Eye of the Needle

“Can’t you just wear another shirt?”

They were getting dressed to go out shortly. And, it was a senseless question. Dana knew that Paul could not just wear another shirt. Nothing was that easy. Paul only had one shirt for each suit he owned, and, now that he was retired, he was down to just one suit. Paul had the minimal amount of clothes; when anything wore out, he got rid of it and bought another just like it. If anyone gave him an extraneous article of clothing, he put it in his closet for one year and then got rid of it. There was no excess in Paul’s life. His austerity did allow extra room for Dana’s overflowing collection of clothes, shoes, purses, and scarves – most of which she would have little need of after tonight.

In any case, Paul did not have another appropriate shirt. Ordinarily, when the shirt went to their cleaners, Mr. Hatchett would have noticed the lost button and replaced it. Her retirement party was, however, an important event and there was only one good suit, only one shirt that matched, and Paul could not attend without a button. Wrong. It was Dana who could not bear for him to be seen with a man whose shirt gaped. Her husband of thirty-five years would and could happily attend without a button. Paul’s lack of excess was not limited to material goods; he also had no extra guilt or self-consciousness. Lucky man.

Dana’s life, on the other hand, was full of excess. She had multiple possible outfits for any event, alternative options for every occasion, and back-up plans for every contingency. She seemed to be rattled by the idea of sewing on a button, however. But, if she was going to be at home from now on, perhaps she had better brush up on her domestic skills. Luckily she was dressed and ready, and they were early. She was always early, and soon there would be almost nothing to be early for.

Where was that package of needles and thread she had picked up from the hotel room at the last conference in Las Vegas? She began noisily rummaging around for it as Paul meandered into his study across the hall and sat down to read. Retiring for a dedicated academic like Paul had just meant getting rid of the nuisance of students; he still spent every spare moment with his books. Dana thought about what retirement would mean for her as she searched. She finally found the mending kit in a bathroom drawer, but did she have a matching button?

For years, Dana had kept a jar on her dresser into which she tossed the spare buttons that came with new dresses, suits, slacks, sweaters. She could not remember ever retrieving a button; the buttons always lasted longer than her taste for the piece of clothing. Most of the buttons in the jar came from long discarded clothes, from dresses bought for weddings, funerals, work. Dozens and dozens of spare buttons, understudies which never got to perform. Dana let the buttons run through her fingers as she spread them on the dresser, and tried to visualize what outfits that they had come from and for what occasion she had purchased the clothing. It was surprisingly difficult. The buttons went back for over three decades. A life in clothes. Large, showy buttons from the late seventies. Bright red and yellow buttons in colors she had grown too old to feel comfortable in. Lots of black buttons. Some stood out with their gilt or rhinestone accents; many were almost the same. Lots of pearly buttons from soft blouses. Buttons from sober funeral wear and glitzy wedding outfits. Flat buttons and round pearls of buttons. They spread and ran over the mahogany surface like a runaway game of tiddly-winks. It reminded her of the giant piles of buttons they used to play games of fan-tan with Nana and Papa, where the chips were buttons and that’s why it wasn’t poker. And even fan-tan couldn’t be played on Sundays.

And among this treasure trove there certainly was a white button in the right size. Dana smiled. She was, indeed, ready for any contingency. Always prepared they could write on the tombstone that she was not prepared for yet.

Select the thread. White is good. Cut the thread neatly so there are no straggling ends. Nana had used the small scissors that Papa had sharpened so often there was almost nothing left. Dana used her nail clippers, as the only scissors she had were downstairs with the cutlery. Thread the needle. Nana said to suck the end of the thread first. Squint your eyes and just try. This was something that even her Nana had had trouble with. Dental floss would be easier, thought Dana. Not so limp. Get the reading glasses and hold the eye of the needle up in front of the lamp so you get a good view of the hole. Damn! Nana would have made her rinse her mouth out with brown soap. Try again. Now the hole seems blocked with spit. Dry it off and try again. Harder than getting a camel through, Nana would say. Harder for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven than for camel to get through the eye of the needle. That would be one benefit to early retirement. There would certainly be less money; maybe she would get into heaven after all. Pay attention. Here we go again. In it goes. Thank God.

It was amazing what Dana remembered from her childhood sessions with Nana. Pull the thread through. Suck on your finger. Wrap the end of the thread around your wet finger and then roll off with your thumb to form a knot. Suck on the thread, suck on your finger. They believed in using a lot of saliva in the old days; no wonder they were sick all the time.

Why do you wet your finger, Nana? Can I try Nana?

Dana’s first knot seemed both too large and far too wet. Cut it off and try again. Aha! So far, so good. She looked at her hands. She was retiring but her hands certainly did not seem to be as old and gnarled as Nana’s were when she taught Dana to sew on buttons and darn socks. But was she remembering correctly? Nana was probably no older then than Dana was now.

Old seemed different back then. Dentures in a jar, hairnets, lavender talcum powder. She pictured the old house; she smelled it. Nana would have trouble understanding how she felt tonight giving up her working career. Nana had never worked outside their little house, had never even learned to drive a car. She called automobiles “machines.” Their house was not on a bus line and there was certainly no money for cabs, so Nana was home alone all day while Papa went to work. Was that why she was always so glad to see the grandchildren? Dana was worried about what she would do with her time when she was home all day.

Position the button and then come in from the back, guessing at where one of the holes in the button will be. Out pokes the needle point from between the snake eyes of the white shell buttons. Success! Up and down through again. How many times are enough? Is there a manual for this? What did Nana say? “Not too tight. Don’t pull so hard. Don’t try so hard.” Remember to wrap the thread around the shank so that the button has room to be fastened. Remember what Nana taught you. Remember. But, Nana said to wear a thimble. Dana had no thimble. In the needle went and out again. In and out again. She was getting the hang of it. What else that Nana taught her could she remember? What questions would she ask her grandmother if she were still alive?

Dana had to admit a deep sense of satisfaction as she worked on the button. Fixing something. No bureaucracy. No unhappy people to deal with. Whatever the final product looked like, she knew that Paul would be very appreciative for any kind of button at all. Maybe this was all going to work out. Almost done. Take your time and do it right. A stitch in time. Dana had never had enough time to do anything right. She hardly remembered bringing up the kids. Take your time. Nana had had time; there was not much of anything else in that spare house, but there was plenty of time.

But as Dana threaded the needle through the back side then wove it through the loop it had made to make a knot, she punctured her thimbleless middle finger. A perfect hemisphere of blood fell on her new dress. It stood there against the ivory silk and then started to soak in. Her blood, her mother’s blood, Nana’s blood. She started to swear and then bit her tongue. There would be no getting rid of it. She would have to change. She looked up at Paul.

“I’ll have to change.”

“No problem. I’ll finish my chapter. We’ve got plenty of time.”

It occurred to Dana that it was a good thing that she had something else to wear. But not as good a thing as actually fixing a button. She looked at her handiwork. Fine on the outside; the backside could use improvement though. She surely would have had questions for Nana.