a parenting adage assuring that when you buy a toy for a child, the part they'll like best is the box. That's because the more particular and exacting a toy is, the more limited it is for use - a model of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise might be really cool, but it's fairly confined to being the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Yet the box in which it came can be a firehouse, a castle, a boat, anything that the imagination allows. That's what I recall about the buttons: they were colorful and tactile building blocks that could be used in myriad ways---not one of which included them being a button.

©2009 wpreagan