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45. Sorting the button tin
The job that wasn't really a job. And: the start of a project.
There are so many things that are precious: the memories, experiences and things from my early life are all things that I value.
A recent post by Sabrina Simpson made me feel nostalgic towards the things that have been important to me throughout my life: Mum’s button tin, my collection of shells, my favourite childhood books, the recipes for my favourite goodies to eat, the clothes I’d loved to wear the most. Hundreds of things.
So many are things that I don’t have any more. I haven’t looked after them: the ones that haven’t been put aside are lost or broken. Yesterday’s treasures have become today’s rubbish collection. Reader, I only have memories.
Thinking about lost treasures makes my chest ache and my cheeks damp. But even when things are gone, their imprint remains. They’re still here, in their way.
More than ten years ago I’d met up with Mum and a friend for a cuppa, and I started talking about my favourite job to do when I was a child.
Mum had a stash of buttons – an old Quality Street tin of them in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Sometimes I'd be asked to 'sort the button tin', and I'd be issued with the big brass tray that lived in the corner of the kitchen, the button tin and the furthest corner of the kitchen table. I'd carefully take out all the buttons and sort them into groups: brightly-coloured buttons from 70s and 80s dressmaking projects, white shirt buttons, cream shirt buttons, Dad's brass uniform buttons, those big leather buttons that had been snipped off a holey Arran cardigan, the toggles from a moth-eaten duffle coat – all sorts of buttons in a squillion shapes, sizes, materials and colours. The job would take me ages, and I loved it.
‘When I'd finished’, I said to my friend, ‘I'd love showing Mum the tray of beautifully-sorted buttons.’ My friend smiled.
Mum asked: ‘Can you remember what you would do with them afterwards?’
‘Well, I’d put them all back!’
I’d been confused by the question. Mum knew what I would do with them. What had she meant? She was still looking at me. I frowned. She grinned the widest grin.
Reader, the penny dropped.
Not only had I repeatedly fallen for a ‘let’s keep Rebecca quiet’ trick as a child, but it had taken me until I was thirty-five to realise that sorting the button tin hadn’t ever even been a real job.
But what is a ‘real’ job, anyway? Had the end goal of this one ever been to have a trayful of sorted-out buttons? Was the button-sorting job important?
Well, no, at least not for the buttons.
But what was important had been that I was occupied, entertained, having fun. I’d be in a world of my own quietly sorting those beautiful buttons, and once I’d finished I’d feel a huge sense of accomplishment, happy with the resulting rows and columns of those lovely treasures.
Just as important had been for Mum to have been able to be getting on with other stuff in the background, knowing that I was
quiet, safe and happy that I was helping by taking on the job of sorting her buttons.
I didn’t ever think about the end game. What would be next for these buttons once I’d sorted them? I didn’t know. My job was simply to sort them.
Buttons sorted ✓
Tray of sorted buttons admired ✓
Job done ✓
Mission accomplished ✓
Thinking about creating art is something I hadn’t done for a while, but inspired by my regular collaborator Terry Freedman, who has such a knack for capturing a scenario in just a few strokes of his pen, a couple of weeks ago I dug out my art journals.
I had really enjoyed the weekly projects in an online mixed media course I’d participated in, and having a look at some of the results in my last letter to Terry I remembered how much I had enjoyed the process of making mixed media art.
Reader, I’m enjoying dabbling in art again, and this is the first post in what I hope will become a regular series exploring past treasures.
A recent post by Jessica Maybury, ‘Making art in books you already own’, all about making an altered book, whetted my appetite for using a book book instead of a sketchbook for mixed media art projects. I remembered this slim hardback volume that I’d bought from a second-hand bookshop years ago:
It’s not precious: its pages are yellowing and foxed, and some had already been scribbled in, which is something I’d taken on board when I filled the first spread with my scribbly buttons. The book’s not-too-daunting size, its robust binding and small number of pages all make it a good base for this project to depict some of the things I’ve loved.
I’m honouring those things with art. I hope that in time my altered book – a homage to precious things and even more precious memories – will become something for me to treasure in its own right.
Just like the button tin.
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Were there any jobs that you’d be given to keep you occupied as a child, and that you really loved? Or didn’t? Do tell me in the comments!
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My next ‘Dear Reader, I’m lost’ post will of course appear as usual next Saturday.