I have featured this little box on my blog before, in the Art category. It did not begin its existence as a piece of art, but to me, it has always been a source of creative energy, of daydreams, of memories. This began when I first opened its mysterious little drawers, as it sat on the mantle in my Grandmother’s tenement home, in Queens, New York. I believe I was at least 4 years old when I first explored its treasured contents.
To my very young self, the button box seemed bigger and more mysterious than it did when I inherited it over 30 years later. I recall a myriad of colorful buttons, clips and pins, which I would pull out and count or organize by color and size, for what seemed like hours…or at least until Nagymama (the Hungarian term used for Grandma) came and laughingly admonished me for pulling them all out. She would help me put them all back, and then make me go take a nap in an upstairs guest room, in the middle of the afternoon (which I never did at home). I would listen to the jet planes fly over from La Guardia airport, and daydream, or look at all the old cloth and leather-bound books in the night stand. Everything seemed so much bigger, more fascinating, and perplexing back then.
Over several summers, in the early years of my childhood living in upstate New York, I would visit my Nagymama and Nagypapa in the big city. During those visits, I always marveled at the Eastern European vases, the coo-coo clock, and the button box, which was by far my favorite item. As I got older, I would ask Nagymama questions about the buttons inside: Where did they come from? What kind of blouse or coat held this one? Could I keep one? She would always say “Someday, you might need one. Let’s leave them here for now.”
Flash-forward 30 years: I am a grown woman, living in Tucson, Arizona. I have lived here since age 10. I had not seen my Nagymama since my mother passed away, in 1994, in California, where my parents had moved when my brothers and I had grown up and moved out on our own. This was only the third time I had seen her since leaving New York, and it would sadly be the last. My mother’s death saddened her deeply, even as she continued to care for my Nagypapa, who was a victim of a stroke suffered many years before, not long after I was born. I would call her from time to time, send her letters and cards. She would talk about how all her friends were gone, and now her daughter was too. I had always planned to go back…and when my daughter was born in 1999, I made plans to fly to New York for a visit. But this never happened.
My Nagypapa had apparently suffered a fall, and passed away the summer I planned to come visit. Nagymama did not encourage me to come at that time. She seemed okay, but very distracted…she was, for the first time in her adult life, completely on her own. By now, she was in her 80’s. She’d always cared for my grandfather, and wasn’t sure what to do with herself. Again, I suggested coming out with my new baby. Nagymama couldn’t seem to wrap her head around the fact that her grand-daughter was now a mother. I decided to give her some time to work through her grief.
I wish now that I had just gone there and surprised her. She apparently fell ill not too long after my Nagypapa passed away, and I was never clear on what exactly had made her ill. My Dad and cousin were my only contacts on her condition, and all I knew for certain was that her brain was effected. She succumbed to this illness early in 2000. When my cousin contacted me, as executor of my grandmother’s estate, she asked if there was anything special that she could send to me, that had belonged to Nagymama. The first and only thing I could think of was the button box.
After the smoke cleared with the estate, some of my grandmother’s belongings were sent out to various members of the family. The day I received the button box, I recall opening the box it was mailed in, and marveling at how much smaller it seemed. I had also received a little ring box with an onyx ring, and a slim watch she had worn years ago (no longer working). But the button-box was my true and best link to her. Memories, happy and sad, came flooding back. It was the first time her death had truly hit home, and I cried…I cried over each and every button, in each tiny drawer.
Over the years since, the button box became a memory box. A bracelet made by my Mom while she’d been ill went in; then coins from other countries I’d been to; a little carved turtle that my little daughter liked, but was too young to play with (I was afraid she’d swallow it); buttons, patches and pins that I’d collected. Whatever would fit.
Whenever I was lonely, or sad, or feeling nostalgic…I would revisit that box. It sat in a place of honor in my bedroom, in three different homes over the years. A couple of years ago, I was taking an online art course, doing an assignment that called for an art project based on a real-life object that, with a little manipulation, could be re-invented as art. The button box in my bedroom immediately came to mind.
With very little effort, I re-invented and re-created the button box, using the small treasures I’d collected both inside and outside of the box. I pulled out the buttons, reorganized them by color, texture, and size. I placed other items on top of some of the smaller buttons, which became a background for them. Each little drawer became a frame; each one contained a story of a life, which had intersected with others’ lives, in other places, and then back again.
I’d like to think that my Nagymama would like this version of the button box. To know how I still cherish it, as I had cherished her in my life. I think she’d understand what it represents, and she would not admonish me to put it away, or to stop looking at it.
She would probably say: “See? I knew you would need it someday. I knew it would become much more than a button box.” She would know that this little box is loved and appreciated on so many levels, and she would smile and say “Dear heart…I love you, too.”
Isten Veled, Nagymama.