The Take

The Take: Elizabeth Crowell

Button Box

On my mother’s round-rim wooden button box,
is a painted scene – tan fields, a red barn,
three faded, black-eared sheep bowing
in a chipped green pasture. Dutch? I wonder.

Inside, there are flat, four-eyed, two-eyed, back-eyed,
black, blue, square, satin, toggle buttons,
some in brass, silver, glass, some with the thread
frayed and hanging like an afterthought.

Begot where or saved from what?
shapes of ships, pears, kumquats, bees.
a bevy of pearl or pearl-like, some on cards
with one, two missing, like a message left in code.

I know the rhinestones from the white gown
she wore to the Diamond Ball at the Plaza,
and there are the plaids to match my plaid jumpers,
and so many red buttons. (Christmas?)

To make her match, my mother would spread
the sweater on the bed, pull down the arms,
as if whoever wore it would lie in state.
Her finger drilled into the button box

until she lifted up one that she called “close”
and lay it on the fabric and stood cross-armed
until she knew that it was wrong or right.
Near her death, she cried over two lost buttons.

Upstairs in her bedroom, the lid of the button box
opened and shut to ask, “Where? Where?”
We did not hear. We had waited for so long
already and thought there was nothing needed here

to mend or cover, so we patted her death bed,
and said,  “There. There.”

Editor’s Statement (written by poetry editor Jonah Meyer)

Crowell’s “Button Box” stands out for many reasons, chief among them the sheer quality and depth of imagery the poet paints with these words. Beginning with the rich description of the wooden box itself, then moving into a luscious listing of the varieties of button-types stashed inside: “flat, four-eyed, two-eyed, back-eyed, / black, blue, square, satin, toggle buttons, / some in brass, silver, glass” … these short descriptors are pleasing to the ear and the tongue. Crowell’s detailed recollection of her mother’s ritual matching buttons to sweaters-in-need, spread upon the bed with arms pulled down, conjures immediately for the reader a strong, well-defined portrait of the dedicated care her mother put into this mending. Finally, on her death bed, one grieves with the writer as – alas – there is nothing left to “mend or cover,” the universal grief of mourning the loss of a parent gently, tenderly, folded into the poem’s ending.

By Elizabeth Crowell

Elizabeth Crowell grew up in northern New Jersey and has a B.A. from Smith College in English Literature and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry from Columbia University. She taught college and high school English for many years. She lives outside of Boston with her wife and teenage children.