My shima first taught me this lesson when I was very young, and repeated it or reminded me of it many times as I grew up. It became a sort of personal credo, influencing how I perceived my relationships with people, places, possessions, and purpose, driving the choices I made about to which to attribute value in my life. I learned to never become too emotionally attached to things, and to carefully measure every aspect of the living experience.
I haven’t made a secret of the fact that Shima was nearly destitute when she took me in after Ina died. I’m sure we were not at all well off, and I have enough perspective now to realize we lived well below the poverty line, but I never felt “poor.” We had to work hard to keep our crumbling habitat hospitable, but our home provided shelter, warmth, safety, and even comfort. Though we raised, gathered or grew much of what we needed ourselves, we always had more than enough food, for us, the animals we cared for, and whomever else happened along in need. And, there was always work to be found to do for willing hands with creative minds to solicit someone who would pay for it to be done.
Everything I wore was secondhand, but I never cared anything about having the latest fashion trend, or showing up in the “right” brand of sports team. I had no delusions of earning an athletic scholarship. Yet, I never felt out of place in any environment. Shima kept a sharp eye out, and always saw to that. She was more ahead of the curve than me. Sometimes had to convince me to retire something I still enjoyed. I’d have worn a favorite shirt or well broken-in set of duds to rags, but Shima wouldn’t have it. Said I wasn’t “hip” enough to pull off the retro look, knew when an article had seen its day. But also always knew how to give something a “new life” if she thought it would make a difference. She was one of the first I ever saw turn old jeans into handbags. Even sold a few. Still does, in fact.
We didn’t have much that was new. We hardly ever ventured into a chain store to buy anything from over the counter or off the rack. But there were special circumstances we sometimes set aside for — Shima always tried to find me something nice for Christmas — and the occasional unexpected crisis that from time to time required more than we thought we had. For those, we went to the penny jars.
At the entrance into almost every room of Shima’s house, the doors are propped open by a gallon jar, a tea kettle, a milk carton, an ice cream pail, a covered bucket, or a tote box filled with pennies. The size is for ease of tossing, and to allow for enough volume to create the weight needed for the practical application of door stop. When these storage vessels become too heavy to be moved, half or so of their bounty is scooped out, counted, and relocated to mason jars, where it is labeled by value and set aside as a rainy day / break-a-leg fund.
Thankfully, neither of us ever broke a leg, but when I chipped a tooth in junior high — actually, it was an errant softball that did it — the penny jars covered the repair. When Shima’s donated reading specs no longer worked because she needed trifocals, the penny jars came to the rescue. When the entire egg laying henhouse developed a case of roup, the penny jars got us enough potassium permanganate for the whole coop, as well as a few minor sterility measures to help restabilize the environment.
In many ways, I can’t imagine what our lives might have been like, or how we would have survived, if not for the pennies that so many toss aside now like they don’t matter anymore. Sure, we had a few nickels and dimes from spare change, maybe the odd quarter now and then, but those never landed in the jars. They’re not nearly as expendable, because they add up quickly, and are infinitely more spendable, so everyone recognizes their worth. Most of them we’d found were lost along the way somewhere, and the ones we had to contribute got absorbed back into the rotation quickly. But while the cash value of pennies has saved us plenty of times, it doesn’t begin to represent their only usefulness to me.
I’ve noticed in recent days it’s become the latest trend in art deco chic to garnish suburban households and businesses with pointless projects involving the tiling of pennies. This type of waste is sad to me on so many levels. The first time we were exposed to it was after one dump scavenge, a few years ago, when Shima came back from the hunt with a near perfect foyer mirror, 2½”Wx3”H, completely bordered by a 4” penny tile frame. The looking glass itself had a bit of chemical damage, but Shima knew how to repair it. She’d have never thought twice about a mirror before — Shima has never placed a great deal of weight on her appearance, though she is always clean, kempt, and neatly put-together — but she brought this one home, and hung it in our entryway. Says she likes to check herself now before she leaves, likes to see her face surrounded by pennies. Feels it might bring her good luck in whatever matter takes her out and about.
She’s not superstitious. She’s also meticulously counted every last penny on the frame — 940 in all. If I ever come home to find the mirror gone, or the frame’s border tiles replaced by buttons, I’ll know a need for penny jars had struck the shack again, and this time they got a little help from a rich man’s junkyard trappings.
Pennies may not mean much to the rest of the world, but I have a lot of fond memories wrapped up in how pennies have impacted our lives. And at the risk of feeling like I’m repeating myself after last week, I’d like to share a few, not just because I write what I know, but because, sometimes, the value that can be found where others don’t, can’t, or won’t see it, is worth passing on to those who might not have, but maybe could.
Whenever Shima leaves the house, she always carries with her one of her denim handbags, because there are many things she feels she needs when she’s away from home. Some of them, she actually does. One of the things I’m most comforted to know she has inside, though — readily and easily accessible to her — is a stretched-out old tube sock with a knot tied in the middle, securing in place 600 pennies. If she was ever in a bind where $6 might make a difference — like if she had to ride a bus to safety — the sock might prove necessary, but more importantly, it weighs just over 3 lbs., which could pack a heckuva wallop when swung in a sock against an attacker’s jaw (or junk).
I myself have used a penny as a gage to measure tire tread, or as the occasional screwdriver, but I’m pretty sure nearly everyone has done that. If you need a brass washer, though, and you have a drill, pennies work just as well. Brass washers cost about a nickel, plus tax, so even with the cost of the electricity, time, and muscle power you’ll use added in, you’re still ahead. Drill a few extra to keep around in your shed for use with nails when you need to expand their hanging capacity over a larger surface.
A few pennies have been used as fill-in for the mosaic tile in Shima’s bathroom. They even look nice, too. You can imagine my surprise, growing up accustomed to seeing pennies scattered across the wash closet, when I first encountered a New York hotel lobby floor made up entirely of penny tiles. We’ve used them at the shack for spacers when laying floor tiles, but other than gap coverage, never the flooring itself. Let’s just say I was floored.
Also in the bathroom, if you lose your shower curtain magnets, pennies can replace them. They aren’t magnetic, but they don’t really need to be. They’re only to weight the curtain down, which also works well for window coverings. Just sew them into the bottom hems to keep the drapes still.
Aside from being creative around the house, Shima’s also clever with merchandisable arts & crafts, which balance out our table when she brings our surplus crops to sell at the local farmer’s market. She puts on her most “native” attire, which is amusing to me, considering she spends most of her time in a housecoat and slippers at the shack, or jeans and a hoodie under a bomber jacket with cowboy boots when she goes out. But muggles will fawn over anything they think is “ethnic,” and she generally collects a decent profit — the more indigenous she comes across, the better.
The locals are familiar with her crafting ability, though, too, and sometimes bring her special DIY projects they either don’t have time or skill for, or just don’t want to bother with. What she doesn’t trade in barter, she turns over a tidy sum on. The income doesn’t cover bills on its own, but it feeds into the household kitty. Every little bit helps.
Pennies often factor into her crafting area. She uses them as a template for rounded corners on scrapbook photos, or to measure out circular appliqués, and more than a few wobbly knickknacks have been corrected with a carefully placed penny hot glued into the leaning space. Customers consider it all part of the “kitschy” charm.
Pennies are more than just fixes and tools, though. Sometimes, they’re fun. Shima got a little stir crazy one particularly harsh winter, and decided to teach herself tap dancing. She didn’t know anything about American dance, though, and didn’t have any tap shoes, so she just attached pennies to the bottom of a pair of dance slippers she’d found, and got silly with them. She tapped around the house that way for a week before I decided I’d had about enough and put some thumbtacks on the bottom of some old tennies, just so I could turn the tables and make her have to listen to me tapping wherever I went. She lasted almost three days before she gave in and hung up the slippers.
When I was young, and she wanted meaningful ways for us to pass our few downtime hours together, before I learned chess, Shima taught me checkers. Only, we never had a complete set of game pieces, so very often, pennies represented red, and nickels stood in for black. Shima always played the pennies herself, and let me have the nickels.
Now that Shima’s on her way toward half past 80, her joints are not always as cooperative as they used to be. She can still do everything she always has, but sometimes she’s just a little slower, and it takes a little longer. She’s had to make a few modifications for things that used to come easy.
There’s a small bowl with a handful of pennies near the medicine cabinet to help her apply leverage for prying off childproof bottles that would otherwise put too much pressure on her tendonitis. She says the spring loaded cabinet doors require wrestling a little more upper body strength now than they used to, and with me not around anymore to open them for her when she needs me to, Shima has superglued pennies to keep them from catching. She put some in the door jamb for the bathroom, too, and most any other door in the house that closes, so she never gets stuck on the wrong side of a twisting knob when her hands hurt too much to properly grip. The next time I’m home, I’ll probably start replacing them all with levered handles, but in the meantime, pennies have once again saved the day for my aging shima, and I’m grateful for that.
Growing up under the thumb of poverty may have helped to shape me into the man I am today, but it hasn’t defined me. I’m proud of my heritage, respectful of my upbringing, and I wouldn’t trade the lessons I’ve gleaned from my youth for all the wealth of a nation. Resourcefulness, ingenuity, independent thinking, integrity, reliability. These kinds of values do not come as naturally to a man when everything is handed to him. Shima says anything worth having is worth working for. But not everyone has my Shima, nor the wits and means to get by as we have.
Pennies are not just a fondly recollected rest stop from along my family’s nostalgic path. They’ve been a staple of survival for generations of poor in this country. They aren’t quaint. They aren’t overrated. They aren’t obsolete.
A lot of things about where we came from and who we used to be have been retconned from our country’s collective history to help the mass populace reimage what it wants to be. But the past can’t be white washed clean. Not when the present hasn’t caught up yet to our “neo-idealism,” which is really just a thin veneer, only two faces deep, that barely covers the trail of blood we’ve left behind.
On the list of richest countries in the world, the US falls into the top ten. This is the land of opportunity. The land flowing with milk and honey. Let’s use this vast abundance of ours. Let’s eliminate poverty within our borders, and then talk about where to draw the lines that divide us. Let’s fill every belly, rest every head, put tools in every hand to offer a fighting chance at self-preservation, and give a sense of self-worth to every strong and able back. Then, perhaps, we might consider losing the least of our currency. Only then will it be no longer needed.
More thoughts on: The Penny Debacle
i can haz votes, pleez?