My dad loved pennies, especially those with the elegant stalk of wheat curving around each side of the ONE CENT on the back. Those were the pennies he grew up with in Iowa during the Depression, and Lord knows he didn’t have many.
When I was a kid, Dad and I would go for long walks together. He was an athletic six-foot-four, and I had to trot to keep up with him. Sometimes we’d spy coins along the way—a penny here, a dime there. Whenever I picked up a penny, he’d ask, “Is it a wheat?” It always thrilled him when we found one of those special coins produced from 1909 to 1958, the year of my birth. On one of these walks, he told me he often dreamed of finding coins. I was amazed. “I always have that dream too!” I told him. It was our secret connection.
Dad died in 2002. By then, I was living in New York City, which can be exciting, or cold and heartless. One gray winter day, not long after his death, I was walking down Fifth Avenue, feeling bereft, and I glanced up and found myself in front of the First Presbyterian Church, one of the oldest churches in Manhattan. When I was a child, Dad had been a Presbyterian deacon, but I hadn’t attended in a long time. I decided to go.
Sunday morning, I was greeted warmly and ushered to a seat in the soaring old sanctuary. I opened the program and saw that the first hymn was “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Dad’s favorite, one we’d sung at his funeral. When the organ and choir began, I burst into tears.
After the service, I walked out the front doors, shook the pastor’s hand, stepped onto the sidewalk—and there was a penny. I stooped to pick it up and turned it over, and sure enough, it was a wheat. A 1944, a year my father was serving on a ship in the South Pacific.
That started it. Suddenly wheat pennies began turning up on the sidewalks of New York everywhere. I got most of the important years: his birth year, my mom’s birth year, the year his mother died, the year he graduated from college, the war years, the year he met my mom, the year they got married, the year my sister was born. But alas, no 1958 wheat penny—my year, the last year they were made.
Meanwhile I attended church pretty regularly, and along toward Christmas a year later, I decided I ought to join. The next Sunday, after the service, I was walking up Fifth Avenue and spotted a penny in the middle of an intersection. Oh, no way, I thought. It was a busy street; cabs were speeding by—should I risk it? I just had to get it.
A wheat! But the penny was worn, and I couldn’t read the date. When I got home, I took out my magnifying glass and tilted the copper surface to the light. There was my birthday.
As a journalist, I’m in a profession where skepticism is a necessary and honest virtue. But I found 21 wheat pennies on the streets of Manhattan in the year after my father died, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Originally published in Reader’s Digest in 2007
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