THE grandmother who admired Dickens tried to fetch me along aright, but I went astray with Bob Cratchit. It seemed to me the author should have paused to explain to me the peculiarities of totting shillings and sixpence and coming out even with the carry-overs. When I helped at my uncle's store I could add a list of groceries five times and get five different totals, and that was in decimal dollars and decimal cents, and then my uncle would suggest I go get a can of worms and bring home some trout.
So I needed help when I met Bob Cratchit up on his stool abreast of his ledgers cyphering amongst the abuses of his wretched situation. A few years later an Englishman told me it wasn't all that hard, really, and he started to show me how to add English money. Then he went all to pieces and apologized and went away. He seemed confused. I've not been an all-out Dickens fan.
I'm no more a numismatist than a mathematician, so it may seem curious that I have a considerable collection of English sixpenny coins. I gathered them back before they ceased to be legal tender in 1980, and perhaps they have accumulated some collector's value since. I haven't asked.
For years I had been giving sixpence to every young lady of my acquaintance who ventured into matrimony - along with a silver chest that I make from eastern white pine. The coin is not only the traditional bride's lucky token, but a nest-egg for the silver to be kept in the chest.
Since I am well into the senior ranks, this means I have made a good many silver chests and have given a good many sixpenny coins. I'd guess better than a hundred brides have gone down the aisle fortified by my gift: Something old and something new, Something borrowed, something blue, And a silver sixpence in her shoe. So I was alarmed to hear the sixpence, first coined in 1551, was to be retired from English coinage. I acquired as many as I could find, and am still in business.
The first such chest I made was for my own bride, and by the time she needed a sixpence we had quite a snatch of table silver in it. Even people who earned $18 a week could afford a teaspoon then, and I was earning $25. Today, considering the prices of tableware, it may be unkind to give a girl a silver chest, and I suppose even people well-to-do on welfare can scarce afford a pickle fork.
``What do you suppose,'' I asked my (same) bride lately, ``the boodle in your silver chest is worth today?''
She handed across a catalog from which one may buy replacement pieces in pattern sets, and I handed it back to her. Wow!
So if one of my brides decides on stainless steel, at least she has the sixpence for a starter. In 1551 the coin would pay a man's wages for a month, and by 1980 it had faded to about five United States cents. But in the glorious meantime it had been a fixture in English lore and legend and will persist in memory a long time to come.
Everybody sings I've got sixpence, jolly, jolly sixpence, and everybody recites the crooked sixpence against the crooked stile.
Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye...
The sixpence was the tooth fairy's coin, and they always stuck one in the plum pudding for a ``forfeit.''
On the morning I went hunting for a sixpence for my own bride, I asked the girl in the bank if they had any English money. She said, ``You thinking of going to England?'' I said yes, and I'd need a jolly, jolly sixpence. She went to the president's desk to tell him she had a nut at the wicket, and he came over to suggest that I see Ted Melcher. Ted, he said, collected coins.
That was in 1931, and at that time some of our banks didn't have any money at all. Ted gave me a sixpence, so my bride was equipped when the bells chimed. She keeps the coin in her silver chest and I hope she never needs it again. And I love to reflect on all the happy brides who have my sixpenny pieces as souvenirs of their happiest day.
One bride forgot, and remembered just as she started down the aisle. Everybody waited while a taxi rushed to bring the lucky coin. Shoved into her shoe in haste, the coin came up lopsided, and she limped down the aisle and stood on one foot to be wed. The date was 1878. The date on the coin. I have just finished a chest for Claire Rodrigue, who lives yonder and is scheduled for June. June 1990; her sixpence is 1965.