Small But Important Repairs

Jar-of-buttons

“Man is born broken.  He lives by mending.  The Grace of God is glue.”

Eugene O’Neal

A Jar of Buttons

by Ted Kooser

This is from a core sample
from the floor of the Sea of Mending,

a cylinder packed with shells
that over many years

sank through fathoms of shirts—
pearl buttons, blue buttons—

and settled together
beneath waves of perseverance,

an ocean upon which
generations of women set forth,

under the sails of gingham curtains,
and, seated side by side

on decks sometimes salted by tears,
made small but important repairs.


Mending is a fascinating word.  For people of my generation, there was no such thing as fast fashion, our mothers by and large sewed significant portions of not only their own wardrobe but also their children’s.  I was taught how to mend my clothes, how to repair a frayed seam, how to mend a hole and how even to hand sew a button hole. My parents both grew up during the depression and they knew the importance of making do with hand me downs and making things for yourself.  Most nights as a child I would fall asleep to the sound of the distant click, click, click of my Mother’s Montgomery Ward sewing machine, the only sewing machine she would ever own and still works today and is used by my sister. My Mother did not have a jar of buttons, she had a box of buttons, a box that had accumulated over time from extras from umpteen projects and also had grown from acquisitions at garage sales or the mother-load, when someone passed away and their buttons joined the hoard. I spent countless hours while my Mother sewed, looking through her box of buttons, finding my favorites, putting together matching sets, organizing by color or shape or size.  It was a satisfying way to be in my Mother’s presence, while not pestering her on a rainy afternoon as a young child.

We would make rubber band racers, which I doubt few children know about today.  It required one empty wooden spool from a spool of thread, two large buttons, a rubber binder and a stick of some sort, a spare one from your game of pick up sticks worked fine.   You took and split the rubber band and put it through the holes in a button so that it looped half way, then pushed those equal ends through the center of the spool, and then through the holes in the button on the other side and tied the rubber band off.  Next take the stick and put it through one side of the button loop, leaving only a short amount protruding.  Then wind up the stick so that you are creating lots of lots of twists in the center of the spool on the rubber binder.  Then set it down and the stick with hold it down allowing all the force to be expelled by spinning the spool and it will race down your hardwood floor.   May sound pretty simple as a toy, but they were fun to make and an awesome way to learn your Mom had some cool tricks up here sleeve.

A Jar of Buttons was one of my Mother’s favorite poems.   She read it to me at least 6 or 7 times over the years.  She related to many aspects of the poem, its imagery resonating with her experience. The poem is not about sewing in my mind, it is about the role women play in mending so many things in family life, mending relationships, knitting together children’s confidence, allowing time for martial fractures to heal and the actual act of creation with thread, buttons and cloth. The art of sewing is an ancient art, that I worry is being lost to some degree.  It is a healing art, providing sustenance to not only the those clothed by the seamstress, but also nurturing the heart of the one who threads the needle.

My Mother taught me how to sew, required me to make a few items, like pajamas, so that I understood how things are made.  That knowledge has served me well.  When was the last time you sewed or mended something for yourself?  For someone else?  How did it make you feel? Do you have a sewing machine or a sewing kit?   My darning and sewing kit is within reach of where I sit right now, should I be in need to tie down a loose stitch.


Daddy Longlegs

by Ted Kooser

Here, on fine long legs springy as steel,
a life rides, sealed in a small brown pill
that skims along over the basement floor
wrapped up in a simple obsession.
Eight legs reach out like the master ribs
of a web in which some thought is caught
dead center in its own small world,
a thought so far from the touch of things
that we can only guess at it. If mine,
it would be the secret dream
of walking alone across the floor of my life
with an easy grace, and with love enough
to live on at the center of myself.

More Onerous Than The Rites of Beauty

linda-pastan
Linda Paston b. 1932

“It is all around us, free, this wonderful life: clear jingle of tire chains, the laughter of ice that breaks under our boots. Each hour’s a gift to those who take it up.” 

― Ted Kooser, The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book

The Obligation To Be Happy

by Linda Paston

It is more onerous
than the rites of beauty
or housework, harder than love.
But you expect it of me casually,
the way you expect the sun
to come up, not in spite of rain
or clouds but because of them.

And so I smile, as if my own fidelity
to sadness were a hidden vice—
that downward tug on my mouth,
my old suspicion that health
and love are brief irrelevancies,
no more than laughter in the warm dark
strangled at dawn.

Happiness. I try to hoist it
on my narrow shoulders again—
a knapsack heavy with gold coins.
I stumble around the house,
bump into things.
Only Midas himself
would understand.


I have the annoying habit of being in a good mood in the morning when I get up, annoying at least to those that enjoy a bit of melancholy and gloom with their first cup of coffee. I realize that there is little difference between the two breakfast visages, each its own armor to the start of the day and separated in humor by less than the width of smile.

The harder acceptance for me is the realization that for some people happiness is a burden they would prefer to not carry around with them. Happiness is something uncomfortable to them, an infrequent, temporary visitor that stays only awkwardly for a quick spot of tea and then makes a tepid excuse for why it needs to hurry off again. Linda Paston’s poem provides genuine insight into something foreign to my nature, not quite full blown depression but melancholy.

I heard this week a perky scientist explaining on NPR they have isolated a hormonal response in mice which prevents them from going into depression under stress. It sounds like a such a wonderful idea, particularly to people like myself that struggle to understand the true nature of depression having never experienced it.  But what do we lose as a species if we fail to feel the full range of emotions?  Depression that results in suicide is a mental state to be avoided and can be medically addressed, but grief, the blues, sadness and meloncholy are not fatal conditions and a normal spectrum of the human condition.  Next time someone is sad in your midst, hesitate before you tell them to “cheer up.”  Linda Paston’s poem a potent reminder that we all experience life differently and one person’s blues maybe another person’s way to live fully in their skin.


After Years

by Ted Kooser

Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer’s retina
as he stood on the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.