When my Nana passed in 2004, at the age of 93, she left me her button box and all of her yarn and crochet tools. These special pieces of my childhood keep her memory and her presence alive in my heart.

I love the sound of rain. However, the sound of rain on a tin or metal roof is something else altogether. It brings to mind childhood afternoons with my Nana. My Nana, Mary Murphy Chaknis, was born in 1911 in County Cork, Ireland. Her family was poor, and by the time Nana had reached her early teens, her mother and father decided to send she and her sister, Lily, to America to live with relatives, and hopefully to have a better life. Nana was only 16.

She and Lily traveled on an ocean liner and passed through Ellis Island in the latter part of the 1920’s. Her first job was in a hospital kitchen, preparing meals and helping with the laundry. It was a much different world than the one she had grown up in, and far away from home. Early on, Nana realized that her deep faith and the strength she received from God would be the cornerstones that would sustain her throughout her life.

Nana would never again visit her homeland. Instead, she would live a long and beautiful life in America, meeting and marrying my grandfather, Pete Chaknis, an immigrant from Greece, and raising six children, first in New York, and then in Florida when the family transferred here in the 1940’s. My grandfather was a chef and he moved the family to Panama City when the opportunity to run his own café presented itself. The house my mother and her three brothers and two sisters were raised in would eventually be purchased by my parents after Grandpa passed away in the early 1960’s. Nana would move across the street and I would spend many hours of my childhood in her company.

Rainy afternoons were my favorite. It was on those days that Nana would pull out her button box. To me it was much more than a box filled with buttons. To me it was a treasure chest. Sorting through the buttons was like peeking through the looking glass into the past.

Nana taught me how to crochet. She patiently helped me create, first small granny squares and then later on, blankets and afghans. She taught me how to bake her famous carrot cake and cheesecake. I followed her around the kitchen watching as she prepared her delicious fig preserves from the tree in her backyard. She’d send me out with a basket to collect the figs when they were ready for picking. Spending the night with her was a special treat because in the morning she’d serve the best, fluffiest, lightest buttermilk pancakes in the world!

But rainy afternoons were my favorite. It was on those days that Nana would pull out her button box. To me it was much more than a box filled with buttons. To me it was a treasure chest. Nana saved buttons from just about every garment that lost one or that was past mending. The box contained treasures from tiny pearl buttons to big ornate ones from suits and jackets. They were not the sort of buttons you’d ever find in a store. No, they were precious, and unique, and every bit the little gems they appeared to be. They had been saved over the years from the very garments Nana wore; from my grandfather’s worn clothing; from my mom’s and her sibling’s hand-me-downs. It was like sifting through history. Nana could recall in vivid detail the garments from which they came and the occasions on which they were worn. It was like peeking through the looking glass into the past and seeing her as a young girl, crossing an ocean to begin a new life; a young wife and mother, caring for her family; a widow, who lost my grandfather when she was only in her mid-forties; to becoming Nana, the women I admired and whose warm hugs were the best in the world; whose Irish twinkle never left her eyes; and whose words of wisdom I still carry with me to this day.

When Nana passed in 2004, at the age of 93, she left me the button box and all of her yarn and crochet tools. Sometimes, on rainy afternoons, when the drops are pattering softly on the metal of our roof, I take out the button box and slowly sift through the buttons, thinking of Nana and the sound of her voice as she reminisced about each one. I’d hold up one of the little treasures, asking, “What about this one, Nana? Where’d it come from?”

“Oh, that one, Jenny-Pooh,” she’d say using the nickname she’d lovingly given me, “That one was from the dress I wore on the train when we moved here from New York. I was pregnant with your Uncle George. You mom was just five…”

The story would continue, and I’d listen intently every time. Because even then I knew that one day, my own children, her great-grandchildren, would ask me the same questions. And I wanted to be able to give them these same pieces of family history that Nana was giving me; with just as much joy and just as much love. Especially on the rainy afternoons, when I knew I’d feel her presence next to me, her warmth moving through me, and perhaps most meaningfully of all, her story, living on as I shared it with the next generation.

~ Jennifer Nelson Fenwick (© 2018)