My mother used to collect different buttons, but only for utilitarian purposes. She’d keep them in a box in the buffet drawer which never got cleaned, because who knew what to do with red Christmas tree bulbs that blinked but weren’t supposed to blink, or S&H green stamps that used to be good for getting a toaster and weren’t good anymore? Though they could come back into vogue if we waited long enough. And there also was the LIVES OF THE SAINTS in that drawer and it was at the top because I took it out a lot and read the life story of St. Therese who died a horrible death of tuberculosis when she was 24 and said her mission in life was being ill. Anyway, when St. Therese died, roses came down from heaven and that counted as her first miracle. Then she only needed one more to become a saint. So they dug her up after she’d been dead awhile and lo and behold she hadn’t decayed. Her second miracle put her over the top and she became a saint.
My mother kept her buttons in that drawer in case any of ours ever fell off, and it was always a surprise to open the buffet drawer. Maybe I expected to see a new life form pop out, but there were only the stamps, the old books, St. Therese, and the button box that I shook with a comforting rattle. That box made me feel nurtured, that I could finally get my mother’s attention: “Mom, my button fell off!” Maybe then she’d rush over and in a whirl of thread she’d repair me, be so close I could smell the dish detergent on her hands and the shampoo on her finely curled hair. But as it turned out, when I said, “Mom, my button fell off!” she’d complain, “Oh, just put your blouse on the kitchen chair; I’ll fix it in a couple days; I don’t have time to drop everything for YOUR BUTTON!” And the crumpled white blouse would lie in waiting by the overflowing ironing basket until I asked her a week or so later for it. Then she’d grumble a little and grab that length of thread, her brown eyes completely focused on fitting the thin strand through the eye of the needle. After pulling it through, she’d put the two ends of the thread in her mouth to make that wet knot. I still liked watching her though, because she could sew and because she was my mother.
I had a roommate in my 20’s when I was teaching 5th grade–I was out of college and Nora was in law school. “I’m a complete failure,” she’d groan as she came in with her briefcase, her hair black with gray streaks, flyaway. She was prematurely gray for twenty-five and always depressed, said she’d never make it through law school. She’d drag herself in the door and go straight to the refrigerator and get out two raw cabbages. “I’m not contaminating myself with sugar,” she’d say, ripping pieces off one green cabbage and then another and stuffing leaf after leaf into her mouth until they were gone. But next she’d be rooting through the cupboard for the vanilla wafers and eat the whole box.
When I broke my ankle that January while skiing in Buffalo, I wanted Nora to be my mother and take care of me. But all she did was lumber into my room with her big body, my bedroom where I lay with my leg up and she said, “Do you want to see my buttons?” I actually did; it reminded me of my mother’s collection. Nora showed me the brown shiny ones, the smooth silver ones, and the bright buttons that looked like stars. Nora’s only streak of practicality was law school; in every other way, she was completely insane. We looked at her buttons and for a moment I felt we were in a castle together, shielded from the world, my big white cast from ankle to hip my trophy for suffering through days of 5th graders, Nora paying attention to only me. But then her boyfriend would come over and take her away and even though he gave me a book by Jean Paul Sartre, NO EXIT, it wasn’t what I needed, an existential book on nothingness when I already couldn’t walk. I was alone. No Mom, no Nora, and not even any buttons. Even if I could have at least read about St. Therese again, bleeding to death at age 24, it would’ve helped. Though my mission in life was NOT being ill.