Remembering my mum…

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A Jar of Buttons

This is from a core sample
from the floor of the Sea of Mending,
a cylinder packed with shells
that over many years
sank through fathoms of shirts—
pearl buttons, blue buttons—
and settled together
beneath waves of perseverance,
an ocean upon which
generations of women set forth,
under the sails of gingham curtains,
and, seated side by side
on decks sometimes salted by tears,
made small but important repairs.

[Ted Kooser, Poet Laureate]

Remembering my mum,
and growing up on the floor of The Sea of Mending*

Mum fell in love with the boy next door and he absolutely adored her.  She was learning the arts of dressmaking and tailoring from her mum.  He studied cookery and became an accomplished pâtissier.  Chosen to do some work for the Queen Mum, he earned a Royal Warrant for his shop.  Life was rosy and their future possibilities endless.  And then…

Arguably the most horrible man ever to draw breath ran roughshod over Europe.  Dad joined the navy and Mum was taken out of school to work for Fairey Aviation.  Nothing would ever be the same for these two.

After emigrating to Canada, Mum and Dad existed squarely in the lower middle class, as did everyone in the community of Wexford where we lived.  Our home was modest, the rooms within it were tiny and the furniture, so carefully chosen to fit, was also small.  Everything, that is, except the dining room table which dwarfed that room.  Our dining room, so seldom used for its intended purpose, was Mum’s sewing room – the place where her magic happened.

So many memories of Mum are sewing-related.  Out of both necessity and passion, Mum spent hours and hours in front of her sewing machine making  clothes, bedspreads, pillow shams, lace curtains, gingham curtains, damask draperies, wedding dresses, Christening gowns, thousands upon thousands of items for the bazaar at our church and countless clothing alterations for neighbours, friends and family.  In reality, though, many of those hours were spent darning and mending our clothes, socks, hats, scarves and mittens; working her needle artistry with tiny, invisible stitches that rendered her repairs imperceptible.

This is from a core sample
From the floor of the Sea of Mending*

The Sea of Mending*; such a lovely and expressive phrase and the perfect portrayal of my mum’s world during times when darning and mending were not merely a choice but a necessity. It never occurred to her to discard clothing that was torn or damaged in any way. Her old coats, carefully cleaned and deconstructed, became new coats for me; re-sized, redesigned and remade with all the best pieces of the fabric. Nothing was wasted; fabric remnants were fashioned into hats, linings reused, chamois cut to smaller sizes for wind-proofing, buttons sized for an adult garment removed and saved for a time when they would be needed, smaller buttons, sourced from the tin attached to my new coat. The same process was applied to dresses and skirts; abandoned garments became my much-admired school, party and Sunday-best attire. A circle of life for the fabrics and buttons of our lives, made possible by my mum’s needle artistry and superb skill.

At the corner of Main and Danforth, where we waited for the bus to take us home after visiting Nana, there was a Salvation Army Thrift Store. One evening (long before I came along) and knowing how badly it was needed, Dad treated Mum to a very old oak table that came with six leaves. It cost $1.50, so Mum would tell, which was a lot of money at that time and every penny of their savings. Uncle Jimmy (the only one in our family to have a car) was summoned to collect the new treasure and drive it home for us. It was their new prized possession and was situated atop an old-fashioned woollen braided rug. The oak table became Mum’s worktop and her most valuable tool; to cut out clothes, piece draperies, mend clothes – the lot – and beneath the table, with waves of fabric dangling over the edges, existed a cave-like hideaway. My childhood idyll to play, read, nap (never intentionally) and – most often – explore the button tin. A world of unlimited possibilities for a child with a vivid imagination, that floor of the Sea of Mending*.

Whereas most folk store buttons in jars, Mum kept hers in a royal blue, Peek Freans’ cookie tin emblazoned with photos of the queen’s palaces. Mum saved all buttons, even the tiny, white, “four-holers” from Dad’s Arrow dress shirts (and believe-you-me, when I inherited the tin there were hundreds of those!). There were ordinary buttons and there were fancy buttons, leather, ivory and even handmade buttons – some of which were crafted by my granddad.

a cylinder packed with shells
that over many years
sank through the fathoms of shirts –
pearl buttons, blue buttons –
and settled together
beneath waves of perseverance,*

As a wee girlie, I loved that button tin, could and did spend hours at a time sorting and admiring those buttons, always arranging them by colour, then packing away those I did not like (the blacks, browns, greys and whites).  I’d always set aside those that were especially ornate or sparkly to make into earrings (a thread trick I learned from my Nana during dress-up time).  There were buttons in the shapes of roses, perfect for centrepieces on my dollhouse dining table and mauve buttons that resembled berries, perfect to serve the dolls for their dinner.

Some of my favourites (then and now) were the pearls, the daisies, a set (sewn by Nana to a piece of cardboard for safekeeping) that were genuine!!! (emphasis on genuine, please) mother-of-pearl, a couple of very large, multi-faceted jet buttons from a once-posh winter coat, and – best of all – brass military buttons, all that were left from Dad’s dress blues.  

Each button had to have a story; I’d conjure tales of ballerinas, mysterious knights, princesses, dad’s battles at sea (which he always won and in which no one ever died), of fairies and always of a young, blonde, scabby-kneed Scarborough girl swept up by a handsome prince and taken to live in one of the castles on the tin.  Fabulous fantasies spun on the floor of the Sea of Mending*.

Fifty-plus years later, I still have that tin and all its treasures and have added to it (considerably, Cam would stress).  My own special buttons are stored in glass jars for easy admiring.  Whenever I look at those relics from my past I’m assailed by the bittersweet memories of my Mum and all those hours of hard work.

an ocean upon which
generations of women set forth
under the sails of gingham curtains,
and, seated side by side
on decks sometimes salted by tears,
made small but important repairs.*

That is my sewing heritage; a cache of skills, perseverance, dedication and hard work stitched together with the most tender love a daughter could ever imagine, all on the floor of the Sea of Mending*.

Happy Mothers’ Day!

‘Til next time, y’all…
Mr. Theodore J. Kooser is a renown American poet and Poet Laureate. Mr. Kooser has published fourteen books of poetry, plus works of non-fiction and children’s books and is the recipient of countless awards for his superb writing; most significantly, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He is a kind and thoughtful gentleman who himself gave me permission to use his poem A Jar of Buttons in this post. I am very grateful indeed.

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