Priceless treasures in mom’s button box

Published 12:41 am Saturday, March 4, 2017

I saw the dusty box spotted with rust in a plastic bag my cousin was holding up. “Junk man’s pile?” she asked. It was count-down day, in the final hours before my mother turned the key of her house over the new owners. She had found it hard to part with just about everything, but by then she had reached the point of abandonment and said, “Take what you want, throw what you don’t in that garbage bag, or pitch it in the junk man’s pile.” (He was sitting in his battered old truck, waiting to haul off whatever she chose to give him.)

My cousin was dangling the plastic bag in her hand, just about to drop it for the junk man when I yelled, “No, I want that!” At the same time, Mother’s neighbor was dragging my granddaddy’s trunk filled with some of his old coal mining tools across the hardwood floor. I felt a bit sentimental about the trunk, but I turned my attention to the rusty box. The top had slipped off and I saw a few buttons and “Popeye the Sailor Man’s” little orange wooden foot in the bottom of the bag. I realized it was my mother’s button box. It looked like trash to my cousin. I thought it might hold a treasure or two.

Days later, I spread a newspaper on the carpet and dumped out the contents of the button box. Almost immediately, Mother spotted a card with two tiny buttons attached. She recognized the “baby pearl” buttons that matched several she had used on a batiste baby dress she made for me.

We had fun looking at all the buttons—round ones, square ones, some with ridges, some shaped like chocolate kisses, some that looked like flowers, others with shapes of fruit on top, clear buttons and cloth-covered buttons. What a variety.

I found two identical classy-looking black buttons as large as half dollars. They had a LaMode cardboard label on the back. Three identical round, light green buttons had cracks on the surface. They were indented the size of a thumb print. Two of the most unusual had enclosed circles. One had a flat star in the middle. The other resembled a raised daisy petal in a twisted rope.

As I pushed buttons around, some more wooden “Popeye the Sailor Man” pieces surfaced. There was an arm with an anchor tattoo, a blue trouser leg, and a red and a blue part. Search for the rest of the Popeye toy was fruitless.

When I moved some more buttons, a beautiful blue marble rolled out. The color reflected on my palm when I cupped it in my hand. A half-dollar sized coin imprinted with “Peerless Cahaba Coal Co.” caught my attention. A red five-mill Alabama sales tax token showed up beside it.

I emerged from my button box exploration with dirty hands, but a happy heart. Trash or Treasure? I guess it is a matter of opinion. I’d choose treasure.


Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper business. Her column appears on Saturdays.