An aunt of mine recently sent me a rather unusual gift in the mail. It came in a bubble envelope that weighed little but clanked so riotously that I figured it had to contain a bunch of rusty nails.
Instead, I greedily tore the package open to find that it contained a large and colorful assortment of buttons ¬- those little round ones with safety-pin backings that have enjoyed punctuated bursts of popularity throughout the decades.
The envelope contained all kinds of buttons: humorous buttons, political buttons, adult-themed buttons, teddy bear buttons, a homecoming '68 button, and, my personal favorite: a photo button featuring a young-buck Kevin Costner with a bowler hat pulled low over his inscrutable eyes.
In a note, Aunt Joan explained the reason for the gift: she'd spent the previous day helping to clean out the home of an elderly friend, and the task got her pondering her own mortality, and the fate of her own treasures, of which she had many: this was the aunt who collected cow memorabilia and neon trinkets and decorated her kitchen with strings of chili pepper lights. If she were to die tomorrow, what would become of all her things? Would people know to appreciate them? Would they take the time to find them worthy homes or simply relegate them to the junk pile?
I've always had a soft spot for kitsch, despite being raised by a woman so committed to radical simplicity that her worldly possessions now fit into a single, sparsely appointed room. I myself am a reformed packrat, but I've never stopped believing that our most precious things become imbued, over time, with their own special magic. Aunt Joan knew this about me, somehow, and so I'd been chosen.
In the months since receiving the gift, I've become determined to give Aunt Joan's buttons all good homes. I've been pinning them all over everything: A yellowing Portland Rose Festival button on my winter hat, an "Ernest Goes to Camp" button on my favorite hoodie, Mr. Costner on my purse.
But the button that I love the very best - and the one that gets the most comments - is a blue Mondale-Ferraro campaign button. I actually had no idea who this Mondale-Ferraro getup was when I plucked it out of the pile, but in these disappointing political times, I liked the irony of promoting a defunct agenda. I liked the retro semantic confusion of it. It just seemed like a pretty great button.
I was but a toddler when Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro ran on the Democratic ticket promoting "The Path to Equality" in 1984, and about all I remember of that year is my first cone of soft serve ice cream, the birth of a baby sister, and these really cool pajamas my dad brought me from Japan. However, if the YouTube clips of the old Mondale-Ferraro television commercial spots are any indication, it was a time of Very High Stakes and Very Big Fears: computers taking over everything, killer weapons tumbling through space, a red telephone threatening ever to ring and signal the mutual assured destruction of pretty much everybody.
Back then, Aunt Joan was a young mother, probably close to my age. Now, her son is grown, with a child of his own. She lives across the state and I don't see her often enough. I'm grown, too, and when I look at my buttons, the world I've inherited from her feels at once so irreparably changed, and so very much the same. Same hopes, same off-color jokes, same villains and heroes.
I've settled on the bulletin board next to my desk as the proper permanent home for my Mondale-Ferraro pin. I like what it makes me think about. And I like the way it inspires visitors to stop and coo and tell me their own stories. Now, as then, we humans survive by pinning our faith on that which is available to us: a rusty button on a shirtsleeve, the promise of something better for whoever comes next, the love of gone-away things and people, and the earnest hope that someone will be sure and remember us when we, too, are gone.
Like I said, it's a pretty great button.