Nooks and Crannies

If buttons could talk: The stories in the Folger’s can


“See if you can find five more of these.” Mom pressed a light brown button into my small palm, then resumed her stitching. The plastic circle was indented in the center and had four holes. A smooth ridge framed the edge.

Sitting on the floor at the foot of my mother’s easy chair, knees bent and ankles crossed, I leaned over the old Folger’s Coffee can in front of me, the button can. I was very familiar with the can. An image of a huge sailing ship gleamed on the front. Usually I added buttons to the collection, cutting them off old pajamas, dresses and shirts. My sisters and I often helped remove buttons, zippers and metal clasps from worn-out clothing. The threadbare parts went into the rag drawer, but Mom saved any usable fabric to sew into strips and weave into rag rugs. Nothing was wasted on our farm when I was growing up.

The two-pound can was nearly full, so I pushed my small fingers into the colorful mix and stirred them around. It wasn’t long until I found one perfect match. All at once something shiny caught my eye, and I grasped a pink flower shape with a sparkling center. “Is this a diamond?” my five-year-old imagination questioned.

Mom chuckled as she glanced over. “No, that came from one of Deloris’s dresses when she was little. Darlene and Dorothy wore the dress, too.

I spotted a shiny brass button. There was no hole in it, but a metal wire circle protruded from the back. Before I could ask, Mom spoke. “I sewed those on Don and Delmer’s overall straps. The straps held up, but I patched the knees a lot.”

I wasn’t having any luck finding more shirt buttons, so I grabbed Dad’s newspaper, spread it out and tipped the can, allowing the buttons to flow in a smooth cascade. The rainbow of colors blended into a soft blur, and the mass fell into a mound as each small shape glided down, then nestled in next to its neighbor. The button waterfall made a soft, pleasant sound. It was almost like a whisper.

On the very top of the mound, I spotted a heart-shape that was covered in lace. I ran my fingers over the yellowed mesh and looked up at my mother. She frowned slightly. “Hmm, that is an old one.”

“Was it from your wedding dress?” I asked.

She smiled wistfully. “Wedding dresses were not always white and lacy back then. There was no money for that.” She must have sensed my disappointment, so she added, “No sense spending money on something we would only wear once.” Mom stitched away in silence while I kept sifting. I looked up to see her blue eyes shining as she spoke again. “Ida’s wedding dress was beautiful. It was light blue. Taffeta.” I liked thinking of my Aunt Ida in her shiny blue wedding dress.

Suddenly, the lamplight reflected off something golden that also appeared magically at the top of the mound. It was green glass with gold specks painted on one side. I held it up for Mother to see. She thought for a moment. “I think that was on a bonnet that Julia wore when she was a little girl.”

“Why would we have buttons from Aunt Julia’s things in our button can?” I asked.

Mom explained that when she got married and started a family of her own, her mother gathered a bunch of buttons for Mom to take home. When she needed to replace a button that had been lost from a shirt or dress, she could usually find one. I wondered if Grandma had also gotten buttons from her mother long, long ago.

Memories flowed from the nooks and crannies of my mother’s mind, and while I searched for brown shirt buttons, I learned about my grandmother. She was born in a sod shanty to Swedish immigrants, some of the first settlers in the area. Other babies came, but as was common in those days, some died shortly after birth. There were no hospitals and few doctors close by. Life was hard, a matter of basic survival for settlers on the South Dakota prairie.

My imagination whirled as I scanned the buttons. There were tiny battered circles, faded with age. Had my great-grandmother lovingly sewn these on a soft garment for a child that she held for only hours before the precious little life faded away? Did a small boy sport the rough metal fasteners on his overall straps before he grew up and went to war? Did my grandmother undo the tiny mother-of-pearl circles on the back of her doll’s dress as she dreamed of growing up and being a mommy?

A familiar brown shape appeared and imaginings switched to reality. Soon six brown buttons lined the arm on Mom’s chair. I scooped the remaining buttons back into the can and returned it to the cupboard.

Today, some sixty years later, I gaze down into the can in front of me, my button can that began back when I got married, and Mom sent a batch of buttons home with me. The colors and shapes of plastic, glass and metal beckon, and I swirl my fingers through them as I remember. I scoop a bunch into my hand, lift them and then let them cascade slowly back into the can. They shimmer and sidle back into place. As they dance gently and nestle in, I hear a soft, pleasant sound---almost like a whisper.

DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, SD, the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow.  She attended school at Erwin and De Smet. Married Vicar Robert Kruempel and lived in Benedict, ND, Toeterville, Akron, and Missouri Valley, IA. The author now resides on an acreage near Logan, IA and is employed as Children's Librarian at Missouri Valley Public Library. DeAnn has written a series of five books, "Promises to Keep," which are available at


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