She raised six children in a small town in southern England. She was married, but it seemed like she was alone sometimes. The burden of running the household and raising children was purely on her shoulders. The family lived in a two bedroom terrace house and had very little money. The period before, during and after the second world war were tough and lean, but they managed.

She was my grandmother and I loved her dearly. Even after her children became adults and most of them were out of the house, she was still working hard each day. I have no idea what time she got up in the morning, but she was always hard at work when I came downstairs. She was busy all morning and then would have a quick cup of tea with my aunt and then she was back at work, getting ready for the big dinner at noon. After the meal, she would sit in her easy chair by the stove and have a small glass of sherry and start to read a romance novel, but she would eventually nod off for a few minutes. When she would wake up, she always seemed surprised that she had napped. She would pull out her basket of mending and would try to lower the pile of items that needed to be fixed by her capable hands. I loved to watch her. This was when socks were still being mended. If you could put a needle through a piece of material, then there was sewing to be done. Nothing was thrown away, it could always be fixed by Nana.

Today, I went through a sewing basket of a woman I have never met. I know her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, but she died in 1999 at the age of 90, long before I came to the Netherlands. As I went through the basket I saw a life. I felt not only her life, but my grandmother’s too.

I found green, white, black, red, blue, brown, pink and gray thread all wrapped around wooden spools. There were small containers of pins, needles and buttons. I love the buttons. They were all sizes and colors, for shirts, dresses and coats. I imagine that each button has a story. As I went through things, I realized I was holding onto a blue smooth button and I didn’t want to let it go. There were also pieces of white chalk, yarn, and thimbles. Most of the contents can be thrown away, but they have been kept for sentimental reasons. Maybe the basket will never be emptied, and that is okay. To me, it is like a historic document or a diary.

These two grandmothers had some things in common and yet, many things in their lives were very different. I do know that they both gave birth in 1934 and those children are still alive: my mother, who now lives in America and uncle John, of the Netherlands. Being a mother of young children during the war will change your life. My grandmother knew war, but did not live with occupation. The Dutch people were occupied and were literally starving. These experiences will obviously impact your life. You hold onto things. You save everything. You appreciate what you have and you do not want to be hungry again. Nana would still save every single thing she could in the kitchen, and this was thirty years after the war. Their sewing baskets were in two different households, but they held the family together. There was no money for new socks, you fixed what you had. There was not enough money for food, you planted a garden. These women were both survivors and they were good mothers and grandmothers. We will never know all of their stories, but we know enough to know that we loved them. We know that our grandparents lived a life we cannot really grasp completely. They wanted us to have more chances than they had. They didn’t want us to struggle. And so they saved, they mended and they held onto things “just in case” it will be needed one day. I have the blue button from a Dutch sewing basket of a woman I have never met. By knowing her, I am remembering my nana. The thread, the pins, the buttons are all the same in England and the Netherlands. The language may be different, but the hands of these two women knew how to make things, whether it was a meal from an empty pot or a new dress out of an old dress. And they did not forget to love their children and grandchildren. Oh how Ellen and Femmie loved.

Recommended reading: The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore

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