I’ve decided what I’m giving to our 15-year-old granddaughter Emily for Hanukkah. No small matter, since teenage girls have very specific categories that range from “gross” to “cool.” Making the right choice can be daunting.
But there’s a legacy about this choice.
Emily will be receiving a scarred old metal box that I remember from my childhood. I wasn’t allowed to open it or touch it until I was about 10, but that permission came with all sorts of rules and restrictions:
I could only open the box when Mom was nearby. I had to remember that it was not a toy. And I had to be super-careful about its contents.
I speak not of a treasure trove of jewels or family heirlooms, but of my mother’s cherished Button Box.
Back then, Mom would bring out that box as if a moment of the highest importance was upon her.
And then my mother would put on the glasses that hung from a chain around her neck, and reach into a basket of clothes. Mine, my sister’s, our father’s. There was no trumpet blast or drum roll, but it still felt like an occasion of state.
With infinite patience, Mom would study the garment of the moment, sometimes sighing, and occasionally breaking into a rapturous smile. That meant she’d found the perfect replacement for the missing button or buttons.
Spread out before her were what seemed like at least a million buttons — shiny ones, colored ones, buttons with what I always thought were diamonds but turned out to be things called rhinestones.
Her specialty was turning buttons into fashion statements.
Simple wooden buttons marching down a jacket could change it into something spunky and even bold.
A set of rhinestone buttons sewn around the neckline of my black taffeta dress made it the perfect choice for a long-ago New Year’s Eve.
The button box lost a bit of its luster when it turned out it was simply a recycled 1950s candy box. “A candy box!” I fumed. I had imagined a more glorious pedigree.
It also became less a part of our domestic landscape when my mother ventured out into her first job, a leap into a new era for all of us. She had blossomed into an executive assistant, less involved with buttons than with what my sister and I deemed boring stuff.
Most of all, my mother’s dedication and respect for the most humble of objects always reminded me that, yes, there may be far grander pursuits in the world than replacing or adding buttons. But making something out of — well, nothing — with such devotion was worth noticing.
So back to Emily.
Yes, she has lived in an era so technological that iPhones can practically tap dance.
But my hope is that Emily — and maybe her 13-year-old sister — will take a break from 2017, and sift through humble buttons as their great-grandmother once did.
I thought of how much my mother adored these once-little girls, and how in her last days, she wanted to give them the moon and the stars.
How I wish she could see them now, possibly — hopefully — enchanted by her humble tin button box.
So while a cool pair of jeans or sweater might make more sense to Emily, I hope that someday she realizes what this box truly represents.
A legacy. A connection to the meaning of preserving the littlest things. Maybe even a realization that links to the past can actually be pretty “cool.”
Sally Friedman writes from Moorestown. firstname.lastname@example.org