I let the pile of buttons flow through my fingers like water or sand, over and over again picking them up and watching them pile on the counter. They are large buttons and small, some smooth and others textured. They are plastic and metal. They are brown and yellow and red and purple.

“They’re old, antiques,” my mom told me when she handed me the two small plastic bags of buttons, tied up with bread ties. “They’re probably worth something.”

“But I’m going to keep them,” I replied. “They’re more valuable to me than anyone else.”

These were my Grandma Ruth’s buttons. When I was young, Grandma lived with us, and her button tin — an old Sunshine Biscuit container with two little girls on the front — was one of a few treasured items of hers I was allowed to play with. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing I learned to count running my fingers through those buttons. Probably learned my colors that way, too. I learned about patterns and textures, and how life’s smallest things often become the most valuable … when they’re collected and treasured.

I’ve had my eye on that button collection for years. Not because it’s worth something to some antique collector, but because it’s worth so much to me. The keeper of the buttons is the keeper of some of life’s best lessons. Like this one: you can never have too many spare buttons.

Because my grandmother and my mother saved buttons, I’ve been saving them, too. Where my grandmother kept them from scarcity — a saved button from an otherwise threadbare garment — I pulled them from excess. Each time I bought a new blouse or jacket that had an extra button attached in a tiny little bag, I clipped it off and dropped the button into the Ball canning jar that now sits on a shelf in our living room. Dozens of buttons I’ve clipped over the years. But when I brought home the two bags my mom gave me over the weekend, I discovered that my collection is just a fraction of what Grandma had saved.

The buttons came to me as a result of Mom’s recent move. She’s just two minutes away now instead of an hour and a half. I’ll be able to help her more now, as she needs me. But I suspect she’ll be helping me more now, too. It’s been a long time since we’ve lived close enough to be part of each other’s daily lives.

In addition to the buttons, I’m also now the keeper of a Hoosier cabinet, a number 4 crock from Monmouth pottery, and the old dresser that had been mine in childhood but went on to a second life — or maybe a third, I think it had been my grandmother’s, too — when mom refinished it. Having moved a lot myself, I don’t have a lot of treasured possessions of my own. I’ve mostly lived lightly and simply, relying on second-hand stores and family hand-me-downs to outfit my living quarters. Things that could quickly be shed when it was time to pick up again and move. My mom is just the opposite, having meticulously collected and kept many family heirlooms over the years. As we were moving her things over the weekend, I learned so much about my family and our community and the way life used to be from sorting and packing and then unpacking a lifetime’s worth — or maybe a few lifetime’s worth — of stuff.

It’s true, it’s all just stuff. And it’s easy to get bogged down by too much of it. But it’s also more than stuff. Each item in each box is a lot like Grandma Ruth’s buttons. Individually, they seem small and insignificant, but collectively they tell the story of us. Mom, me, our family. All of us.

Slowly, those items (at least the ones I have room for) and their stories are being passed on to me. Not so I can sell them for what they’re worth, or even keep them for myself, really. But so I can use them. Add to them. Allow them to shape who I am, before it’s my turn to pass them on to the next generation.

How did I get here? How did the child who played with her grandma’s buttons become the woman who now saves them in a jar? It’s not an easy burden. But it’s an honorable one. It’s a joy and responsibility I’ve looked forward to for decades now.

Yesterday, I pulled out my own button jar, and rather than dumping all of Grandma’s buttons loose into the container, I kept them in their own bags still tied up with the bread tie. I kept hearing Mom’s voice — “they’re old, probably worth something” — and figured they’d be worth less if they were intermingled.

Today, I pulled the jar out again, this time dumping my own buttons into a little bag, and letting Grandma’s buttons flow loose into the jar. Before I screwed the lid back on, I tucked the bag of my newer, shinier buttons on top.

As I returned the jar to the shelf, I smiled to myself, wondering if someday my own buttons might also sit loosely in the jar along with Grandma’s.