The coffee can gleamed dully in the corner of the closet. Above it were family treasures. Below were the litre bottles of Jack Daniels, Smirnoff, Beefeater. On either side were jars filled with wheat pennies, dimes minted before 1965, international coinage. The can was more interesting, filled to the brim with buttons.
Dad harvested buttons from everything, like his mother before him, saved for a day (you never know when) a button might be needed. I can’t recall a single flyaway button incident the entire time Grandma lived with us. The little ones wore zippers and elastic and Grandma preventatively reinforced the buttons on everyone else’s clothes. Flyaway buttons? That’d never happen, not on her watch.
Clothes failed before the buttons did and when they did, Grandma would snip the buttons off for later use. She died in 1989, and Dad took up her habit. There’s a Frog and Toad story about a lost button. Toad’s lost his and Frog scours high and low for one to match. Why didn’t Frog ever call my dad? We had buttons to spare.
Dad joined Grandma a year ago. Last weekend, Linda and I met up at the ranch to pick through his things. Oldest daughter from the first marriage, oldest daughter from the second, born 21 years apart united in wading through ancestral remains some dating back more than a hundred years. Picking through family boxes is like randomly clicking on Web site links: you have no idea what you’ll find, chances are it’s pointless and worthless, but damned if you don’t spend half your day going down the bunny hole trying to see where it’ll lead. This day, we found the button can.
Linda glanced at it but it was no real interest to her, not when she was hot on the trail of love letters between our grandfather and one of his affaires de coeur. I spilled the can’s contents on the floor of our dad’s workshop, running my dirty hands through the buttons like they were sand or beads.
Each had a story. This button was mother-of-pearl, cut from my dad’s brown polyester shirt with the wide lapels. He got the shirt in the late 60s. He wore it well into the late 80s. This button was green and embroidered from a jacket grandma wore whenever she went to the market. A few were metal cut from old work gloves. Two were beige and matched the button eyes on a stuffed monkey in my hope chest these last 25 years. Most of them came from Dad’s shirts and were in shades of light blue, beige, and white.
Isn’t knowledge a funny thing, particularly about other people? You spend so much of your life acquiring information about another person you love: favorite foods, books, hobbies. Dad’s favorite type of shirt was beige or blue, 100% cotton, short sleeved, collared, buttons down the front, no logos or embroidery, two breast pockets. His pockets contained predictable wonders and endless entertainment for his daughters. One pocket contained two ballpoint retractable pens, one black and the other blue, a miniature calculator, a small pad of scratch paper, and his business cards. The other pocket contained a packet of True Blue filtered cigarettes and a BIC lighter. With those few ingredients we played tic-tac-toe, connect-the-dots, hangman, learned how to type words on a calculator using upside-down numbers, capture bugs and seeds in bags, play makeshift dominoes, and build card houses.
All that knowledge about his shirts and his buttons, and nothing to do with it. That information is eating up brain cells needlessly. It’s like being a skilled pianist but no instrument in sight.
Last weekend alone we threw away 42 large moving boxes of detritus. Since Dad died, we’ve filled 26 industrial-sized garbage and recycling bins. Not all is easily thrown away. For every 10-year stack of utility bills we find a Christmas card with a personal sentiment or a program from his high school days. We want to keep all of it, these little connections to his life. But he had an 8000-square-foot workshop to put it in. We live in apartments, condos, and planned communities. It’s impossible, even spread across 10 of us, to save it all.
But a can of buttons. That I can do.