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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Button, button, who's got the button? I DO!

When I was a little girl, I loved playing with Grandma's button box.  It was an old candy tin that once held Christmas ribbon candy, but by the time I was six or seven, the candy was long gone and it was stuffed full of brightly colored buttons.

Grandma and Grandpa lived just a few yards from my house so I often spent the afternoon playing at Grandma's.  If I happened to arrive at the same time as her favorite soap opera, "As the World Turns," Grandma always let me get out the buttons and play.

A consummate taxonomist, I loved to sort and categorize the buttons.  I arranged them by color, size, and value.  Of course the value was determined by my seven year-old mind, so that meant the best buttons were anything that had  jewels, sparkles, or were red.

The buttons all arrived in the box the same way.  Whenever a garment was headed for the rag bag, Grandma would first remove all the buttons.  Of course that meant most of the buttons in the box were the boring brown buttons from the front of Grandpa's work shirts. 
Fortunately for me someone in the family also wore out their party dresses and black mourning clothes.  That meant there were lovely jet black glass beads and luminescent pink pearl buttons.  And some fortunate relative must have owned a lovely red dress that once had red buttons with glass jeweled centers.

 Grandma's button box was such a fond memory that I had to have my own.  But my button collection isn't hidden in a candy tin, it is displayed in glass jars in my office.  A few of the buttons in my collection come from worn out shirts, but in these days of t-shirts and zippers, the bulk of my collection is from local antique shops. 

My favorite are the Mother-of-Pearl buttons from the 1800's.  Millions of buttons were cut from oyster and abalone shells and sewn on shirts, skirts, collars, and cuffs.  Large silver dollar size buttons decorated coats and jackets. 

I love the iridescent quality of the buttons.  Each one has it's own character.  Mother of pearl buttons are much heavier than their plastic counterparts and literally cooler.  If you hold a plastic button and a Mother-of Pearl button to your cheek the pearl button will feel cooler to the touch.

Of course there are lots of wonderful ways to use buttons in crafts.  From traditional ornamentation of clothing and hats to the now popular button jewelry. You can let your imagination run wild.

So wild that you might even make an entire outfit out of the tiny gems.  The Pearly Society of London carries on a 125 year-old tradition of clothing decorated with pearl buttons.  They wear these unique outfits to raise money for charity.  You can see their pearly costumes at

But me - I still like to play with my buttons.  Occasionally my husband will poke his head in my office and see me sitting surrounded with a pile of pearly circles. 

 "How many times have you sorted those?"  He asks.

 I don't even bother to answer.  Who knows how many times I've sorted through my treasure trove?  All I know is - I love my buttons.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Saying Good-bye to an Old Friend

 We signed the papers and the “For Sale” sign appeared in the front yard the next day.  The sign’s presence makes me happy -- and sad. It reminds me of many good times in the past, and also of good things to come. 

Earlier this year, we decided it was time to move.  We’ve lived in the same house for 27 years, having it built to our specifications when we were 20-somthings with a dog, no kids, and our whole lives ahead of us. 

Through the years, we’ve maintained, updated, raised two children and numerous pets, renovated, and landscaped.  We’ve celebrated new beginnings, bid fond farewells, and hosted countless birthdays, holiday meals, Scout meetings, and sleepovers within the house’s walls.  In return, our house has provided us with shelter during storms and a comfortable place to live and just BE.

And with the sign’s arrival began the process of de-personalizing our home and preparing it to be marketed in the sluggish housing market.  Wallpaper?  Get rid of it.  Paint everything neutral.  Family photographs and knick-knacks?  Remove them.  It’s hard for potential buyers to visualize themselves in a home if it’s filled to the rafters with someone else’s stuff.  Those little fix-it projects that got put off?  Do them NOW.  Most people don’t want to buy somebody’s problems.  Our local hardware store and a nearby Lowe’s store have become frequent stops.

At our realtor’s suggestion, we decided to continue living here until the house sells.  So after removing boxes and bags of stuff and extra furniture, plus deep cleaning, our old friend is “on the market.”  The hardest part in all of this is keeping the place looking pristine and shiny while it continues to house three people and two pets.  We’ve had realtors and potential buyers come through (sometimes with just a few minutes’ notice), a deal that almost happened but fell through at the last minute, and comments both positive and negative.   

What I’ll miss the most is our back yard.  When we took possession of the property in 1985, there was no “yard” – just a newly-graded section of dirt.  In other words, we started with a blank canvas. 

Through the years, we planted, pruned, transplanted, and divided countless plants, bushes, trees, and flowers.  I brought seedlings and plant cuttings from the yard of my childhood home in Tennessee.  I went to my mother’s farm and dug up buttercup bulbs that had been planted by my great-grandmother in the early 1900s.  Friends passed along herbs and various perennials, which I promptly planted.  The seasons passed and we developed a beautiful back yard. 

And with the plants and fauna came the wildlife.  There was the raccoon our dog chased up a maple tree.  There was the duck that insisted on living beside our driveway for two years.  There were also turtles; frogs; countless squirrels and rabbits; a family of skinks; many generations of cardinals, mockingbirds, and swallows; a few moles; and even several small snakes.  In truth, the yard was never really ours.  We simply shared it with the creatures already living there.    

What we purchased and plan to move into is a 20-yearoldhome with “good bone structure,” but, like many of us of a certain age, in need of somecosmetic updates and a little TLC.  It also has numerous mature trees and beautiful landscaping.  We met one of the sellers o the day we closed the sale.  With tears in her eyes, she told me of the many memories the house held for her and her family.  I promised we’d take good care of it.

 As a sentimental plant lover, I’ve transplanted dozens of bulbs, herbs, and seedlings from our current residence to the one we hope to move into later this year.  Sadly, we can’t take our beautiful apple trees with us, but we plan to plant some in our new yard.  On a positive note, our new yard has two mature cherry trees that are loaded with tiny cherries.  Guess I’ll need to research cherry recipes and add them to the collection of apple recipes!

I’ll no doubt shed a few tears when we finally move everything from the old house.  It’s played an important role in our lives for more than a quarter century.  At the same time, I’m anticipating making many wonderful memories in our new home.  After all, change is part of life!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Using Gourds Creatively

Today’s entrepreneurs have nothing on our ancestors.  They were resourceful and thrifty.  Before the days of big-box stores or even general merchandise stores, when they needed something to make life easier or more comfortable, they figured out creative ways to use plentiful natural resources found nearby.

For many of us, our family trees are filled with simple, hard-working individuals who came to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs.  They learned to make-do with whatever resources they could find.  They’d probably be shocked by the amount of “stuff” we have in our homes today – the rooms of furniture; the cabinets filled with cups, plates and glasses; and the various appliances and gadgets.

I recently travelled to rural Middle Tennessee to visit my mother.  She restored and lives in her family’s ancestral home.  Seven generations of her family have found shelter inside the house’s walls, and each generation has left its fingerprint on the place.  Those generations also left behind various household items and furnishings they found useful and essential for living daily life.  Some folks might consider these things junk; Mom and I consider them treasures.  They give us a peek into the lives of those we only know by name and sometimes a faded Daguerre-type photo.

Included in all of this accumulated “stuff” are a variety of dried and hollowed-out, long-neck gourds.  Mom displays them in the kitchen alongside old cookware and household items from other eras.  We figure they were once used as dippers to scoop cool, refreshing water from the nearby spring. 

Gourds are members of the Cucurbitaceae family and have been grown and used or eaten throughout the world for thousands of years.  Members of this family include squash, cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins.  There are numerous cucurbita, or ornamental gourd varieties, too, including ones with long necks that make excellent dippers (like Mom’s) and wide ones with shorter necks that make good bird houses for wrens or martins.  The key to obtaining useful ornamental gourds lies in the drying-out process.

Gourds grow on vines from flowers that bear fruit.  Once they reach maturity after 100 to 180 warm-weather days, their stems dry out and turn brown.  They are then ready to be harvested.  Gourds should be cut from the vine with a few inches of stem still attached.  Bruised or immature gourds or ones with rotten or shriveled spots should be thrown away as they won’t dry or cure properly.

To dry them, gourds should be placed in a dark, well-ventilated area with space all around each piece to allow air circulation.  The drying process takes at least four weeks.  Gourds are properly cured when they are become light-weight and the seeds rattle inside.  At this point, they can be painted, coated, or decorated.

Mom’s dipping gourds look to be very old and well-used.  Their surfaces have been worn smooth (most likely from much handling) and look and feel like thin wood.  Countless people working the nearby farm land probably welcomed the sight of the gourds and the cool water they held.

On this same trip, I also found my grandmother’s old sewing basket on an upstairs shelf.  Of course I had to open it and examine the contents.  Among the many needles, pins, and wooden spools of thread were two tiny, smooth gourds.  Instantly I remembered as a child seeing my thrifty grandma pushing these gourds into Grandpa’s work socks to repair a tear or a worn spot.  She called them her “darning gourds” and said their shape helped her achieve smoother repair seams that Grandpa would never feel on his sensitive feet.

Today, artisans continue to find interesting and creative ways to use gourds, including making bowls, small vases, and even lamp shades with various sizes of dried gourds.  Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, features artisans who specialize in creating unique handicrafts, including an artisan who makes one-of-a-kind lamp shades from large gourds.

Some Amish communities produce and sell online numerous varieties of clean, dried gourds for use in craft projects.  Several years ago, a neighbor purchased four dried gourds and painted them white.  He cut a single hole in each one and attached them to a tall pole in his back yard.  Each spring the swallows return to build their nests inside the gourds, and each summer the birds zoom around our yards, snagging mosquitoes to eat.  This seems like a healthier, more natural way to control unwanted pests.

Yes, people are capable of creativity and resourcefulness with what can be found in nature.  And I’m guessing the amount of garbage and waste our ancestors generated was nothing close to what people generate today.  Imagine -- no plastic bottles and cups.  Who needed such when you had a natural drinking vessel growing in your own garden?