From my memoir ‘to Paris for lunch’
There was a button tin in my Oma Elsa’s dining room. It was a dining room next to a small kitchen in a two bedroom apartment in the centre of Dusseldorf. The button tin was full of odd buttons. Originally it had been an old coffee tin with oriental images.
As a toddler, I used to climb over my sleeping Oma’s belly, even though I should have been the one sleeping. I had figured out quickly, that if I waited a little, my Oma would have the nap that I should been having after lunch. She used to lie next to me, holding my little hand and stroking my thumb…until she fell asleep and I could play with my buttons. I played with them for a long time.
The apartment was very quiet then and I tipped the whole tin out on the floor.
They were all different. Some came from very expensive fur coats; big black woven buttons with jet crystals inside them, all hand made. There were wooden ones, all colours and sizes, but I loved the shiny big ones, mother of pearl buttons with the little imperfections and different shades depending on the reflections of the light.
The noise returned during the late afternoon. One after the other they would arrive back home from work: three aunties, my uncle and Opa, all living together in this tiny apartment. And always the radio would be on in the background, it was turned on and Radio Luxembourg came blazing out. My Opa hated ‘ modern music’, but my aunties would tease him. He had no chance winning this war. It was four against one and as soon as he turned his back, the radio was switched on again. My aunties would sing and dance with me, I was always dancing with one of them, sitting on their hips.
The rumour goes that when I was small, I learned to walk late, as my feet hardly ever touched the ground. I was either sitting on my uncle’s or my father’s shoulders, my Oma’s hips whilst cooking or in my auntie’s arms as they danced with me to Radio Luxembourg. My transport was via people’s hips, arms and shoulders. With my Afro hair and long and skinny limbs, I looked like a little monkey baby attached to the rest of my tribe. And that is exactly how I felt and why I have such happy memories of the time I spent in this apartment.
My Aunt Lissy would often bring a fur coat home from work and once everybody had eaten, the table was cleared and my Oma and aunt would work until late at night on those furs. The needles were thick and so was the yarn. It wasn’t delicate work and I saw them often yanking at the threads to pull them through the skin. From time to time she would bring a really expensive coat home. This coat would be tried on and paraded through the living room. The odd thing was that whoever was wearing the coat instantly looked like they didn’t belong here, but to another world, even though they were still wearing pyjamas underneath and had curlers in their hair. It was as if Grace Kelly had suddenly decided to pop in to say hello.
The fur coats that passed through our apartment often left a button or two behind, which ended up in the tin that my aunt gave me when my Oma died. It ended up here in my boutique in England. Now, from time to time, my daughter climbs up on a chair and takes down the tin from the shelf and plays with those buttons, just like I did so many years ago.