There are people who are collectors, and there are people around whom things collect.
I’m not really a collector in the true sense, though I once blogged about collecting spoons, and it could be argued that I collect poets. I don’t keep the poets in the house though. They wander off all the time. Besides they’re not things, and collectors collect things. Although things are never exactly things, are they? Which makes it complicated.
Anyway, just now I’m collecting buttons, because the more you have, the more time you can spend running them through your fingers and liking the shine and shape, and differences between them. The tiny ones and the huge ones. Although in fact, the buttons are also collecting round me.
Why buttons? My mother is currently living in a nursing home, so her former home had to be tidied and cleared. She was a great sewer, embroiderer, tapestry maker, knitter. There were needles, knitting needles, thread, thimbles, safety pins and buttons all over the place. They had collected around her over the years in drawers and cupboards and even in the bookcases. Much was discarded, but I saved the buttons.
Because when my mother was two and a half and ran away from home to her Aunty Louie’s, this is what she played with:
My favourite of the delights of the house was a small harp, which was kept behind the curtain in the living room, and the next (behind the same curtain) was the button box. This was a large wooden box full of buttons of every shape, size and colour. In those days, buttons were much more varied and ornate. I was never tired of making patterns with those lovely coloured buttons, until I was old enough to go to school.
I wonder where Aunty Louie, who died before I was born, got her buttons? Did she inherit them from her mother? Was she the collector of the family? Either way, at some point in the past I had a button tin that somebody gave me (perhaps my mother) and when my children were small they used to play with the buttons. There was one particular button in that tin, a big one, with bits of mother of pearl, my favourite button. But the button tin was lost when the marriage broke. I don’t know where it went, and anyway by then the children were too old for buttons, though I continued to keep my spare ones in a china dish.
But now I have a grand-daughter, Lois, so I’m collecting buttons again for her to play with. These days craft people make things with buttons, so they’re easy to get on Ebay. But there's craft and there's crafty. There are true button collectors.
For example, browsing through Ebay’s buttons (instead of working on the next poetry publication) I found quite an interesting little button, an old brass one with a rabbit on it. I had put in a bid, and it didn’t cost much – a pound or so (though for me, this is a lot for ONE BUTTON), and then in the last five minutes before bidding closed, there was a sudden acquisition frenzy. Bidders leapt out of the ether, and when the sale closed the rabbit button had fetched well over £20.00. Lois might not even have liked it.
Meanwhile, one of the invaluable poets who collect around me from time to time read my recent blog about lists, in which I mention ‘Do not buy more buttons on Ebay: you do not need them’, and she sent me five wonderful farm buttons. The tractor is particularly magical.
I need a bigger tin.
It’s good to have a grand-daughter, because I like playing with buttons myself, but it’s not something I would normally do (even though these days they have mindfulness colouring-in books for grown-ups). I wish I still had the buttons in my married tin, because lots of those were older and most of my current collection are modern buttons. But I think more may collect around me yet, and perhaps some of the old ones will find their way back.
My mother has lost the bits of memory in which her buttons were stored. They have rolled away. That might be another reason for me collecting them back: all the glittery, valued bits of life that get lost under the rug, or are hoovered up by mistake.
Yep, the buttons are symbols of treasure and loss, and this reminded me of ‘The Wayward Button’ by Gill McEvoy, from her pamphlet Uncertain Days (2006), which was one of the first HappenStance pamphlets to sell out inside a year.
If you possess a copy of Uncertain Days, it’s a collector’s item now.
Here’s that Wayward Button poem. Made me cry in 2006. Still does.
The Wayward Button
I burnt your coat in November,
Bonfire Night, when else?
God knows, that coat was you—
stubborn in the way it wouldn’t burn,
awkward in the way it slumped on top the pile,
out of shape with everything,
the world, itself.
That coat was every morning
when I couldn’t start the day on time:
kids to wash and dress, and get to school,
and you, soiled again, three more lines
of washing, sheets, pyjamas, towels
to hang outside.
That coat was each Day Centre afternoon
when you refused to get in the car and I—
with murder in my heart, shopping to fetch,
washing to bring in before the rain,
dinner burning slowly on the stove—
would force you in, all sixteen stone,
then feel the scald of tears.
It played a last trick when it burned.
A button loosed by flame fell from the fire,
rolled to rest at my right foot. It lay there
like a small dog begging amnesty.
Next morning when I raked the ashes flat
I picked it up. Now it goes
everywhere with me.