Every few weeks or so, I’ll add something I wrote from my 100 months as a news columnist at the News & Record. OK, for those doing the math, that’s eight years and four months in which I wrote three columns a week and churned out stories about somebody — or some thing — more than 1,200 times.
Not that I’m counting.
Anyway, these stories are the ones I remember as I chased quotes across North Carolina.
And this is one comes from January 2012. It’s about my dad and my discovery of dimes. Of all the columns I wrote, there’s a handful I’ll always remember.
This is one.
Dimes, My Dad & Me
It’s that time of year, the first Sunday in January, when I have all these ideas of what I’d love to do.
I’d love to cuss less and pray more. And by God, I’d love to find a decent bag of boiled peanuts somewhere in central North Carolina. No can, please. I want them fresh, salty, slimy, damp as a swamp. Do miss that.
But moreover, I’d love to never miss the importance of a dime. Let me explain.
When I was young with a bowl cut, my father drove me and my mom everywhere to see relatives, friends and his buddies from World War II. With every exit, I heard the same conversation.
“Nat, be careful,” someone would say to him.
“Don’t worry,” he’d respond. “I have $2 million and 10 cents in the car. Meg’s a million, Jer-Boy’s a million, and I’m 10 cents.”
I hated it. I was so embarrassed that I’d slink in the backseat, hoping no one would see me leave. My dad never seemed to notice. He drove on. He embraced his goofiness and always called me “Jer-Boy.” Hated that, too.
But I got used to it. He was a green-eyed, bowlegged jokester, and he always loved to poke. Even at himself.
“Jer-Boy, I’m so bowlegged,” he’d say, “I couldn’t hem a hog in a ditch.”
So it went with my dad – the Army sergeant major, the 28-year veteran of the military, the South Carolina farm boy named Nathan Alexander, the first to leave the family’s tobacco farm.
My father died 12 years ago from a weak heart. He was 80. Afterward, I wore out Bob Dylan’s 1997 release “Time Out of Mind.” I buried my grief in the words I heard, and a verse from “Not Dark Yet” clanged in my mind like a grandfather clock.
Feel like my soul has
Turned into steel.
I’ve still got the scars
That the sun didn’t heal.
That’s when I started finding dimes.
I found them where my kids sat. I found them on vacation, on long weekends. Once on a guys-only trip, I found two dimes on a beach house table in Myrtle Beach, in Horry County, the place of my dad’s birth.
I found them underneath a kitchen island I demolished and in the cushions of a couch where my nephew – my dad’s grandson – slept.
Five years ago, my family was buying a house from a retired probation officer, a man who had just lost his wife to cancer. He shared his story. I shared mine about the dime. The next day, he called.
“Jeri,” he told me. “You’ll never guess what I found.”
My daughter found a dime on her windowsill, in a drink machine, in her cubby at school. My son found them in his bedroom, in our kitchen, on his visits to Salisbury to see his maternal grandparents.
My wife – well, she has found more dimes than I have. Under chairs. In the couch. In the car. In the tablecloth as recently as a dinner right after Christmas.
We have a name for them: Bubba Dimes. My kids called my dad “Bubba.” The name stuck.
“Bubba is talking to us,” my wife likes to say.
I’d like to think so. But there’s no proof other than just a hunch, a longing. Over the years, I’ve interviewed so many people who would say they had prayed or hoped for a sign from a loved one they had lost.
So many times, they’d tell me they had seen a sign.
It sounds weird. So I asked Julie Peeples, my minister. She has heard those kind of stories, too.
There’s the one about the bird lover.
Peeples helped a family who had lost their father, their husband. After his death, a summertime bird appeared at his window. Peeples can’t remember what kind of bird. But she does remember the time of year the bird came: the middle of winter.
There’s the one about the dragonfly.
Peeples married a couple, and for the ceremony, she decided on a whim to wear a dragonfly pin. The mother of the groom saw it and came up to her teary-eyed.
“You don’t know how much that means,” the woman told Peeples. “My husband loved dragonflies.”
And there’s the one about the piano player.
That’s Peeples’ dad. He died 20 years ago. Peeples will be somewhere – in Scotland, in Israel – and she’ll walk into a bar or a pub and hear “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
That was her dad’s favorite song.
“If you believe in a God of love theologically, why would God entrust us to be in relationships and have them suddenly halt?” she asks. “That is a very unimaginative God, and I think God is far more creative and imaginative than that.”
But dimes and dragonflies, birds and songs. All signs?
“It happens too much,” Peeples says. “I think there is some sort of veil, some sort of crossing the boundaries that we don’t understand. Some of it is probably our imagination. We do start looking for things, and we see what we want to find. But that’s not all of it.”
A few weeks ago, I was reminded of my dime discoveries after a picture I received from my cousin. She included in her Christmas card an old, grainy photo of a tall, spindly man with long arms and a serious face. He reminded me of Ichabod Crane. But he was my Ichabod Crane.
He was our great-grandfather, and I had never heard of him before. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse in South Carolina at least a century ago. His name: Nathan Alexander Howell. He was my dad’s namesake.
Dimes. Family. For me, those two disparate things will always be connected.
I’m still finding dimes. But I don’t think of that Bob Dylan verse as much anymore. I think more about the last five lines of “I Happened To Be Standing,” a poem from Mary Oliver included in her new anthology, “A Thousand Mornings.”
These days, those lines seem to fit.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
Or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
If it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.