Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Grandmother's Pennies

Almost all of them were mine first.

My grandparents lived in Florida and I rarely saw them until they and I were much older and after my family moved back to the Sunshine State. Grammy would always bring chocolate chip cookies when she visited and now I bake them for my own children and great-grandchildren every holiday season in her memory. Gramps passed away when I was a high school senior, but I did get a chance to know and appreciate him. Gramps' story is told in Gramps and Apollo 11

In 1971, I found a penny on the running track at East Brunswick High School in New Jersey. I had never seen one like it before and asked my dad about it. He told me it was a wheat-back penny, and that they weren't made anymore. It was minted in the 1950s. I asked him if it was worth anything and he told me it wasn't worth very much more than a penny, probably not even 2 cents, but that my grandmother collected them. 

A couple weeks later, I was with my mom when she was visiting Mrs. L, who had a nice collection of books in her living room with which I was amusing myself when I noticed a gallon jar mostly filled with pennies on her mantle. I dumped all the pennies on Mrs. L's carpeted floor and pored over them for quite some time making a big pile and a little pile of them. Then, as calmly as I could manage while interrupting their conversation, walked into the kitchen and asked my mom if I could have $3.85. When both Mom and Mrs. L inquired as to what I wanted the money for, I replied that I wanted to buy some of Mrs. L's pennies. Mrs. L declined any money and gave her 385 wheat-back pennies to me. I put them in a glass Skippy Chunky Peanut Butter jar and gave them to my grandmother the next time I saw her.

At the time, I was too young to realize that my grandmother's hobby was over. She had collected perhaps a dozen wheat-back pennies in the 12 years that they had been out of circulation, and I had just flooded the market. Had I not found an old penny at the high school track and spent an afternoon with a gallon jar of pennies, I probably would not have later taken interest in noticing odd-looking coins in regular circulation.

I was careful to collect any silver coinage I saw in circulation minted before 1965 or 1970, depending upon denomination, and was always willing to show Grammy the coins I had collected and ask her how her pennies were whenever I saw her. She would invariably tell me that they were fine and still in her cedar chest. She asked me which of the denominations above penny were worth anything, and before I was 10, I knew all of the valuable coins for which I was looking. Some time later as an older youth I asked her if I could have all those pennies back when she was done with them and she laughingly said yes.

I visited Grammy as often as I could as I grew up, occasionally bringing friends by to stay on my travels and adventures. 

I collected wheat-back pennies for myself over the years and whenever I found one, I thought of the pennies I had given my grandmother. As I was leaving from a visit to Grammy in January 2002, she insisted on returning the pennies to me "while I still have all my buttons." We laughed at that as I left. Although I had asked about the pennies many times, I hadn't seen them since I was a young child. By then I had collected as many wheat-back pennies as I had originally given her. It was the last time I would see Grammy.

My grandmother lived to meet her great-great-granddaughter Alicia, who remembers Grammy.

Grammy had two gifts for me after she was gone.

Among her effects were found a bank check box on which Grammy had printed my name that included several loose wheat-back pennies, which I assumed were her original personal collection, and two small clasp change purses filled with all the silver coins that Grammy had collected since I long ago advised her which ones were valuable. She had switched from collecting copper to silver. The entire collection can't be worth more than a hundred dollars, but to me it's priceless.

Equally priceless, yet absolutely valueless to anyone besides me, was my grandmother's final gift to me... an old pre-Ziploc sandwich bag containing every yellowed letter I had ever written to her as a child.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful story, Mitch. Very eloquent and beautifully written!