Pennies {essay}




The tide rises, the tide falls,

The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;


Mommy holds my hand tightly as we clomp across the wooden planks. Every time we get close to a shadow I jump so my shoes will light up. Daddy stops us and points at a fisherman. He is unhooking a shiny fish from a hook, just like Great-grandpa did the time we went fishing at the lake. The fish flaps around. I think it wants to go home.

“Daddy, the fishy’s bleeding.”

“Yep. He has a little scrape, but he is going to be fine.”

“Is the man gonna eat him?”

“No. That fishy is too small to eat. The man will probably throw him back.”

“So he can go home?”

“So he can go home.”

The man carefully cuts the invisible fishing line and tosses the fish off the pier. Its scales shine. Maybe the fish wants to fly. A pelican with a big, wrinkly bill swoops out from under the pier and catches the fish. He’s gone.

Along the sea-sands damp and brown

The traveller hastens toward the town,


Mommy tugs on my hand.

“Come on. There’s a machine outside the restaurant at the end of the pier that sells candy for a penny.”

I know a penny is not very much money because I’ve tried to buy things with pennies from under the couch cushions. Not enough, Daddy said.

Most people do not care about pennies, but I do. I pick them up. Great-grandpa told me that if you pick up enough pennies and keep them in a jar, you’ll have one-hundred dollars. Daddy won’t say not enough to one-hundred dollars. That’s why I pick up pennies.

I haven’t found any today, so I watch the ground, waiting, but there are too many rusty rivets that aren’t pennies, too many gaps between planks—slits of ocean—where pennies fall, too many bird droppings that shine like metal. I am running out of time.


And the tide rises, the tide falls.


“Look. Here’s the machine.”

“But I haven’t found a penny yet.”

“That’s ok. You can have this one.”

Mommy presses a penny into my hand and helps me put it in the slot and turn the crank. She shows me how to cup my hands to catch the jellybeans when she opens the little silver door.

I keep the jellybeans on my tongue as long as I can, trying to make them last as we walk alongside the restaurant. We keep walking around the restaurant and I don’t pay attention to anything but the taste of jellybeans. I think how the jellybeans are like little fish who want to go home. They want to dive off my tongue and fly down my throat, but I won’t let them.

Then we walk off the pier and I realize the jellybeans have vanished from my mouth and we have appeared on the sand. It is like some sneaky pelican snatched the seconds from my memory—the ones where the beans dove and I walked—and now I have just snapped back into myself to continue from where I left off.

Maybe Daddy knows what happened.

“Did we ever turn around or did we walk across the whole ocean?”

“What do you think?”

“I think . . . maybe?”

“I’ll let you figure it out.”

Mommy and Daddy hold my hands until they help me into my car seat and I fall asleep as we rumble away from the jellybeans, the fish, the pelican, and the beach on the other side of the ocean.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,

But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;


I remember Great-grandpa’s hands. You could see each vein like a river, each knuckle like a mountain, each wrinkle like a road—the way the earth looks from the windows of a plane. Once we took a plane to see Great-grandpa. That plane was fast—superfast—but not as fast as Great-grandpa’s hands. They were farming hands, hands of earthwork and sky-breathing. Living hands.

Great-grandpa taught me to play slap-hand. He would rest his elbows on the arms of his wheelchair and turn his palms upwards. It was an invitation, a prayer of sorts. I would stretch out my hands, soft and tiny, like stars above his earth-hands. I never knew when he was going to flip his hands, but he always got me, caught my star. I could never get my hands away fast enough, and when it was my turn to be underneath, to catch his stars, he always got away. It was infuriating, but I loved it. It was us time.


The little waves, with their soft, white hands

Efface the footprints in the sands,


            Why did Mommy button my new shirt all the way up to my throat? I don’t like it. I don’t think I could swallow anything wearing this. It wouldn’t fit. If the pelican yesterday was wearing this shirt, it couldn’t have swallowed that fish. Mommy slides me a piece of paper from the middle of the table.

“Write something to Great-grandpa.”

“Why, Mommy?”

“So he can read it when he wakes up.”

“What do I write?”

“Your cousins are writing him little notes.”

“But I don’t wanna do it.”

“Think how happy he will be when he reads it.”

“Ok. If it makes him happy.”

I choose a blue marker, my favorite color. Mommy helps me fold the paper up when I finish writing, and then I write my name in my best handwriting on the front.


And the tide rises, the tide falls.


We stand in line, Daddy, Mommy, and me. I never had to stand in line to see Great-grandpa before. Is everyone playing slap-hand today? I thought it was a special game for the kids. Adults not allowed. They should get out of line so the kids can play.

We move forward slowly and some of the adults are crying. I didn’t know slap-hand was so scary for them. Maybe it hurts them more than me.

“Daddy, where’s Great-grandpa?”

“He’s over there.”

“I can’t see. There’s too many flowers. Is he hiding?”

“No. I’ll show you when we get there.”


The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls

Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;

There is a big table with a white tablecloth, with a big wooden box on top. Mommy is crying. She slips a note into the box. Where is Great-grandpa? What about slap-hand?

Daddy lifts me up in his arms so I can see better.

“Put your note in the box.”

“But Daddy, why is Great-grandpa sleeping in a box?”

Daddy is crying. He whispers to me, because he can’t talk, just cry.

“Because he has gone to heaven.”


“They are going to bury him in the ground so he will be safe until Jesus comes to wake him up.”

“But Daddy, why are you crying? He’s going to be ok if Jesus can wake him up.”

Daddy doesn’t say anything—he just kisses the top of my head and holds me, even when we go outside to sit down on the grass. He holds me.


The day returns, but nevermore

Returns the traveller to the shore,


I didn’t cry until we got home. I was on my bed thinking about Great-grandpa. I thought about slap-hand and how fun it was. I thought about the funeral and the flowers. I thought about how sad I was that I would never get to see him again for a long time. That’s when I started to cry. I never got to say goodbye.

So I cried. The afternoon was quiet and I sat on my bed, looking out the window and cried.

Then it was finished.

I sat there for a minute, before I remembered my promise—the promise I wrote on the note to Great-grandpa. I dug through my closet where I stored a collection of odds-and-ends, things like empty toilet paper rolls, rubber bands, and empty tissue boxes that were useful for projects. I found the jar I was looking for and put it on my dresser. I pulled open the top dresser drawer to find the box where I kept all my money and sat on my bed, sorting. I scooped up all the pennies and tossed them into the jar. They shined like the scales of a fish as they fell. Then I found a blue marker and labeled the jar in my best handwriting.

Finally, I smiled.

Great-grandpa would be so proud.


And the tide rises, the tide falls.



Work Used:    “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


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