All she had left to keep her company were the old buttons in the jar.The Button Jar.
July 30, 2013
A VG Serial: The Button Jar
They drove Bertha and a few belongings – some clothes, the button jar, a framed, black and white snapshot of the three children, ages two, four and six and sitting against the back bumper of the family’s Ford sedan – to the Ennis care center.
Inside, Bertha moved into a 20 x 15-foot room which she would share with Alice, widow, mother of an adult son who had not come to visit in her dozen years there, her roommate who never said much.
The room was divided by a curtain. Each half of the room had a half bed, a small desk with a mirror and a chair.
Bertha put her button jar on the right side of the desk, facing the mirror.
On the left side of the desk, she placed the framed, black and white snapshot of Beatrice, Bonnie and Bobby Two which her late husband had made on an Easter Sunday after church while they were sitting on the back bumper of the Ford sedan.
Beatrice was wearing the green dress Bertha had made for her that Easter. Bonnie was wearing her Easter dress of burgundy.
Bobby Two, of course, was dressed in his Easter finest – jeans and a blue shirt picked by him and ordered by Bertha and anxiously awaited from the Wish Book.
It was a black and white picture, of course, but no matter to Bertha; she vividly remembered the colors and the shapes, sizes and materials of the cloths and the buttons.
Plus, she had examples of each button in the button jar.
So this was Bertha’s new home – the “temporary” home which everybody knew was permanent but which no one talked about.
At least not out loud.
And most certainly not in Bertha’s presence.
The children have not been here for months, except for Bonnie who came up from Austin for an afternoon last summer.
Sarah, Bertha’s best friend from Mansfield, tries to visit on the first Sunday of each month, when her son Larry can drive her here.
Sarah’s lasting friendship goes back many years to the day Sarah’s husband died of an apparent heart attack and, in addition to her loss, Sarah found she had nothing suitable to wear to his funeral. Bertha stayed up most of the night making Sarah a black dress from a pattern that was almost but not quite Sarah’s size. To some extent, she guessed at Sarah’s measurements. She had gotten good at guessing.
Then, about sunup the next morning, Bertha took the black dress she made and some needle and black thread to Sarah’s house, had Sarah try on the dress three times and in between fittings Bertha sat on the couch in Sarah’s living room and made nips and tucks with the needle and black thread until she was satisfied with the looks of the dress on Sarah.
After the final fitting, Bertha pronounced the funeral dress finished and encouragingly said to Sarah:
“Claude will be smiling at you.
Sarah’s eyes welled with tears.
Bertha and Sarah hugged.
Then Bertha went home, napped for an hour, got dressed and went to the afternoon funeral.
Sarah could never thank Bertha enough for that act of kindness and compassion and promised that when she recovered from her grief she would bake Bertha and her children one of her cherished Dutch apple pies with the mountainous top rising above the five pounds of fruit inside. Sarah was famous in Mansfield for those pies.
One day, Sarah called and said she had the pie ready. She brought it down to Bertha’s house and the two women and the three children sat on the front porch and sipped iced tea and ate the whole apple pie.
Friendship, true friendship, is borne of such.
Hours before Larry was to drive her to visit Bertha at the care center, Sarah would put three Dr Peppers in the freezer. She would take the three semi-frozen Dr Peppers with her and during the drive the soft drinks would begin to melt into a refreshing, icy slush – just the way Bertha liked them.
At the care center, Bertha and Sarah and Larry would sit outside in the shade, make small talk for a couple of minutes, then Larry would open the Dr Peppers for Bertha and Sarah.
Then, as if on cue, Larry would excuse himself, say he thought he would walk down to the pond about 50 yards away, drink his Dr Pepper there and feed the ducks the partial loaf of light bread he always brought for them.
The real reason he would step away is that he wanted to give Bertha and Sarah time to visit and talk.
Visit and talk.
While slowly sipping their slushy Dr Peppers.
All too soon, Larry would be back and the slushy Dr Peppers would be completely consumed.
And it would be time to go.
Sarah and Larry would hug Bertha.
And before the goodbyes were spoken and the goodbye waves were waved, sadness would begin to creep in on Bertha.
Bertha would fight it, but to little avail.
Bertha well knew the emotion.
Loneliness was her most constant, debilitating visitor there at the care center.
So darkness would come and in a little while Bertha would be off the bed, to sleep the all-too-few hours before she bolted awake at 2 or 3 or 4 a.m. and would be overcome by a sudden rush of loneliness, even grief, which she could not shake and which would rob her of needed sleep.
And so, not wanting to disturb her room mate, Bertha – quiet as she could be – would move to the chair in front of the desk, turn on her small flashlight, look at length at the framed, black and white snapshot of her children when they were two and four and six years old in their Easter clothes sitting on the back bumper of the Ford sedan and try to smile while at once trying to squint out the blinding sun as their father made their picture with the folding Kodak.
Then Bertha would shine the flashlight on the button jar, remove the zinc lid, and – as she has done night after night for so very, very long and will do again and again and again for endless night upon endless night upon endless night – slowly and focused takes out button after button from the button jar.
Remembering in vivid detail the story of each.
As she does, she calls up a happier time, those times so near and yet so far, those salad days at 2022 Rose Street in Mansfield.
With each button from the button jar – illuminated by the sparse light of the small flashlight held by her now-frail, shaky hands there at the small desk in the wee hours at the care center – she summons up the wonder of what was.
Bringing it as best she can to now.
When she needs it most.
Whatever moment she can, bringing it as as close as she can to now.
Here to rescue her from the desperate grasp of loneliness, the chokehold of depression that have come to claim her.
Surely come to own her, never let her go.
The button jar lets Bertha try to counter that blackness, fight back against the dark.
Maybe to others it wouldn’t seem like much.
But Bertha knows better.
For Bertha it is then.
For Bertha it is now.
For Bertha it is everything.
Roger Summers is a journalist and essayist who spends time in Texas, New Mexico and England and in a world of curiosity and creativity. He can be reached at [email protected]
Chapters of the Roger Summers short story, The Button Jar, will be published on Tuesday.
Please click the book title, Heart Songs from a Washboard Road, to read more about the collected short tories of Roger Summers.