On October 19, my grandma, Florine Payne Timmons, would have turned 89. She died on October 13, 1999, less than a week shy of her 77th birthday. I wrote this story about silver pennies a few years ago for our local newspaper, but I think it is worth repeating here for her birthday. Happy Birthday, Grandma. You are loved and missed.
When I was in the first or second grade, I discovered, in the elementary school library, a children’s book of poetry called, All the Silver Pennies.
The book, with its silver cover, was an anthology that combined two volumes of poems, both of which were edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson: Silver Pennies and More Silver Pennies.
I was intrigued, however, by the words in the preface:
“You must have a silver penny
To get into Fairyland.”
My best friend, Amy, and I fervently believed in fairies. We used to spend our recesses in grade school building fairy houses at the back of the playground lot using twigs and grass and leaves.
When we spent the night with each other, we would troop through the pastures surrounding our houses looking for fairy rings, circles of worn grass that showed where the wee folk had danced.
We would try to stay up until midnight, a magic hour, eyelids heavy, hoping to see twinkling fairy lights on the lawn outside the bedroom window. Several times we did see tiny glimmers in the rooms of Amy’s dollhouse and we knew the fairies were abroad.
We knew the lore about fairies, too. Fairies, we had read, were supposedly angels who wouldn’t take sides in the Battle in Heaven between God and Lucifer. Cast out of Paradise for their indecisiveness, the fairies did not go to Hell, but rather were sent to Earth. Once here, they tried to make Earth a magical place like heaven.
We knew that Fairyland was located somewhere on Earth.
When we found the Silver Pennies book, filled with poems about fairies and elves and other magical beings, we were delighted. Even more so, when we learned that all we needed to get into Fairyland was a silver penny.
But where to find a silver penny?
As with all things confusing or unknown to me, I knew my grandma would have the answer.
“When I was younger,” Grandma said, “My Aunt Lulie had a grocery. On the front counter, there used to be a jar filled with silver pennies.”
A jar of silver pennies!! Hundreds of tickets to Fairyland.
“So silver pennies really exist?” I asked, breathlessly. The only pennies I knew of were the copper ones I stuffed in my piggy bank.
Grandma told me that the silver pennies were made during the second World War when copper was needed for the war effort. They were only around for a short time in the 1940s and then again for a year or so in the 1950s.
“They weren’t real silver, though. They were nickel. But everyone called them silver pennies because they were a bright silver in color. You know, I think I might have one somewhere.”
After searching through several of her old pocketbooks, Grandma found a coin purse at the bottom of one bag. Hidden among the letters Uncle Donnie had sent from Vietnam, the flat, deflated wallet appeared empty.
Inside the coin purse was a silver penny.
My friend, Amy, and I tried on numerous occasions to get into Fairyland with the silver penny. Eyes squeezed tightly shut, fingers gripping the edge of the coin, we chanted, “You must have a silver penny to get into Fairyland…”
But we never went anywhere. Opening our eyes, we would still be standing in the exact same spot in a field or in Amy’s bedroom or on the school playground. The silver penny never transported us anywhere.
Moving from childhood into the realm of adults, I forgot about silver pennies and fairies. I tucked the coin away in a change purse, just like Grandma had done, and I didn’t think about it.
Until Grandma died.
When we went to have Grandma’s headstone made, I knew exactly what I wanted etched on to the surface with her name.
“You must have a silver penny to get into Fairyland.”
Because while the silver penny never physically took me from Ohio or my home, I was transported during my childhood to magical places due mostly to the love of my grandma. Grandma always had the tokens, the charms, the silver pennies that made the world special and moved my life out of the mundane and into the secret areas of my imagination.
“We can put the penny on there, too,” the man at the monument office told us.
Today my silver penny is embedded in black stone, its surface shining in the sunshine atop a grassy hill.
I touch the penny every time I visit Grandma in the cemetery and I am transported back in time to days spent on Grandma’s lap reading books, telling stories, and being rocked to sleep.
I am transported in my memories to a time when Grandma braided my hair, put apple butter on my toast, and cut the edges off of my sandwiches.
Finally, when I close my eyes, that penny whisks me away to the Fairyland of my youth.
I had to grow up to know how to use it.