and how I rediscovered it 50 years later–the double-edged sword of legacy

My chubby little hands twisted the tight lid left to right and right to left, trying to pry the metal loose. Suddenly the two pieces separated, sending forth a hint of peppermint and a cascade of buttons clattering onto the asbestos-tiled floor in my cozy bedroom. I deftly scooped the buttons back into the bottom part of the tin and bent my face to inhale the delicious aroma. 

The candies, the original inhabitants of this pretty little tin long forgotten; this was now my own button collection started with the help of my seamstress mother. She had given me the tin and a few buttons when I was very small, to keep me occupied while she created beautiful garments for each of us. Watching the needle of her Singer sewing machine fly up and down as it ate yard after yard of beautiful fabric kept me mesmerized for a while, but eventually, I would turn to the pretty container and its intriguing contents.

the story of my button box

I remember the day Mom started my button box. Smaller than hers, it was just the right size for my tiny 5-year-old hands. “You can save all the extra buttons,” she encouraged, dropping the leftovers from her current project into the tin she had just bestowed upon me.

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“You never know when you will need a button. Every good seamstress has a button box. And each button has a story.”

Everything had a story to my mom. I never tired of hearing her stories prompted by a particular button, piece of fabric, song, or any random trigger. She was a wonderful storyteller.

“Look at this button.” I had to lean closer to see the pretty brass-colored fastener. On the front was a tiny maple leaf and on the back a metal loop for attaching the button to a garment.

“I recognize that one,” I told her, realizing it was a perfect match for the buttons on the woolen winter coat she had made me.

“Yes, you do,” she smiled, “but you don’t know the story about how hard they were to find.” I gave her my full attention. “When I first started on your little red coat, I knew I wanted maple leaf buttons. I went to Woolworths to check all the buttons and they didn’t have anything suitable at all. I checked every store in this town that sells buttons and there were none to be found. I almost decided to give up, but, well, I’m pretty determined.” Here she smiled and repeated an oft-quoted mantra, “If I had been a boy they would have had to name me William. William means determined, you know.” I smiled, thinking about a mom named William. 

my kingdom for a button

And she continued, “I tried calling a few stores in Vancouver to see if they could ship us the perfect buttons, but I wasn’t having much luck there either. Then I was telling the ladies at my Bridge Club how hard it was to find maple leaf buttons, and Linda suggested I go to the second-hand stores. Well, sure enough, after searching through all the used clothing sections in town I stumbled upon a fancy navy, dress jacket with,…. Guess what on it?”

I clapped my hands together in delight, “My buttons!”

“Yes, your buttons. And this is the only extra one, so save it in your button box in case you ever need it.” It made a pleasant little plinking sound as she dropped it into the little tin.

Every time I got a new button for my collection there was a story. Where it came from. Whether it was used or new. And what project it had been intended for; whether it was used for that or not was another story. Mom carefully removed buttons from clothing that was being disposed of and saved all the extras from her work.

I loved sitting on the floor of my room and looking at each individual button, remembering its history and admiring the uniqueness of it. There was a large round cloth button. It was slightly padded on top and covered tightly with a heavy navy cloth. There was my little maple leaf button. There were quite a few clear plastic buttons in various sizes, usually with 4 holes in them, for my dad’s work shirts. After dumping them all onto the floor, I would examine each one as I reverently returned them to their home.

becoming a seamstress

When I became a seamstress myself, I found my mother was right. Though I didn’t often sit and admire each and every button anymore, they were a wonderful source of embellishments for the various garments and crafts. Sometimes I would add a button to a blanket just because I liked how it looked with the particular fabric. I did eventually learn that buttons on blankets were not the most comfortable.

How to sew a button on properly was one of my early lessons. I discovered that threading the needle and tying the two ends together so that the thread was doubled over made the job quicker and the button more secure. It was quite a few years before I learned how to make buttonholes. Until I was at least 13 or 14, if a piece was important to me, I would beg Mom to make the buttonholes. And zip zip zoom, she would whiz out professional-looking buttonholes like nobody’s business. Eventually, she refused and I had to learn to do it myself, but I was never as good or as quick at it as she was.

the legacy of thriftiness

Raised by parents reared during the Depression and starting her family in the Dirty 30s in rural Canada, my mum, like her parents, was frugal, generous, resourceful, and a great bargain hunter. Born during World War II, her childhood was pretty lean, and she was determined to give her children more than what she had as a child.

Laughing and shaking her head affectionately, she shared this story often, “Did I ever tell you about the time my parents were in the Woolworth’s and shoes were on a crazy good deal? Well, they had 4 growing daughters and there was no way they were likely to find a deal like this again, so do you know what they did? They bought all those shoes! There are probably still some in Grandpa’s basement somewhere. We had to wear the same shoes for years. And they all looked alike, so we never knew whose were whose.” She laughed. Her stories were memorable. I continue to share them with my children in spite of the fact that I often question their accuracy. As we got older, the story of my grandparents and the shoes sat in my mind as a prime example of good stewardship.

“If you take care of your pennies, your dollars will take care of themselves.” – my grandpa 

For years, I watched and learned as my mother honed her own amazing skills at capturing a good deal. She fed us, clothed us, took us on trips, provided toys and games and books and all the things she felt were lacking in her own childhood. Slowly, our home began to fill with many useful things for our current use or for a rainy day. She also snagged items for friends or neighbors if she spotted something she thought they needed. 

seeing possibilities

One day in my late teens, Mom spotted a “Going Out of Business” sign in a sewing store. Though she didn’t have much time for sewing anymore, she still had a great affinity for the craft. She missed it. Coming home from that sale, her eyes were shining. “Just look at what I got for you.” She was almost giddy carrying in stacks of fabric in a variety of patterns, including an entire bolt of denim so I could “learn to make my own jeans.” (I never did make jeans, though I used some to make some very “homeschooled” style jean skirts.)

But the biggest prize of all was the buttons. It looked like she had cleaned them out, similar to the story of her parents and the shoes. The buttons came on cards 2 or more per card and the store had graciously given her these little gold-colored cardboard boxes to keep them in. There were bow-shaped buttons, character buttons, heart buttons, and buttons in every color you could imagine. I shared in her excitement.

Getting my button box out, I began cutting buttons off the cards and putting them into the special tin. It quickly overflowed and I was forced to seek another larger container. I watched the jar fill to the brim as well. After that, I left the rest of the new buttons in their golden boxes and stashed all the buttons in a box in the sewing area. The part of our family room set aside for sewing was overflowing with fabric. I didn’t mind the crowding because this sure would save us a ton of money and time. Instead of going to a store when we wanted to make something, all we had to do was rifle through our own fabric stash!


had the magic gone? carrying on the legacy

When I moved out and started my own family, my mom graciously gifted me with several giant bins of fabric, and all the buttons. Though I was grateful and did make good use of some of it, somewhere along the way, the magic had escaped. I attempted to share the button box(es) with my kids but they never really showed any enthusiasm nor spent time pouring through these treasures like I had as a kid. I chalked it up to “kids these days! They just don’t see value in things like we did!”

Then one day when I was looking around my own way-too-full house, feeling trapped by the need to care for all this stuff, it struck me full force.

The magic of the button box was in the stories.

It was in the small amount of treasured and interesting buttons. It was touching each one and remembering and placing it into its small little peppermint tin. Trying to make a magical thing better by exponentially increasing it simply diluted the magic until there were no stories, no memories, and no more magic. There wasn’t even room to contain the abundance.

the double-edged sword of my legacy

My mother was thrifty, resourceful, and a great bargain hunter, and I soaked up all these amazing traits from her years of tutelage and admirable example. Unfortunately, in her zeal, she never learned what enough looked like. Sadly she filled her home until it was not even easy to live in or care for.

I am forever grateful to my mom for helping me learn how to be incredibly frugal and how to stretch our smaller income to do amazing things. I have also spent my adult life so far fighting the demon of too much. It was not until my fifth decade that I fully realized what happened to the magic of the button box and what I needed to do to reignite that spark.


take the thriftiness, leave the hoarding

This painful journey has begun and though we have a ways to go, seeing bags and boxes of superfluous items leaving our home weekly brings me great joy and I am beginning to catch glimmers of the magic finding their way into the spaces vacated by our excess.

By eliminating our extra and unnecessary stuff, we have less to take care of and more time to enjoy each other, nature, activities, hobbies, and the items that we choose to keep. And I am hoping to pass along to my children the legacy of my mom’s and her parent’s resourcefulness, generosity, and thriftiness combined with the skill to know what is too much.

I’m also freeing up more time for storytelling and that’s a gift all of my kids already treasure. Thank you for joining me on this tale. To read more of my stories you may visit my author profile



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