Spare Change

The sound of coins jingling in a pocket will forever remind me of my father.

The sound of coins jingling in a pocket will forever remind me of my father. I don’t know if he actually had coins in his pocket all the time, but it sure seems like he did. He paid for most everything with cash — this was still pre-debit cards, and I don’t remember him using a checkbook much — and he often had the change in his pockets. When he wore his scrubs for work, you could see the coins weighing down the lightweight material and you could hear them bouncing around loudly as he walked. With jeans, the coins had a much more muffled sound. In a jacket pocket, you could hear him scraping the coins together in his hand or tossing them around with his keys.

Every day, when my father got home from work and changed clothes, the day’s nickels, quarters, and pennies were deposited into a shell on top of his dresser. A big gray shell, made by a local pottery artist, that made its own delightful noises as the change dropped against its edges and slid down into the pile. If you needed extra change for any reason, you could go raid Dad’s shell — and when the shell was too full, it was time to roll the coins for the bank.

On a weekend afternoon, Dad would announce that it was time to clean out the shell and sort the coins for the bank. My sisters and I might have lazily refused at first, but he always pointed out that whoever helped would get to keep the cash. That always got our attention. He would pull out a bag of coin wrappers, dump the contents of the shell on the living room floor, and my sisters and I would get to work.

The process was soothing. Sorting the change by type, counting out stacks for the proper amount per roll, discussing whether or not the penny with old, calcified gum stuck to it was worth anything anymore — it was easy and satisfying to turn that mess of a coin pile into something ordered and neat. (It’s also amazing that I thought my college years of cleanliness were the first signs of my neat and controlling tendencies.) Every time we did this, I felt like I had to re-learn how to use coin wrappers, but once it was solved, the wrapping process flew by. At the end, we’d have a bag full of rolled coins that smelled like musty metal.

Taking the fruits of our labor to the bank was its own adventure. Riding in Dad’s Jeep, with Hootie & the Blowfish playing on repeat, the bag of coin rolls would sit heavy in my lap. I’d carry it in, and Dad and I would wait in line to see the teller. I don’t remember my sisters being involved at this point; maybe I was the only one who was unsatisfied by the idea of staying at home, waiting for cash to be brought directly to me. We’d make our way to the front of the line, hand her the bag, and — a few patient minutes later — receive our cash in return. I’m sure my father actually spoke to the teller but I was a shy and quiet child, and my main memories of these moments involve staring down at my feet.

I don’t actually know how often we did this; I have a few select memories of coin-rolling days. Eventually my parents divorced and the coin shell moved out, along with Dad. Pretty soon, debit cards were ubiquitous and time spent rolling coins mostly forgotten.

As an adult in the time of Paypal, Venmo, and banking instant pay features, I rarely carry cash and almost never have change. I have a couple of plastic baggies filled with pennies, nickels, and dimes — not quarters, those are necessary for laundry — that have followed me from apartment to apartment, increasing in volume by the tiniest of increments. I’d love to roll them up and take them to the bank, but I never do. There’s probably a disappointingly small amount of money, for one thing, and I don’t even know where to get or buy the wrappers (not that I’ve tried to, at all). My sister reminded me about CoinStar and similar machines, but they take out the joy of sorting — which I know, for some non-organizational-nerds, is a perk — plus they charge a fee. I don’t need a percentage taken out of my $10 in pennies, thank you very much.

As far as I know, my dad still uses cash whenever possible and comes home with jingling pockets at the end of the day. I live in Seattle now, and he’s in my home state of Mississippi, so I don’t see him on a regular basis. But I like to think that, no matter how our family has changed and spread apart over the years, the shell still sits on the top of his dresser, holding his spare change until it overflows.


Genie Leslie is a writer and podcaster living in Seattle. She reads books, loves wine, and firmly believes that Grease 2 is a better movie than Grease.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Change Series.

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