A World War I Widow’s Gift

Around 1979 or 1980 I traveled to Pensacola, Florida to spend some time with my aunt. She lived in an apartment complex and in the center was a pool for the use of the residents. I remember spending every spare minute either in or next to that pool. Of course it was a huge draw to a 10 year old midwestern boy, but the people who converged there every day were also very interesting.

One particular day I was playing in the pool and all of a sudden I see two huge men that I automatically recognized from television. They were professional  wrestlers who I watched virtually every Sunday. But wait, these guys were deadly enemies, bashing each other with chairs, microphones, announcers, whatever they could get their hands on, every week that I tuned in! How could they possibly be sitting here laughing and drinking beer together? This was very confusing.

But the most interesting person at the pool that summer was a very old woman who always sat in the shade covered to her neck in a big white bathrobe. She never got in the water or took in the sun. No one paid her any attention, no one seemed to notice her. Except my aunt.

So one day my aunt introduced us. The woman, Mary, was very friendly and told me all sorts of wonderful stories. During one of our visits I told her I liked old coins. Mary said she had some old coins her husband brought back from Europe a long time ago and, if I would like to see them, she would bring them to the pool tomorrow. I couldn’t wait!

Tomorrow came and I almost couldn’t stand to wait until the afternoon when Mary usually came to sit beside the pool. When I saw her walking to her table I saw she had a little black box. She emptied the box and out fell coins from Germany, France, Belgium, Russia and places I never heard of! And then she told me a story that any ten year old boy would love.

Mary’s husband had served in World War I in 1917 but for reasons I can’t remember, didn’t return until 1919. They weren’t married until after he returned. The coins had a gruesome history. It seems soldiers didn’t receive their military pay at the front for months at a time. And so, to get by, it was necessary to go through the pockets of the fallen. This box full of coins had come from the corpses of her husband’s enemies because he couldn’t bring himself to take from his allies, even though the money was no longer of use to them.

That summer ended and it came time for me to return to Illinois. My aunt must have told Mary I would be leaving because she came to the apartment and gave me the box full of coins with a Christmas bow on top. 

After 30 years many of those coins have gone to others. A 1868 French 5 Franc piece of Napoleon III was given to a friend. A  5 Kopeck piece issued by Germany during the occupation of Russia in 1916  was a give away for a local coin club. But every time one of those coins left my hands and went to another, I always included Mary’s story.

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