Grandpa and His $2 Bills

by Eliana Osborn

My grandpa collected $2 bills. We’d get them from him in birthday cards and at Christmas, and as my cousins and I got older, the dollar amounts grew and I had nearly forgotten about the tradition and how exciting it was to have currency so seldom seen in circulation.

He died nearly 18 months ago after a very quick decline.

We just got back from a family reunion. The first day, Grandma held a trivia contest about Grandpa for the 60 of us. It was super hard — favorite color? I can’t even imagine him having one. There were Korean War questions; questions about his childhood hobbies. My grandfather had talked a lot, just not about the early years of his life, because those were hard years and he didn’t want to dwell. So he spoke mostly of legal cases and clients, his fascination with accounting and tax law coming through loud and clear.

For each correct trivia answer, Grandma handed out $2 bills, some from as far back as 1928 with red printing on the green bills and language about a silver standard. At the end, Grandma revealed a secret: She had found all the special money in a pile in Grandpa’s desk drawer after he died. There were fifty $2 bills in the pile and she gave them all away to her kids, grandkids, great-grands and in-laws.

My grandfather and I weren’t close, because I lived far away and only visited once a year. I felt bad for the trivia answers I missed, and guilty at his funeral for handling things well. But when Grandma explained where the money had come from and why she was gifting it, I got teary.

I had two full sets of grandparents growing up: the frugal and the financial. They were all great — all giving people, all upper-middle class. But my dad’s folks were older and grew up during the Depression. Grandma O would cut off fifty or sixty percent of a bad peach just to get the few salvageable bites. She also hand-water colored birthday cards for me up until I got married.

As for my other grandparents, well, Grandpa H was a tax attorney. Money, whether earned or saved, was a constant topic of discussion. They bought us gifts when we were kids, but always included money. At birthdays, the money was a check for our college accounts. At Christmas, I’d get a special envelope with my full name written out in a lovely script, which was filled with crisp bills from the bank; the amount would change as we aged.

Two Christmases ago, I visited Salt Lake City and babysat for my niece and nephew for a few days. Grandpa was slower than the last time we’d been together. My brother flew in from Thailand for the holiday and we took the H’s to lunch at a Japanese restaurant near their home.

Grandpa couldn’t eat lettuce due to some medication reaction. He was distracted — enough that my brother paid for the meal for the first time ever. Grandma and Grandpa H were old, but they were fine overall.

A few weeks later Grandpa H fell in the snow. He died in late March without ever coming back home. It was a complete shock — except to my siblings and me.

My younger sister had gotten her Christmas envelope. When she opened it, she tactfully called around to the other siblings.

“Did the envelope number change this year?” she asked over the phone.

“I wish,” I replied and double counted.

“My envelope is wrong.”

“In a good way, or a bad way?”

My sister didn’t want to talk about it once she knew it was only her envelope that was different. I finally got the truth out of her — her envelope was over, significantly.

Not a big deal, right? Talk about a Christmas miracle for someone who sure was happy to have some extra cash.

Except that Grandpa H doesn’t make mistakes — not with money at least. He has a photographic memory. He scored the highest grade on the CPA exam and won an award. He’s been a law professor and attorney for ages. He keeps meticulous records with boxes taking over his large office, everything remotely relating to a case or bill paid or travel insurance purchased.

But here was a mistake, and a cash mistake to boot.

My mother begged for us not to mention this to anyone — not to try righting the wrong. She knew her father would be mortified.

After his fall, lying in a rehab center, Grandpa wasn’t himself. He had some clarity but not much; when I planned to fly up and visit, my sister who lives nearby said not to bother. He wouldn’t know me. Nevertheless my cousin flew to Utah from medical school in Baltimore, and others trekked from Idaho. It was clear to all of us that the Grandpa we all knew was no more.

I was sad when he died, of course, but glad that he only had those few months of serious decline. My siblings and I were more prepared than anyone else, what with our early realization of Grandpa’s mental state.

I’m keeping my $2 bills in an envelope in my purse. I’m never going to spend them, of course, but they make me smile every time I’m about to make a purchase. That’s really all I want when I’m gone — people to randomly think of me, smile, and go on their way.

Eliana Osborn is a writer and part time English professor living in the desert southwest. She’s raising kids, obsessed with sunshine, and trying to stay out of home improvement stores for the sake of her finances.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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