My mother did not seem to love me, but she loved to sew. I quietly played nearby while she sang to the hum of the sewing machine. I liked to hear it whir and stop, and watch her deftly turn the shirt in progress. I snapped open tiny plastic boxes of hooks and eyes, snaps and buttons, and multi-colored round-headed pins. I imagined them as little people, and the pins and buttons had a world of relationships among them.
She made clothes for me, and for my dolls. It was the only nurturing she did, and she did it more to keep her creative spirit alive than to care for me. I absorbed the structure of clothing, when I saw it was where her heart was.
A week after she died, I took the box of buttons — pearl with silver loops, smooth red plastic, rippling shell pierced with four neat holes, metal with anchors — all the buttons and all the clothes they had never become out to my garden to bury them. At first it was a way of honoring the few good moments I'd ever had with my mother, but as I set the first button into the soil I thought of the shirt it should have graced. It was a pearl button, and it should have been on a crisp, sheer, white blouse. I imagined the delicate blouse my mother would have sewn as I placed the button. Gently, I covered it. Lovingly, I watered it.
Every day I visualized her sewing that blouse as I watered my garden; and on the seventh day, the whole blouse, damp and fresh as if she had sprinkled it for ironing, was lying across the leaves of squash plants, rooted in the soil by a single white thread. I was afraid to harvest it at first, sure it would dissolve like fairy magic, but it didn't. It was real.
So I planted the cherry-red plastic button, and summoned a red and white seersucker. I pictured her sewing it; she enjoyed the challenge of the tailoring; and it also grew in a week, and lay across my vegetables in the morning dew the way spider webs lie across the grass.
I grew five shirts this way, feminine shirts of the kind she loved to make. I enjoyed imagining them every evening as I watered the buttons, feeling that my mother and I were finally talking in some way, doing something together.
Then I looked at the metal button and thought it belonged on a blazer, or a pair of pants. I decided on a pair of cotton pants with a button fly. I don't know why I did this. I should have realized I'd never seen her make any, so I had to fly by the seat of my pants to visualize them. It didn't work. I wasn't with her, when I stretched my mind to picture how the pants would go together. On the seventh day I went to the garden, and there was nothing. Well, something. The earth had expelled the metal button, a tarnished gleaming in the wet dirt.
I felt sad, and ashamed of my arrogance. I opened the box to choose a new button, the natural shell. We could grow a beige silk blouse no, we couldn't. She was gone. If I planted it, maybe I could trick her into coming back, but we couldn't keep playing dolls and dress-up forever. It was time to let go. I buried the buttons, and finally wept for the mother I had almost never had.