When I was a little girl, my older sister and I would spend hours sorting and playing with my mother’s large tin button box. The buttons were as different as snowflakes. My sister and I spent hours looking for pairs or triplets. Sometimes we were successful, but mostly we intrigued by the uniqueness of each button – almost the same but just a shade different. I can still see them in my mind: the round ivory button imbedded with light yellow daisies; the large round pale pink button embossed with small rectangles; the heavy gold ones etched with anchors and ropes; the tiny pastel buttons like delicate seashells. We would line them up, stack them, create mosaics, trade them, and then tenderly scoop them up and put them away for another day. Tender. That’s a good word for how I feel about those times spent imagining and playing with my sister. We played like this well into our teenage years. When we actually used the buttons for sewing projects, I think we both did so reluctantly. It was like saying good-bye to an old friend. These small ordinary objects were precious to us. They signified a magical time, a respite from the real world.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I encountered Gertrude Stein’s poem, “Tender Buttons.” It is a long abstract, experimental poem that unwinds and wanders in and out of common objects, but there is a certain glittering magic within. Here’s a bit of it.
… A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.
The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing…
And then as a young woman working in New York City, I came across a brick storefront one day on the Upper East Side called Tender Buttons. I spent many a Saturday afternoon gazing at the boxes full of buttons. I began my own collection of buttons, not to actually use, but merely to sit with and marvel. Diane Epstein, the owner of the shop had once described the buttons as “Each one is like a tiny evocative event.” And that is precisely how I saw my childhood buttons. The deep, sea green ones, the tarnished silver ones, the ones in the shape of shiny horns – all told a story – all held a secret. Unfortunately, Tender Buttons closed its doors permanently in 2019. All the more grateful I am that I have kept a small collection of those buttons.
Thinking about my mother’s button box made me realize how important small common objects are for children: bottle caps, erasers, doodads – all manner of ephemera. They collect a myriad of these things in their desks at school. I have confiscated thousands of tiny pencils, paper clips, and beads in my time as an elementary school teacher. These treasure troves are important to children. They are connectors to the imaginary. They are a passport from the real world to an imaginary one. They are indeed important. In fact, they are essential. This is more and more evident in the time of COVID, as my students are going to school in-person behind masks and plexiglass, having to remain in their seats most of the day. The urge to play is palpable. They must sit, but they can still create with their hands. And to my delight they do! They fold paper, link paper clips, use great lengths of tape to transform their school world.
A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues showed me the great gallery of objects her 4th grade students had created. I decided the 4th graders each needed a box of objects with which to create. I talked to the girls about my idea and they enthusiastically gave me ideas of what objects to include in the boxes. One student dubbed the boxes fidgetneering boxes. I loved that name and promptly drove to my local dollar store to buy the boxes and label them with the students’ names. Then I filled the boxes with all kinds of childhood treasures from The Wonder Lab, our school’s maker space: straws, yarn, popsicle sticks, paper tubes, Styrofoam balls, bags of buttons, bags of beads, pipe cleaners, etc. This week, I distributed the boxes to the girls. It was so gratifying to see them uncover the boxes and sort through the objects. Their excitement was electric. It was a rainy day, a great day to play and ponder. Off they went for fifteen minutes to design and build. Watching them reinforced my strong belief that children (both young and old) need the opportunity to wonder and imagine on a regular basis. I told the girls that when the boxes get near empty, I would replenish their stores. Their reaction was like I was giving them gold. One student exclaimed, “This is marvelous junk. Look what I made!” Yes, just look. Marvelous common junk made magical!
THE WORLD IN A BUTTON
The world in a button,
Spherical and hard,
Sometimes tarnished with age,
Holes and embellishments,
Disappointments and surprises,
Ocean blue and earthy red,
Buttons in my hands
Slipping through my fingers
Making imaginary music,