The Button Jar

“Don’t throw that old jar of buttons away, I know it looks like rubbish but it’s more important than you’d think…”

It was the jar that my Grandmother took my Granddad’s milk up the field in on the day that he died. It’s a wonder she kept it really, she wasn’t the sentimental sort; that’s probably why she put it to use as a button jar. Or maybe she did that so that she would have an excuse to see and touch it. It was hard to know with my Grandmother.

She was, in her own way, an early pioneer of recycling – the jar was an old Horlicks jar, reused as a milk flask, then reused again as the button jar. Now it’s a piece of family history, its story almost lost now my Grandmother has gone; an unconventional heirloom left behind by an unconventional lady.

My Grandmother’s baking was the stuff of legend, just not in the way that she thought it was; which probably explains why no one held onto her recipe book after she finally hung-up her apron.

Frustration can be expressed in many ways but very rarely is it done so via the medium of pastry. My Grandmother may have been unique in this respect. The jam in her tarts never boiled-over, it couldn’t – boiling-over requires the jam to be plentiful, not simply smeared over the bottom of the pastry casing. When a recipe called for a teaspoonful of jam as a filling, she seemed to assume that they meant per batch, not per tart.

Perhaps having been born at the start of one World War and raising her first child during the second, economising was ingrained in her psyche.

Or perhaps she didn’t quite love baking as much as she claimed to.

Looking back, it certainly seemed to be a chore for her. There was no cheery singing or licking of spoons in her kitchen, just a faint sense that the sooner it was all over with the better. She kept her eye on the clock whilst in the kitchen, her baking snatched from the oven at precisely eleven o’clock, irrespective of how long it had actually been cooking.

My Grandmother was a woman of routine, a creature of habit. Her daily paper was read as she drank a cup of tea after lunch, any boxes of chocolates she won at bingo or received as gifts were stored on the high-shelf in the hall cupboard.

She had two bottles of lemonade delivered by the pop-man each week that resided unrefrigerated in the cupboard next to the oven; half-glass measures were dispensed only after meals in case the bubbles filled you up too much and led to uneaten mashed potato.

The lunches my Granny served during my childhood were strictly of the filling and old-fashioned variety. Re-heated leftovers on Mondays, boiled ham with parsley sauce on Wednesdays, chops and mash on Thursdays, fish on Fridays, mince on Saturdays and a traditional roast on Sundays.

Tuesday’s lunch was eaten in town, in the same café each week, usually in the company of her friend Nora. This ritual was a hangover from her time as a farmer’s wife, when she would spend her Tuesday mornings browsing in ‘Marks and Sparks’ (no doubt tutting at the flighty types who purchased ready-made cake) whilst my Granddad visited the weekly cattle-market.

Cooked lunches on weekdays apparently only began when she became a widow. Perhaps they were a way to fill her mornings once she was no longer required to deal with that day’s supply of milk and eggs or help in the fields. Or perhaps it was to distance herself – and her mid-day meal – from that day in June.

My Granddad forgot to take the jar with him that morning, so my Grandmother drove up to the outlying field where he was working to deliver it, ensuring that he had fresh milk with his lunch.

A final act of love expressed in the most practical of ways.

By teatime the jar had been gathered up and returned to the farmhouse with the rest of his belongings. No longer needed now that his heart was no longer beating.

No doubt the jar sat in the farmhouse kitchen for many days, overlooked in the chaos of death and mourning. It may have been left in a cupboard for weeks or even months before my Grandmother decided what to do with it. The decision may have been unconscious, perhaps she needed somewhere to store stray buttons and it was the first thing that came to hand, perhaps she always planned to use it eventually. All I know is that the button jar was always to be handled with care and that at some point, in her own final years, my Grandmother recorded its significance with a simple note taped to the lid – “June 16, 1973. Tom died”.