redux: buttons and a father’s voice

6 years ago I was thinking about parents, their legacy, our own. And today? It doesn’t go away…


“We use our parents like recurring dreams, to be entered into when needed; they are always there for love or for hate.” This was something Doris Lessing wrote and I think about it quite often. My parents are dead; John’s too. Yet they are present in our lives in so many ways. The dishes we eat from came from them. Our silver. I see my father’s shoulders in my own. My mother’s hair is, or was, mine. There’s a lot we don’t share but I always wonder where certain things came from, which rich strand of genetic material twisted and frayed and tangled itself with another to produce my brothers and myself — so different and yet from the same source. My three children — I ask myself the same questions about the how, the where, the why of them. I can’t imagine a world without them and yet sometimes I wonder where they came from, in what mysterious marriage of cells.

I hear my parents too. For the past few days I’ve been sewing buttons onto my salmon quilt. I have five sizes of akoya shell buttons. I think that they are made from the shell of the bivalve mollusc Pinctada imbricata, a host for cultured pearls, and it occurs in Japan, Korea, and China, as well as the Indo-Pacific area, the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea, area around South Africa, and the Caribbean. The buttons are lustrous and irregularly shaped, a pleasure to run one’s thumb across. I’ve been sewing them down among batiked rocks. I have in mind stones, salmon eggs, fish scales, and bubbles. And this is wishful thinking of course because the final effect is, well, a bit clumsy. But I love the process, the thinking that happens when I’m sewing.

P1090478Anyway, I heard my father’s voice, asking, “You’re doing what? You’re sewing buttons on a quilt? Why would you waste good buttons?” And I had to ask myself why I’d do that. Because my father, as John observed, had a good bullshit detector. (His father did too, although sometimes I think it was faulty. “Can you make head or tail of this?” he once asked another family member as he turned the pages of one of John’s books. It was the book, if I’m remembering correctly, which won the Governor General’s Award for poetry. So therein lies a paradox.)

So we talked about this, how our parents make themselves and their opinions known to us fairly regularly. Which is them, in us. Them, as us? This is a mystery I’d like to untangle, unravel as I’ve had to unravel thread today, twisting it from under buttons where I’d made a mistake and looped it through the wrong way. My father’s voice asking why I’d waste these buttons which he would never have seen as anything but buttons, useful for keeping a shirt closed, a sleeve in place.


4 thoughts on “redux: buttons and a father’s voice”

  1. Ah yes, parents. Mine are gone over 30 years and, paradoxically, are with me more and more as I get older. I wish I could have been a better daughter, but I loved them and they knew I loved them. I wish we could have had more time together. They were wonderful people.

    1. Mine are with me every day, Susan, for better and for worse. But mostly I’m glad to have them in my mind. In my hands, my heart. I think I share my mother’s optimism and my father’s curiosity. I see them in my children and my grandchildren.

  2. For us as writers, as you say, Theresa, the people who came before us are a world of story. They leave clues and hints, they leave letters and memorabilia, and tablecloths and candlesticks and photographs and yes, voices that we hear still. My dad is also dead more than 30 years, and I’ve just spent the past weeks writing about him yet again, reliving his death. Hauntings. Aren’t we lucky? Do you think our children will be as interested in finding out about us? I can speak for mine, and the answer is no.

  3. I think we are truly lucky, Beth, to have such a rich and complicated inheritance. Will my children be interested in finding out about me, us? I can’t say. But I always feel glad when my older son buys an old map of where my grandparents came from or finds a little bit of information about one of them. He’s interested in the past that I’m also interested in, and part of. As he is. Would I want them to read my old love letters? Hmmm. That’s another story.

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