This story was published many moons ago in a teacher’s resource magazine. A friends says it’s one of her favorites of my writing. So, Nancy K. thank you for the reminder that I’d even written this! Enjoy.
Saturday is button day. I call it that because every Saturday I visit my Grandma and Poppy. When I get there the table is always set for tea; there are two round metal cookie boxes next to my plate. One has cookies in it. The other holds Grandma’s buttons.
Poppy loves guessing games and each Saturday he has me guess which tin holds the buttons and which holds the cookies. If I guess the tin with the cookieswe have tea first. If I guess the other way, I play with all the wonderful buttons.
Today it’s buttons first. I take the lid off the box and dig in ‘til I’m up to my wrists in buttons. I run them through my fingers the way I do with sand at the beach. Then I spill them onto the table.
Sometimes I sort the buttons into piles of blue, gold, silver and red. Other days I make long lines, like armies of ants — the big black coat buttons first, then medium grey ones, then white shirt buttons small as my fingernails.
Then, I pick out three buttons and while we have tea, Grandma tells me stories about the people who had the buttons on their clothes. When the tea kettle whistles I make my choices. I scoop the rest of the buttons into one big pile and then slide them over the edge of the table, rattle-crackle-shush-shush, back into the tin.
“Grandma,” I say, “your buttons are so beautiful.”
“Lily,” she replies, “You are my most beautiful button. So who do we hear about today?” Grandma reaches out her hand.
One at a time I give her the buttons — a shiny round one black as Poppy’s moustache; a small white square stamped with a teddy bear in the middle; and a tiny pearl, shaped like a teardrop.
“Ah,” she says as she looks them over. Smiling at Poppy she takes up the teardrop. “This was one of 36 buttons that fastened the back of my wedding dress. Your great-grandmother Molly, my mother, sewed every stitch of the dress by hand.”
My grandmother is very tall and I can just picture those 36 buttons falling down the back of her wedding dress in a pearly trickle. Poppy’s moustache twitches as he smiles back at her.
“This button,” she says, cupping the shiny black disk in her palm, “went on the suit I made for your mother to wear the day she graduated college. She was the first in the family to earn a diploma, you know.”
Laughing, Grandma takes the last button. “I made your uncles matching red flannel pajamas and used these buttons on the tops.” I laugh with Grandma trying to imagine my great big uncles in such silly pajamas.
Grandma drops a sugar cube into my tea and, as I put the three buttons back in the box, I see my favorite one of all. The button is big as a vanilla wafer and on it is a peacock, his tail feathers spread wide in an arc. The feathers are outlined in gold and inside the gold each feather is painted shades of blue and green.
The button went on a suit that was part of a trousseau. Grandma told me that’s a special word for the fancy clothes a bride wears on her honeymoon. But the night before the wedding the bride ran away with the groom’s best friend and no one ever heard from them again. I can’t imagine anyone running away and leaving behind a suit with such beautiful buttons.
One Saturday after tea Grandma says, “Lily, let’s pick out some buttons and make you something special to wear.” I open the tin and poke through until I find the peacock.
“This one,” I say to Grandma.
“But this is the only one,” she says. “We can’t make anything with just one button.”
“Oh,” I say, putting the button back. Then I have an idea.
“What about a cape? The princesses in my fairy tale books wear capes and the pictures show them with just a button at the neck.”
Grandma thinks for a minute. “What a wonderful idea. A cape it is. Come after school on Monday and we’ll shop for fabric.”
School finally ends on Monday and I run the three blocks to Grandma’s and Poppy’s. Her coat is already on. We walk up the street to Mr. Benno’s fabric store. Mr. Benno’s father used to own it. Great-grandma Molly would take her best customers there to pick out their fabrics. A little bell tinkles when we enter.
“What can I do for you today, Mrs. Fine?” Mr. Benno asks with a smile.
“We need a very special fabric,” she tells him. “I’d like to make my granddaughter a cape.”
“A cape?” he says. “Don’t see many of those nowadays.”
“I know,” she agrees. “That’s why it has to be extra special.”
Mr. Benno takes down bolts of fabric that are almost as big as he is. His muscles ripple like little mice scampering through his arms.
“How about this?” he asks holding out some navy cloth. “Good serviceable gabardine. It will wear like iron.”
My heart falls into my stomach. It’s awful. Grandma rubs it between her fingers and looks at me. Her eyes tell me that she thinks it’s awful, too.
“Maybe,” she says. “What else do you have?”
Mr. Benno sets the gabardine aside and pulls down a brown and yellow plaid. Grandma and I don’t even have to look at each other. “It won’t go with the peacock,” we say at the same time.
“Peacock?” I hear him say to Grandma as he reaches for something else.
I walk to the back of the store while Mr. Benno takes down more bolts. On a shelf next to the button counter is a cardboard box. I lift the dusty lid and see leftover fabrics folded inside.
I thumb through and at the very bottom there it is — bluish green velvet as soft as a feather. Taking it from the box I stroke it and watch the colors dance from dark to bright. It is the most beautiful fabric in the world. I hurry over to where Mr. Benno and Grandma are talking.
“What about this?” I am so excited I can hardly keep from jumping up and down. I’ve already unfolded it and have gathered it around me like a cape.
“Sonia,” Mr. Benno says softly. He has a funny faraway look in his eyes. “My first wife picked that for her trousseau. ” I knew what a trousseau was. Was Mr. Benno’s Sonia the peacock bride?
“Lily,” she says shaking her head ever so slightly, “come look at what Mr. Benno found for you.” Her face is pale as the muslin Mr. Benno sells for
“No,” he interrupts. “If that fabric would make Lily happy, that’s what she’ll have. My gift.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, Mr. Benno,” I say giving him my hardest hug. He hugs me back and then takes a handkerchief from his pocket and blows his nose real hard. Grandma is quiet as we walk back home.
“Well,” she says unlocking the apartment door. “We have work to do.” She measures me up and down and then lays the velvet over my shoulders.
“Who could remember so long ago?” she mumbles around the pins fanned between her lips. “I was young as you.”
“Thursday,” she says when all the pins are tucked into the folds of the velvet. “Come for it on Thursday.”
“Sam!” she calls to Poppy. “Would you please set up my machine?”
The cape is hanging in the hallway next to Grandma’s purse when I arrive after school on Thursday. I can’t believe my eyes. It is better than anything in my books. The peacock gleams like never before. I can almost see him wink his diamond eye at me.
“Thank you, thank you to pieces,” I tell Grandma.
She laughs. “Come let’s see how it fits.”
“Perfect, just perfect,” says Poppy when I swirl into the room.
“Let’s show Mr. Benno,” I shout.
“I don’t know Lily…” she says.
“Please?” I say and run for her purse.
The little bell tinkles as we enter.
“Just a minute,” Mr. Benno calls from the back. As he walks towards us I spin three turns in a row. I feel like a peacock myself spreading out my feathers.
“Well, well, well,” says Mr. Benno smiling at me. He blinks his eyes a time or two like there is dust in them. “What a beautiful button.”
I don’t know if he means me or the peacock but I say thank you just the same. If Mr. Benno’s Sonia was the peacock bride, I hope she’s sorry for leaving such a sweet man.
The bell rings again and two women walk in.
“Come Lily,” Grandma says. “Mr. Benno has customers.” She takes my hand to leave. But first she hugs Mr. Benno and whispers, “Sonia was a foolish girl.” He smiles at her, ruffles my hair, and we leave.
Poppy has already set the table for tea. There are cookies on our plates. Carefully I unbutton my beautiful new cape and hang it on the coat rack. Grandma was right. Sonia was a foolish girl. I wink back at the peacock and follow Grandma into the kitchen. The tea kettle has just begun to whistle.
I was nine or so when this photo was taken. The girl that was me looks into the camera a bit peevishly. I’d likely readied myself for bed and was reading before lights out. My mom had bathed and put my sisters to bed. Seeing me in my room as she left theirs, she probably went for her camera. She would have asked me to look up, wanting to capture the sweetness of of the moment and her bookish daughter’s face in the lamplight. The moment I saw this photo I remembered the nightgown. It was made of a cotton that was not too soft nor too starchy. For some reasons the apples were pale blue, not red.
What would this girl think if we were to meet? Would she want to play a game of Scrabble for old times’ sake? I’d gladly share my great new set of Crayolas with her. She’d want to trade me periwinkle for cerulean. I’d trade her magenta for red violet. She’d probably thank me for still liking licorice, dancing in the rain and jumping in leaf piles. She loved to do that when her father raked fallen oak leaves each fall. What would she think about having become an author?
She might well envy me that my hair is long enough to braid. Back then it was the pageboy or a pixie; she settled for the pageboy and wouldn’t get to grow her hair out for another few years. “Thank you for taking me to Paris,” she might say. “But I didn’t care much for the running of the bulls. The bullfights were gory and oddly mesmerizing.” Yep, she knew words like that back then. “I loved hiking in the red rocks and I love those red cowboy boots; you should wear them more often. Be sure I get to have some pretty dresses, OK?” Our mother bought her wonderful dresses. I wish I had pictures of some of them. Around this age Mom bought her two dresses for a wedding in Florida. One was a long-sleeved A-line in a white taffeta strewn with flowers, akin to a Gucci print. The other dress was cut like a smock, long sleeves gathered at the wrist and shoulders. It was made of moss-green sateen printed with rose and blush colored peonies. I bet she’d be surprised that I still have Godfrey, the little plush monkey our parents bought her when she was four. Maybe she’s glad she got frozen here in time, a book in hand with several years to go before her family fell apart.
I’m glad I found this photo. I keep it on my desk where I can look at her, smile and take in her expression of indulgence and patience. “I love you,” I tell her. Sometimes, in the quiet, if I wait long enough I hear her reply, “I love you, too.”