My dad stopped by several weeks ago with a very special treasure. A collection of old cardboard boxes and cigarillo tins, each filled with buttons. Old buttons. Special buttons. Cards of matching buttons for suit jackets carefully cut from buffalo horn. Lovely creamy white and iridescent buttons handmade from shells. And tucked amongst the boxes and tins of buttons, a long, narrow carton with ‘weiss’ (white) simply stamped at one end. The carton is half full of crisp, clean, sharply-edged tailor’s chalks.
I vaguely remember him only as ‘Opi’. The older German gentleman whose house was right next to ours in Niendorf, the suburb of Hamburg in northwestern Germany. He would walk through our garden on his way to the road and call us “Kletteraffen” (climbing monkeys) with a chuckle as my sister and I sat in the apple tree. He was always wearing a hat. He had been a grandfather figure to my mum, as in a way, Opi and his wife, known only to me in stories as ‘Omi’ had been the catalyst to my own maternal grandparents meeting. My grandmother, a young French woman, had ended her journey from France to Germany under the protective wing of Omi, a milliner during the war. My grandfather, a young Ukranian man incarcerated in a camp in Germany during the war, apprenticed as a tailor with Opi once the camps had been liberated.
I imagine Opi to have been a very good tailor, and I can picture him fitting shirts and suits before the war. Using the corner of his chalk to make carefully sweeping lines on a piece of gabardine wool. He was in the German army at the start of the war, but the stories I have been told have him ending the war not in the army, marching in a direction so at odds with his own morality, but rather back in his tailor shop still required to work for the war effort by making uniforms.
My mum added to the buttons I am sure. One tin holds a collection of identical buttons I am almost certain she salvaged from an old worn duvet cover. It’s the sort of thing she would have done.
There is history here, in these cartons and tins. In the tiny cut marks on the handful of buttons that look cut from bone, and the suit buttons on their cards. As I sift through them I think of Opi, a man I can’t really remember. We share no blood, but without him, I wouldn’t be writing this. And that is an odd thought. I think also of my mum, as I do almost every time I sit at my sewing machine or pick up my knitting. I love that I have these little pieces of history to add to and to use.
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