In a Man’s Voice: Three Silver Dollars by Terry Gillispie

Terry Gillispie was born in South Charleston, West Virginia. The only son to a single mother, he spent most of his formative years residing in various locales within the Kanawha Valley before a period of stability landed him at South Charleston High School, from which he graduated in 1986.

Blogger’s note: Terry was in my class in junior high school. I never knew where he went, or what his life at home was like. What I did know was that he was one of the most well-liked boys in our class, and yet he seemed to have a secret. I was too young to notice what were probably tell-tale signs of a stressed economic situation at home. Until this year, I never knew what happened to him. I had no idea he graduated just a few miles from me, probably the same week, from another local school. For sure, I never knew he had the heart of hero. Now I do. Thanks for finding me on Facebook, Terry, and for sharing this amazing story. You are someone special, and I’m privileged to be part of making sure everyone knows it. — EDG

Three Silver Dollars | by Terry Gillispie

Of all the stories I have regarding my childhood in West Virginia, the following tale stands out the most, and reflects an incident that had profound impact on my life.

I had an uncle I was close to during my childhood.  Uncle Shorty.  I never fully understood how he came to have this nickname.  From my earliest memories as a young child, to the day I towered over him by at least five inches, Shorty always seemed larger than life.  He was the kind of man represented by the popular cliché, “When God made him, he threw away the mold.”

Christmas 1978 wasn’t particularly memorable for me.  I do not remember the toys or gifts that that year, save the one present I received from Uncle Shorty.  In a tradition between him and me, every year shortly before Christmas morning I would visit his house and give him a “present,” of a tin of cashews.  Invariably, on Christmas morning, I would find an empty cashew tin containing some sort of treat.

In 1978, that treat was three silver dollars.

Silver dollars to an eleven year old were pretty special, and in typical eleven year old fashion, I hid them in the same tin under my bed.

The following year, 1979, was a particularly tough one for us.  It was just me and Mom, and like most single parent families, she had to cut a lot of expenses just to get from one month to the next.  Mom typically spent her days working several jobs and was gone throughout the day and late into the night, so I learned responsibility at a young age. I learned these lessons partly because one of the expenses that fell to the wayside early on was babysitting fees, and mostly because, well, I had no other choice.

Despite Mom’s expense management, spring 1979 was very tough.  I can remember short periods where money was tight and Mom was frantic with worry over how she would pay a bill.  There came stretches where we were without food for several days between paychecks from Mom’s various employers.  Now a parent myself, I can only imagine the worry Mom felt then over how she was going to feed me, keep me decently clothed for school, keep utilities on, and several other worries and fears a parent endures.

During this time, for whatever reason, I came to be playing under my bed as eleven year old boys are prone to do.  I happened upon the tin I had placed there on Christmas morning and quickly remembered the three silver dollars.

As I crawled out from under the bed with the tin in my hands, I knew instinctively that I needed to give the silver dollars to Mom so that she could use the money in whatever way she needed to get us through until her next payday.  I was torn over giving the money to my mother.  Yes, I wanted desperately to help, yet at the same time the thought of giving up my “treasure” from Uncle Shorty sickened me.

In the end, my eleven year old sense of duty prevailed.

Terry with cousin Kurt

Of course, Mom was ecstatic to discover that I had not spent the silver dollars and immediately went to the store to get us some items to get us by for a few days.  I recall a few days diet of milk, potted meat sandwiches and Cheerios.  My treasure, as it were, had gotten us through a very rough patch, and lifted Mom’s spirits enough that after this “between paycheck” crisis, she took some steps to ensure I was never that close to going without food again.

Most prevalent on my mind, though, was the heartbreak I felt over surrendering my treasure, even if for the welfare of Mom and myself.

Luckily, the local food mart in the South Hills area where I grew up in was owned and operated by a very friendly man, one who was always telling stories to the local children while negotiating menial chores for candy or small dime store variety toys.  His name escapes me after all these years, no doubt removed from the recesses of my brain responsible storing names and replaced with something more import to my early adulthood, such as the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody.

The following day I entered this store and approached the store keeper nervously, trying to keep a grown-up face as I related my story and my desire to buy back the silver dollars at a later time.  I was delighted to discover that he was well aware of my mother’s purchase and actually had set aside the silver dollars.  I’m not sure if it was my sad expression, his generous heart, or perhaps a combination, but he told me I had an opportunity to earn back the silver dollars.  All I had to do was sweep the store and the store’s parking lot early every morning before the store opened for a month.  At the end of that, he would return the silver dollars to me.

Perhaps he thought this was a fair exchange.  A month’s worth of free labor in return for three dollars.  Ha!  I would have swept his store and parking lot for a year.  It was not until years later that I discovered one of the silver dollars in question had a slightly higher value than the other two.  I am sure this fact escaped my mother’s attention, but I’m fairly certain the shop keeper would have been aware of this fact.

Flash forward to 2003.  Shorty’s 70th birthday party.  Sadly, I was unable to attend and was at a loss as to what kind of present to send in my absence.  Cashews had lost their luster years prior.  I sat down and decided to write the story you are now reading, events that had never been relayed to anyone else in my family as Mom was a very proud and private woman.  In the letter, I detailed how three silver dollars had taught me a lesson about life, family, and duty.  I also included the three silver dollars.

Reports I received from my cousin suggest that the story and the present were very well received.  My cousin read the letter aloud to my uncle at the height of the party, and Shorty was so moved that he described me to other party-goers not privy to the family dynamic as his “second son.”

Needless to say I was moved by this, and felt very much at peace with the silver dollars’ legacy in my life.

A few years after that, we lost Shorty to a long and difficult fight with lung cancer.  I was blessed in that my schedule afforded me the opportunity to drive home and visit Shorty in the hospital prior to his passing.  Even throughout his sickness, and his incapacitation to a hospital bed, he managed to look so much larger than life. I was amazed, and I told him so.  He couldn’t reply, but his eyes passed on to me that he had heard and understood.

As I left his hospital room and went into the ICU’s waiting room to seek solace and comfort with other family members, my aunt approached me and gave me a long embrace.  As she pulled away, she pressed a plain unmarked envelope into my hands.  She looked into my eyes, “From Shorty.”  As I left the hospital and sat in my car, I opened the envelope.

In my hand were my three silver dollars.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

Our Mothers, Farewells, and The Departed

Ada was the biological mother of three of my friends, but it was not until she died  recently that I truly knew she was my mother, too.

I spent most of my late adolescence in her world.  I attended 4-H club meetings in her basement, shared overnights with her daughter, rode in her panel van to Jackson’s Mill and Camp Virgil Tate, ate in her kitchen, played ball in her front yard, ran up and down the basketball court at her church, and even hid out in her new basement bathroom the night before I was married.

Ada was synonymous with comfort and a place called home.

She had incredibly good posture.  I wish even in my tallest, straightest moments I could stand like she did.  Her crystal blue eyes always stayed connected to mine when we spoke; in fact, at her memorial service I shared my belief that talking to her was like being in a tractor beam, and the comment received rolls of laughter in recognition.  Apparently I was not the only  person upon whom she focused her full attention when talking and listening.

Trying to pin down her most memorable trait, for me it was this utter focus in conversation.  While that may not sound particularly special at first, consider how many people in your life you can say always — always — give you their full attention when you are together.  She had a husband who was significantly older than she was, and who needed her towards the end of his life as much if not more than her three children needed her in their own growing up, yet she never seemed lacking in energy and interest in others.

To see Ada was to feel joy.  I remember hundreds of times I saw her.  Sometimes it was unexpected, like in the grocery store.  Other times it was entirely anticipated as she opened the front door to her home and her face lit up as she exclaimed, “Liz!  Come on in, it’s so good to see you!”  Whether at her front door or in the bread aisle, her presence was consistent and loving.  She was what I think everyone dreams of, sometimes even subconsciously, when they dream of a mother.  She was one of her parents’ eleven children.  As a middle arrival, maybe that is where she learned the skill of managing younger and older people equally well.

This past weekend I drove up to her house for the first time since her death.  It was all routine until my car reached the first familiar bend in the road that for thirty years led me to the place Ada raised her family, extended and otherwise.  My chest felt oddly hollow and I took a moment to make sure my heart was still beating.  I took the next turn, and the car rose up the hill which would crest in the homestead I sought.  There was that strange chest sensation again as I reached the driveway and my eyes rested on the place where Ada no longer was and never would be again.

The house is empty, save for a few remaining personal things, their destination and ultimate dispensation to be determined by Ada’s children.  It is a strange place to me now, this domestic structure that for decades held some of the happiest times in my life.  I’m not sure what I expected, but I think it was to feel some of Ada still in the house.  The truth is, I didn’t feel her there at all.  I felt very sad, and I began to process and manage some of the larger grief I feel beyond the acute pain from the event of her death.

When a person and the home they built disappears in a physical sense, it is a heavy thing.  Forced to deal with this passing, I had clarity about Ada and all that she shared with me as an anchor in my own psychic landscape.  I remember a similar feeling when my beloved Uncle Guy died, a physical feeling of loss, like a gaping wound was echoing a cold wind on aching walls.  The deep desire to put my hands on my lost mother, to feel her and see her and hear her again, is still intense.

I know from losing my uncle that the ache will diminish but never fully go away.  When Ada died, one mysterious term kept popping into my head: “The departed.”  While I am not Catholic, I am familiar with the concept of the departed from the prayer that reads,

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

The spiritual concept of a soul having escaped the limits of what we know is, for me, spooky and compelling.  Something about a person’s essence having made an exit with a sense of other-worldly destination rings true in Ada’s unexpected and heartbreaking death.  She departed.  She is somewhere else now.  I can’t see this place, or touch her there or hear her voice, but I feel strongly she is in a new home, where she is greeted — always — with complete love and focus.

As we like to say in Christian parlance, “The tomb is empty.”  That is a metaphor, but it is also reality.  I love you, Mrs. K.  Thank you for everything.  You shaped my life, and I will never forget you.

Image credit: Mary Cassatt