Searching for the world’s pennies at a Minnesota lake
Whether my parents saw the 1936 film, Pennies From Heaven, is impossible to say. During their courtship, the closest movie theater lay ten miles away, in another town. Though not far by today’s standards, it made catching a new release difficult: especially for a couple living without a car.
After marrying and moving to a larger city, they began taking in a movie from time to time, but those nights were rare. Sixty cents — the cost of two movie tickets and two ice cream cones after the show — could have purchased ten pounds of sugar or a pound-and-a-half of coffee, so even occasional splurges were given some thought.
Still, if they didn’t see the film, they knew and liked the Academy Award nominated song of the same name, written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke. A positive, upbeat tune meant to cheer Depression-weary listeners, it seemed to do just that. Even after the end of WWII, its popularity endured. My mother sang along when it played on the radio; my father sang it to me when he pushed me in my swing, or sought to cheer me on a rainy day.
(Bing Crosby starred in the movie. This version is by Frank Sinatra)
Every time it rains, it rains
Pennies from Heaven.
Don’t you know each cloud contains
Pennies from Heaven?
You’ll find your fortune’s falling
All over the town;
Be sure that your umbrella
Is upside down.
Trade them for a package of
Sunshine and flowers;
If you want the things you love,
You must have showers.
So when you hear it thunder
Don’t run under a tree;
There’ll be pennies from Heaven
For you and me.
Children are impressionable, and the song’s suggestion of upside-down umbrellas filled with pennies impressed me greatly. The day I discovered my own first penny lying on a sidewalk, I ran home, breathless and elated: eager to tell my parents I’d found proof of Heaven’s largesse.
I don’t remember their smiles, but I do remember my father suggesting I should keep my penny in a special place. After a little pleading, he consented to give me one of his wonderful cigar boxes, and my collection began.
Over the months, I discovered that pennies dropping from heaven weren’t as common as I’d hoped. My collection grew: but slowly. Eventually, I had twenty-three pennies — a number I remember because I counted them every day — until the temptation of our neighborhood gas station’s candy counter became irresistible. Root beer barrels (two for a penny) and two long rolls of Necco wafers (five cents each) reduced my fortune to eleven pennies.
When I began acting like a victim of the 1929 stock market crash, my mother pointed out that I had, after all, done it to myself. Then, she suggested I could re-build my penny collection by saving some from my allowance each week. I didn’t mind saving, but I balked at saving ordinary pennies in my special box. She didn’t seem to understand that the point wasn’t only the pennies, it was the way they arrived: unexpected, and free for the taking.
Eventually, I stopped believing that pennies fall from the sky, but I’ve never stopped picking them up. Plucked from parking lots, nudged away from sidewalk cracks, and swept from the occasional floor, each is tucked into a pocket and carried home. The cigar box is gone, replaced by a monogrammed glass box that graced my parents’ coffee table. As I add each new penny, I wonder: was it lost by carelessness, or was something more involved? If I’d lived in Annie Dillard’s neighborhood, it might have been something more, given the penny-planting ritual she describes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find… I always “hid” the penny along the same stetch of sidewalk up the street. Then, I would take a piece of chalk and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions.
After I learned to write, I labeled the arrows: “Surprise Ahead” or “Money This Way.” I was greatly excited, during all this arrow drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.
Then, as Dillard will, she goes on:
I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.
But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty brought a lifetime of days. It’s that simple. What you see is what you get.
What I saw, on Texas State Highway 16 , was this: a bit of down-home decoration on a bridge support at the Medina River.
Busy admiring the scenery, my traveling companion had missed the Lone Star, so I pulled to the side of the road, and we walked back to the river for a closer look. Beneath the bridge, hidden from drivers headed in either direction, was a familiar image.
Picking our way over the rocks for a closer view, we couldn’t help laughing at the deliciousness of it all. “Someone’s got a sense of humor,” I said. Straightening up, my friend pondered. “Do you suppose someone painted it under the bridge just to surprise people who take the time to stop?” “I don’t know about that,” I said, “but I suspect there might be other things to see around here. Let’s take a look.”
In the end, the tribute to Van Gogh wasn’t part of a larger exhibition, but there were things to see. Downriver, a tire swing recalled simpler, easier days.
Along the roadside and in ditches, late wildflowers bloomed, including the white prickly poppy I never imagined I would see so late in the year.
Occasional stems of skeleton-plant (Lygodesmia texana) bobbed about in the wind.
While an over-achieving clematis (Clematis drummondii) climbed its way to the heavens,
broom, dayflower, and gray golden-aster shared space with another favorite: snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata). Like snow-on-the-prairie, its name is metaphorical, but it’s lovely nonetheless.
A vibrant yellow flower lighting up the gray and cloudy day was a mystery even to my friend, who knows her hill country flowers.
Later that afternoon, during a visit to the Sophienburg Museum in New Braunfels, we were astonished to find Ferdinand Lindheimer, the long-departed father of Texas botany, making the identification for us. In an exhibit devoted to Lindheimer’s work, we found an herbaria sheet containing a sample of the flower collected by Lindheimer, with notes written in his own hand.
Known today as Lindheimer’s Senna (Senna lindheimeriana), the flower is one of many species and sub-species that bear the botanist’s name. One source says there are twenty; another says forty-eight; a third suggests over a hundred. At the museum, it was enough to see this species, and to feel a connection with the man for whom it was named.
In childhood, pennies from heaven were less common than I’d hoped. Today, they seem more common than I ever imagined.
Where masterpieces appear under bridges, flowers climb trees, poppies bloom out of season, and the ghosts of long-dead botanists smile to see new generations discovering their own sweet pleasures, it seems clear that Annie Dillard was right: the world is strewn with pennies. It would behoove us to keep our umbrellas at hand.