A Treasured Bucket of Buttons

Lane E. Dooling

© Copyright 2021 by Lane Dooling

Photo of a bucket of buttons.

Timing can be an amazing thing sometimes. There are times in our lives that we don’t feel whole for a number of reasons. Before I met Helen, I was in the midst of navigating a deep decline with my folks and had assumed the role of the “parent”…and I felt lost and alone. At the time, one of my numerous part-time jobs was working as a caregiver. My agency had a request from an older woman who wanted someone to drive her to do errands and to have conversation. From the first time we met, I knew we would go on to have a deep friendship – I could tell we were kindred spirits. 

Helen was 94 years old and had given up her license at 91 much to her daughter’s chagrin. She explained that she felt her reactions were not as sharp and she would be mortified if she caused an accident. After a short while, Helen, being extremely independent, decided she’d take matters into her own hands and find a non-family member to help her. The timing couldn’t have been better - she was on the fringe of her small and stressed-out family, and my family was slipping away.

Over the course of time spent together, I learned about her interesting, challenging and fulfilling life. Born in 1923 in San Francisco, Helen’s father (“papa”) was a boisterous man originally from England, and her mother (“mama”) grew up with her sister in a convent. Helen assumed her mother deemed her father as a worldly man with her limited exposure to the outside world. Although her father left his country of origin, the innate desire to drink followed him. From what I could tell, he ruled the roost and was not a nice person. 

Our lives unfolded in a natural way as we walked up and down the aisles at the grocery store and drugstore or sat at her small square tablecloth adorned with a seasonal tablecloth. It didn’t take long for a special rhythm to develop. Before we went out, we updated each other on the most recent and pressing news. During our time out we talked about simpler topics. When we arrived home, we generally meandered down memory lane masked in a special nostalgia - much of her childhood was experienced against the backdrop of historically significant events - things I had only read about. 

One of Helen’s early school memories was attending kindergarten and getting to have graham crackers and the “good milk”. When I asked what she meant, she explained that back then, milk came in glass bottles and the rich cream was on the top. Her mother’s habit was to take all the cream...leaving the watery and thin milky liquid (possibly worse than today’s skim milk?). To this day, she still loves Graham Crackers and buys the family size box. Besides school, she took piano lessons and attended Sunday School (although her parents didn’t attend church). During elementary school, Helen’s life changed when her father took a different job and the family moved to Angel Island which at the time was the Immigration Center (sort of a west coast Ellis Island). Every school day and Sunday, Helen walked to the ferry and road it to San Francisco. She caught the street car to her school or church - at only eight years old! School was over before the afternoon ferry came so she made her way to the library - possibly one of the reasons she developed a love of books and reading. The librarian was kind and talked with Helen whom she long remembered probably because she received indifference and a strict code to follow at home.

Although the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, Helen’s father remained employed - first in a publishing company, then on Angel Island and later in the shipyards in Sausalito. Somehow he was able to keep his nose to the grindstone during the week, but when the weekend and payday came, he let loose. There were times friends carried him into the house and laid him down on the living room floor...where Helen’s mother left him to sober up. Of course his propensity to drink did nothing to smooth out his tyrant behavior. He lived by the old decree that children were to be seen…obey…and not heard.

I was aware that Helen was a bit robbed of a more innocent childhood. When she talked about her youth, I could sense the loneliness and fear she felt especially as an only child with an authoritative father. In addition, her mother may also have been lonely and used Helen at times as her confidante with rather adult subjects. For some strange reason, her mother felt the need to share that she had been to the “special doctor”. Even at the age of nine or ten, Helen knew that her mother had been pregnant a few times, but had the doctor make her “un-pregnant”. She assumed it was her father’s request...and her mother followed it. I think knowing this made Helen even sadder that she would never know a sibling – a sibling that could have been. Yet, as one kindred spirit to another, we both had the “half full” perspective despite dysfunction in our childhoods. With enthusiasm, she talked about her family going to China Camp in San Rafael to get crab and other seafood. They would have a picnic on the beach with the warm sun beating down. For San Franciscans, escaping the fog and chill was a very happy occasion. When I noticed Helen really enjoyed Skippy Peanut Butter, she told me about the day when a salesman rang their bell and handed her a jar of a new product – peanut butter – she was thrilled...and went to eat it almost daily. One of the most unique and the nurturing rituals she mentioned was when she was sick, her mother allowed her to sift through the big bucket of buttons. At first I didn’t understand why this was as special and nurturing as Helen’s expression revealed. Over time I realized it wasn’t simply a colorful container of buttons – it represented pieces of their lives over the years – buttons from her father’s uniform and work shirts, a button from a special dress and a button from her favorite nightgown.

The environment on Angel Island was contentious and even a child could sense it and was told to stay close to their cottage. Eventually the family moved back to San Francisco and Helen attended Lowell High School - a very old and large co-educational school. Although a bit introverted, she established a friend group, and talked about how the co-ed group took the street car after the football game to the soda fountain and how it was all quite innocent (she admits she was a “good girl”). She did well academically and was the valedictorian in her senior year (quite impressive).  As a teenager, she and her parents were three of the 200,000 people on the opening day of the Golden Gate Bridge on May 27, 1937 paying a toll of $0.25. Helen’s vivid description transported me back to that historic day as if I was with her - like a sister.  

She began college at San Francisco State pursuing a degree in teaching. Close to the end of the first semester, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and in a blink of an eye - many men left and went off to war. Helen mentioned a special friend who died in one of the battles. She never came out and said it, but I believe she was possibly in love and hoped to marry him when he returned from the war. Tragically, it was never to be. Helen finished college early and worked as a substitute teacher. Towards the end of the term, she made a fateful decision that would impact the rest of her life. She went into the district office and asked if there were other teaching positions outside of San Francisco. I always chuckle when she said they had one in the town of Ross (Marin County) which was over the Golden Gate Bridge...and it was her father who had to drive her to her interview! This was the same man who just assumed she would live with them, pay rent and help them in later years. 

It was the mid 1940’s and the world opened up for Helen. She found a room for rent with just a hot plate and shared bathroom. Initially, she would take the bus on the weekends to visit her folks but it decreased over time. Helen enjoyed teaching, managing her own bank account and meeting new friends. One weekend her mother visited and decided Helen’s accommodations were not up to par (especially without cooking facilities), so her father (believe it or not) found a different living situation for her.

Eventually she met the man that would be her husband for 50 years. From what I could tell, Frank was smitten from the beginning. Raised as an only child by a difficult mother and cowardly father, I sense Frank was looking for more than a pretty face for a wife and life partner. When they decided to get married, neither set of parents were in favor of the union. There was one delay but they went on to have a smaller wedding. Despite being on a tight budget, they set up their home…and relished in the fact they were free – truly independent. Helen told me many times that they probably worked harder at their marriage because the idea of having to hear “I told you so” from their parents would be too much to bear.

From the beginning, Helen was in charge of the inside of the house and Frank did all the outside chores along with fixing anything that needed attention (he was an accomplished carpenter). From all the stories, I could tell they had a collaborative partnership and could rely on each other. Although some may think predictability is boring, I think Helen and Frank craved it since their childhoods were filled with volatility and insecurity.

They had one daughter and Helen stopped teaching for about 12 years. I sensed she missed teaching but with no real “day care” back then, she embraced being a stay-at-home mother. Finances were very tight but she had frugal ways of creating fun and adventure for her family. She talked about blowing up red and green balloons for Christmas morning for her daughter who was thrilled and maybe didn’t notice the small amount of gifts under the tree. As I listened to the simple pleasures she offered her daughter – Campfire Girls, trips to the library, sewing lessons, swimming at the community pool, bike rides around the neighborhood and sleepovers – the sweetness and simplicity washed over me and struck a nostalgic cord. As a single working parent, I was on a tight budget and focused on fun and simple activities with my two children. As far as I could tell, my time was the most important thing to them no matter what we were doing, as I am sure it was the same for Helen’s daughter.

When her daughter was in middle school, Helen decided it was time to go back to work and felt the extra income would be useful. Despite being on a more rigid schedule, she didn’t miss a beat. From what I can tell, she was a wonderful and engaging elementary school teacher. And, of course all the parents wanted their kids to be in her class. She tried to make lessons interactive since she believed kids learned in different ways. When they were studying a specific topic, she went all out. When they learned about the Chinese New Year, she ordered Chinese food from a local restaurant and brought it to school – the kids were thrilled…while one parent was very surprised their picky eater actually ate it! Besides the delicious food, the other highlight was running through the hallways and classrooms displaying the huge paper mâché paper dragon they created. Much to my disheartenment, she said the other teachers kept their distance since they resented that Helen was a sought after teacher and let’s face it – more fun and creative. Since she stayed in her classroom at lunch, she was always available to the students and even did a cooking project one Friday a month.

Time flew by and both Helen and Frank retired in their early 60’s – which was really like 45 (they were younger in every way than their biological age). Helen’s entire demeanor lit up like a Christmas tree when she talked about the wonderful decade she and her husband had doing things around home, socializing with friends, learning new hobbies (she learned to quilt) and traveling with each other or a group. She said it was hands-down the best time of their marriage especially after years of working, sacrificing, raising their daughter and helping family. Helen was both pragmatic and caring so when her husband declined to an unfortunate state, she was able to let him go. After Frank’s death, she sold their home and moved into a smaller dwelling. She kept herself busy volunteering at the thrift store, quilting, gardening, along with helping her mother a lot, who would go on to die a year later. Despite being saddened, Helen was relieved they weren’t suffering.

And, a few years later, this story comes full circle as we came into each other’s lives. As I think about all the time we spent together, it wasn’t just about having someone to talk to (which we both needed) – it was the special invitation to walk through the ups and down of past and present life together. Occasionally, Helen would give me items to donate or to give to someone. One day, with a look of content on her face, she handed me the bucket of buttons and asked me to give them to someone who sews and explain their story. As, I looked down at the buttons of all different sizes and colors, I realized she wanted me to help her pass down pieces of her family’s lives…pieces of history. This was one of the most extraordinary requests I have ever received…and I was honored to pass on the treasured bucket of buttons…

I came across the quote: “To discover a kindred spirit is to find your heart in the heart of a friend”
(Ann Parrish) and it describes exactly how I feel. Helen got her wish and moved to assisted living where she can have her meals cooked for her (finally!) and have more people to talk with. No matter where she is, we are bonded in friendship with deeps roots of gratitude, love of history and reading, kindness, generosity, common sense, perseverance, love and laughter.

True friends are always together in spirit.” – L.M. Montgomery

Writer’s Note: This story is warmly dedicated to my treasured friend, Helen.

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