There’s a big house on a suburban street in Darwin. It’s old and creaky. The palm trees grow wild all around it, with stranger vines cloaking their trunks and creating their own kind of jungle. Inside there once lived a tribe of children of which I was but one. It was, I should say, a long time ago.
We don’t own that house any more, but as the house I grew up in (and indeed the house I was born in) it holds a pretty special place to me. Holding onto memories can be hard. Since I lived in that house through my childhood and teenage years, I’ve never lived in any one place for longer than a year. That’s a renter’s life. I’ve become accustomed to packing up and moving on, never really accumulating too much, just taking what I can carry to my next abode.
Still, there are some things that I do carry with me.
One is this little container of buttons.
You might think, what’s the big deal about buttons? On the surface the container certainly doesn’t look like much. It’s rusted as anything and still has a Indonesian Rupiah price sticker on the outside. It’s probably ten years old, easily. In fact it’s probably more. Inside are all of these fabric-covered buttons. These look much more impressive than the container that they’re in, but even then their meaning isn’t clear straight away.
Years ago, when I lived in that big house and I was a member of that tribe of children, my parents loved fabrics. They put all kinds of incredible fabrics all over that house, many of them Aboriginal screen printed fabrics, handmade and filled with stories I didn’t know but was happy to imagine. Our curtains, cushion covers, even clothing, all represented that love of fabrics. Now, these fabrics were far from cheap, so all the bits that were left over, all the offcuts and the ‘not-quite-needed’ parts from fabric projects went into an enormous suitcase. I’m sure at one point that suitcase was carefully stored and ready to be used at any time, the fabrics waiting to be made into yet more projects. Time is a funny thing though. My parents didn’t stay together, and as they moved on our house changed. Fabrics that were falling apart were put aside and retired, and that suitcase filled with those treasured threads was popped into a cupboard and forgotten.
The cupboard it was forgotten in happened to be one that I was digging into some years later, looking for something else amongst the accumulations of a home that has been lived in for several decades. When I came across the suitcase and opened it up, along with the musty smell of forgotten memories came the visual stimuli, all those fabrics I so remembered from my own colourful childhood. That suitcase became my treasure in a way, and over the years I took small pieces of fabrics out for my own little projects, stretching and challenging myself as a young artist. There was a magic in that suitcase, and I never wanted to let it go.
Now, nobody can live in their childhood home forever. Eventually the countdown started for my own flight from the nest, when I would leave for university and (in theory) be out on my own in the world. I couldn’t take the house I grew up in with me. I couldn’t pack up the battered floor boards and the many layers of painted walls. I couldn’t bottle up its familiar smell, the sounds of the birds calling in the jungle garden at all hours of the morning and night. I couldn’t take the doors, so at any point I might just step back inside and be there again, in this place that had always been my home. Instead I had just one suitcase.
So, I took the fabric.
Of course I couldn’t take it all. There were still rolls and reams of it, tucked away and dusty in their little storage box. So I went online and bought a handful of big self-cover fabric buttons. I knew I didn’t need to take all the fabric with me, I just wanted a memory. So I picked my favourite fabrics from the throng and I made them into buttons, sealing those little slivers of the memories that came with them into a tiny package that I could take with me anywhere. Over the years that little container full of buttons has travelled far. Sometimes even that was too much to take with me but I always knew it was there, tucked away in storage, those memories waiting for me to return.
Being a renter means knowing that next year you might be somewhere different. It means understanding that you can’t call places home forever, unless you can take your home with you wherever you go. For me, that big house with the overgrown garden will always be home, even if someone else owns it now. Luckily, I can take those little pieces that remain with me always, so I never need to feel homeless anymore.