Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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What’s it worth to you, ma?

I used to be a coin collector. I was way into it for most of my childhood and adolescence. Along the way, I read and studied voraciously on the subject, and I suppose I’ve retained quite a bit of that knowledge, though that knowledge has mostly lain fallow in the recesses of my cranium ever since I took up the more social pursuit of acting.

But enough about me for now. This account begins with the story of a coin; a five-dollar gold piece, to be precise. It spent the first few decades of its existence doing whatever it is that gold coins were meant to do. But that changed in 1933, when President Roosevelt called in all the gold. Everybody had to turn in their gold to the government. It was The Law. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this discussion and were certainly beyond the meager knowledge that our five-dollar gold piece might have possessed.

But formal captivity was not to be the fate of this coin. Its fate was a more secret, unofficial, informal captivity. For this coin was hidden in the back of a dusty drawer by my maternal grandmother. It was kept there for many years before it was given to my mother. Mom told me that her mother always feared that someday the government men would come knocking on her door, that they would somehow know her secret and the jig would be up. The knock never came.

Now we will fast-forward to my own childhood. My mother would occasionally show me the coin, still being kept in the same yellowed envelope that Grandma had kept it in. Despite Mom’s token attempts at secrecy, I soon ascertained her hiding place and I would occasionally treat myself to a private viewing. I obtained coin catalogs, from which I learned that the date and mint of the piece were of a relatively common sort, though that made the piece no less wondrous.

In my teen years I had a paper route, which provided me the funds to more actively pursue numismatics. I also subscribed to Coin World, the weekly newspaper of the hobby. Often, when I would bring in that week’s issue with the daily mail, my mother would ask me to tell her the current value of her coin. There were always two parts to my answer: “Well, if you wanted to buy one, it would cost you $____; but if you wanted to sell it, you could get $____ for it.”

Things might have gone on in this manner indefinitely, but for one fateful afternoon. What with the 8 of us children all being in grade school or high school and needing food, clothing and the like, money was often a little tight. On this afternoon, my mother was looking at dresses in a catalog and wishing she could afford to buy a few. A possible solution came to her. “Chuck,” she began purposefully, “how much would you give me for that five-dollar gold piece?”

I fetched that week’s Coin World and came up with some values. Bit of bad luck for Mom – the market was kind of down that month. I gave her the news: “Well, if you wanted to buy one right now, it would cost you about $55, but if you wanted to sell it, you could get about $35 for it.” She agreed to sell it to me for $35. I quickly, without actually running, fetched $35 in cash, put it into her hands, and took possession of the coin.

It seems a little strange to reflect upon that moment now. A few question come to mind. Among them: Couldn’t I have given Mom the higher amount for the coin? – or – Would it have killed me to give my Mom enough money to buy a friggin’ dress rather than having her sell a family heirloom? Hmmm…

I suppose the ultimate answer to such questions is this: That’s the way Mom wanted to handle it. Though we didn’t discuss this point explicitly, she might have figured I wasn’t going to sell the piece, so it would still remain in the family, only she’d be a couple of dresses richer. In that, she would have been quite correct – I still own the piece, though it is kept in a safe place far from my home, since it has appreciated substantially in value over the years. The passing of the years has also given me this perspective with regard to that tiny golden bauble – those moments with Mom live now only in memory; Mom herself is gone now; and that bauble is nothing more than a little piece of metal whose disproportionate monetary value may make sense in economic terms, but never in human terms. I wonder too whether Mom may have figured out the same thing, which was why she was so willing to part with it. Let it be noted that, while I can recall my mother missing Grandma after she died, she never once asked to see that coin again after she sold it to me.

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