The Missing Button
Cigarette smoke overwhelmed me as soon I as pushed open the smudged glass door, the noxious fumes mingling with a pungent undertone of stale beer. I have come to associate that thick odor with the VFW Hall in Lee’s Summit Missouri and the Thursday nights I spent there with my dad.
Paneled walls in the foyer were covered with framed photos of men in uniform, year book style, locals who had all served in wars dating back to World War I.
Every Thursday I met my dad there along with a handful of his friends. He was the only World War II guy left, but there were still plenty from Korea, and recently, a few younger men from Vietnam and Iraq. They all stood when I approached, one of the many charming idiosyncrasies of that unlikely group. I took my seat and felt a crack in the vinyl chaff my thigh through silky fabric of my dress.
My dad sat in his usual chair, sipping a 7-up. The younger guys drank beer, but the older ones like my dad, Mr. Gibson, and Mr. Forsyth, had given up beer a long time ago. It never occurred to me to call these men by their first names, but we were as comfortable as old friends. I knew their lives, and they knew mine.
My dad wore his dark blue jacket, the one my mom made him decades ago. She got a good deal on the wool and said it would last a lifetime. If you looked closely at the nickel plated buttons, you'd see prairie grass stamped into a design like the wheat logo on Kansas license plates.
The coat still fit my dad perfectly and did look like new except that one button was missing. He had lost it at Mark Twain State Park on a family vacation many years ago, and there was no hope of finding one like it anywhere.
This gathering of men was diverse. A few manual laborers and a few executives, a couple of academics and a salesman, they met every week and joked about their wives, bragged about their kids. I was grateful my dad had these evenings to look forward to, and I knew I would miss them when they were gone.
When my dad died during a cold winter a few years later, all of them showed up for his funeral, the younger ones offering to be pall bearers. But my dad had made it clear that he wanted to be cremated, joking that they had all done enough heavy lifting in their lives.
That Spring, my siblings and I gathered in Missouri, my dad’s ashes on the coffee table in front of us like a neon sign in an empty room.
“What are we going to do with them?” Ross said. There were nine of us, all living in different parts of the country, our lives separated by time and distance. My mom had Alzheimer’s and wasn’t even aware that my dad was gone.
“I guess I can take them,” Martha said, although she didn’t sound enthusiastic. No one else said anything. Someone popped open a beer. Then bottles got passed around while we stared at the ashes, coming up with no solutions.
A case and a half later, we decided on a road trip. We would head to Mark Twain State Park, the scene of our family vacations, and scatter his ashes among the pine trees where we had spent so many summers as kids.
In the morning, remarkably, the plan was still in tact, and we caravanned there in three cars, the ashes tucked into the trunk of my brother’s rental.
None of us had driven those rural roads in many years, and I had forgotten how beautiful it was, stark white dogwood blossoms glowing in the woods among budding Pin Oaks. Occasionally a burst of pink came through on the stretchy limbs of Red Buds, trees I had forgotten about but which are the talisman of spring in the middle of the country.
We pulled into the park, got out lunch, and talked about insane family vacations, too many kids, exhausted parents and a badly trained dog. The family station wagon, crammed with our luggage and a week’s worth of food, exploded onto that park, often with another huge Catholic family or two, the moms laying out lasagnas or sandwiches while the dads drank beer and gathered fire wood.
After a while, we turned our attention to the task we had come for. Martha took the ashes out of the trunk, and we walked to a spot in the pines we all remembered well, a clearing where we had lingered over bonfires under a spectacle of stars, the kids tired but too scared to walk back to the cabins alone.
“It’s the perfect spot,” my oldest sister said. We all nodded, quiet with our own thoughts. It was a still day, and Martha poured the ashes onto the ground and fitted the lid back on the urn. It was over in just a few seconds.
We stood there for a while, expectantly, waiting for a ceremony that wasn’t going to happen. “I guess that’s it,” Ross finally said. None of us were Catholic anymore, none of us inclined to pray, but the mood was reflective just the same. I struggled to feel the presence of something bigger, a sign that God or my dad or some other spiritual entity was there with us. Breathing in the smell of those woods, damp and earthy, I took one last look as we started back to the cars.
Then, just as I was leaving, something caught my eye, something shiny poking up through the dirt a foot or two from the little pile of Dad’s ashes. Its gleam was out of place in the woods, like a piece of tin foil left over from a campfire or a tiny hair clip some little girl inadvertently left behind, and it caught the sun in such as way as to demand my attention.
Looking closer, I saw that it was a button. Brushing the dirt on my sleeve, a pattern emerged, a worn but unmistakable stamp of prairie grass, the very button my dad had lost so long ago. One of those rare and inexplicable miracles we all receive from time to time, I passed it around to my astounded siblings, and then we headed home, our paths separate but forever intertwined.