A little while ago, I wrote about the white-on-white hamsa (hand of Fatima) I constructed on a white canvas. It hangs on my bedroom wall, now joined by the Mardi Gras bead hamsa mosaic. A reader expressed curiosity about how my Mom, Mollie Bacola Fromm, ended up with so many pearl buttons. This reader lives in the Canadian Northwest, where First Nation members have historically used imported pearl buttons to create button blankets. I do not know the history of these beautiful, functional artworks. Do they predate the incursions of Europeans with their wool blankets and pearl buttons, I don’t know. I’ve long been attracted to these wonderful items which use images taken from oral traditions to decorate them.
I’ve already written that Mom was a seamstress, an ILGWU member, and more. For a long time she sewed our clothes. She taught me how to sew, a craft I have recently returned to. Mom was also very frugal, a child of the Depression, as it is still said of her generation. I imagine she accumulated the huge collection of buttons that’s in one of my closets from clothing that would be discarded. Waste not, want not, was an axiom and a way of life my brothers and I grew up with. I have my own jar filled from those lone buttons which often accompany a new piece of clothing. Mom also became an intrepid traveler after we were grown. She often bought fabrics and findings while in distant cities. Some of the buttons are from her trips.
The buttons seem to come into my consciousness when I experience job transitions. When I left my job as Director of Education and Public Programs (the job which brought us to Miami Beach some 20 years ago), I remembered the buttons. The daughter of a docent was using old buttons on trendy children’s clothing. She came over and told me which few caught her eye that she would buy and use. The rest she’d discard. “Throw away! Not my mother’s buttons.” No sale.
Next was my job as the manager of the Deering Estate, a treasure of a historic, archeological, environmental property south of Miami. That was a real blow because I had accomplished a lot and had so much more to do. Then I remembered the First Nation button blankets. I could make button cushions using their patterns of raven, orca, and more. One of my brothers lives out there, after all. Then I realized these are not my icons. I should use Jewish patterns, draw from my own heritage – hamsa, which I first met in Morocco; pomegranate; and a random geometric pattern. And that’s what I did, carefully choosing the right buttons to create each pattern.
My husband and daughter do not really like the cushions; they’ve gotten used to them now. The pomegranate looked like a jack-o-lantern to them. For me, it’s a “Like Water for Chocolate” pomegranate. Remember when the heroine in the story had to cook the wedding dinner for her sister. Her tears were incorporated into one of the dishes and everyone got sick. I think the sadness of the pomegranate expresses my emotions associated with losing the job at Deering Estate. It’s ok now, I long got over it, maybe!
Cultural appropriation is one of today’s catch phrases. Even before this topic his popular culture, I decided against using someone else’s patterns on my cushions. I’m reminded of that time at the student pow wow at the University of Oklahoma where a colleague accused me of raising a child to be a wannabee. Our daughter was on the dance floor enjoying herself. “No,” I responded, “She knows who she is. I’m raising her to be culturally sensitive.” Even as we may adopt practices and collect items from other cultures, we should be aware and sensitive to cultural differences to which we are exposed.
In the end, this does not answer the question, where did Mom got all the buttons from. Unfortunately, Mom’s sadly no longer here and the buttons cannot speak for themselves to tell us what they were attached to, who wore them, where they’d been before being consigned to the zip lock bags in the back of my closet. Who knows where they will go to next in their lifetimes? They remain things of beauty and vivid reminders of Mom.