For one grandfather, currency always had a silver lining

October 23, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

I GOT MY education in election-year politics around the kitchen table at the old house on Guilford Avenue. It was a place where I heard everything from talk about the greatness of Herbert Hoover (no lie) to the morning-after uncertainties of the Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960. I'll never forget coming down that November day and studying the early results published in this newspaper with my grandmother. At 7 in the morning, we didn't know if it would be Kennedy or Nixon.

One thing I did learn from my elders' generation. They were not Franklin D. Roosevelt fans. As I grow older, I realize their antipathy to FDR had not so much to do with his politics as it did with the way they were raised.

Mark it up to generational attitudes about the economy. Like many good Baltimoreans of that time, I was raised in a house where, if you can't afford it, you cannot have it.

My grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, was born in 1884 and believed in the value of hard currency, gold and silver. I think he never forgave FDR for taking the country off the gold standard during the Depression of the 1930s.

Early credit cards (actually metal charge plates from the department stores) were coming into common use when my grandfather was instructing me in the intricacies of his way of banking. There were no gold pieces to be exchanged in those days, but certainly quarters, half-dollars and silver dollars were around, if not exactly used every day in the fashion he employed them.

Pop Monaghan loved silver dollars and refused to give up on them, even though they were heavy, bulky and had fallen from favor.

I well recall, as he lay dying from cancer, being summoned to his room in December 1963. He planned to send off some silver Christmas gifts to his niece in Lock Haven, Pa. It was just about the last thing he did, box up some beautiful silver discs and dispatch me to the Waverly post office.

My grandmother, Lily Rose, was not so fussy about specie, but she hated anything to do with credit or owing other people money. Her husband may have kept his silver under the bed; she kept her stash between the mattress and box spring.

When I drop by an ATM for some $20 bills, I often think that was just the denomination she liked. Perhaps it was her first-hand knowledge of the bank failures of the 1930s, but she kept a lot of money right at home and paid on the spot, in cash.

Everyone knew that Lily Rose was a light touch in the money department. She was generous and believing, two delightful attributes essential to a grandmother. Being something of the family banker, there were often exchanges made between her and others. I can see the little notes of credit, and small piles of change, neatly placed on the corner of the hall steps when Aunt Cora, her sister, needed an extra $40 for a new hat.

The reason the $20s were around was the two sisters' habits of personal thrift. They had an amazing ability to live well, and enjoy life, by saying no to debt and living within their means. They were also extremely industrious and were probably the last people in North Baltimore to make their own washing soap.

They were never grim about their work; nor were they afraid of money. I like to think about Pop Monaghan's way of dealing with the toll at the Bay Bridge. No E-ZPass in those days. He regularly ambushed the toll takers who were used to nothing but folding money. He handed out silver dollars and watched the reaction on their faces.

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