My mom is superstitious: knock wood, don’t jinx it, pick up lucky money. Like many people she learned the superstitions from her mother and has passed down to me a vague uneasiness about violating them. As a kid, I can remember her stooping to retrieve a wayward penny on the street, and when we’d take walks together I delighted in finding the change before she did.
Finding “lucky” money seems to be a nearly universal experience; what I learned later is that what counts as lucky, and what you do with that luck varies considerably.
Upon finding a lucky penny, dime or even quarter, my mom would tuck the change into her pocket. This was done to avoid mixing the lucky coin with money in her wallet. This was a pragmatic rather than superstitious choice; when she returned home, mom would put the lucky money into an old jewelry case. Years’ worth of lucky change resided there, and when my sister or I had important events—participation in Battle of the Books, a piano concert—mom would give us a trusted piece of lucky change.
The first time I realized my mom’s method was not the only one was in elementary school. Like most eight-year-olds, my friends appreciated the value of a quarter (half a cafeteria cookie!), and never hesitated to relieve a sidewalk of lucky change. That is, unless the coin in question was tails-up. According to my childhood best friend, that made the money unlucky.
Debate ensued; we resolved it as all kids did, by asking our mothers. Naturally, we’d inherited our mothers’ lucky coin beliefs, so hers said the quarter wasn’t lucky, mine said of course it was. We had reached a lucky money impasse. This was not the last time my family’s branch of lucky change philosophy would be challenged.
In high school, I visited a camp friend who lived in New York, and along with her mother, we travelled into Manhattan. Despite the breakneck pace Kate’s mom walked (she wasn’t even a real New Yorker—she’d live in Atlanta for decades!) she managed to spot and seize an amazing number of coins.
Unlike my hometown friends, Kate and her mom weren’t picky about whether lucky money rested on heads or tails. All money was worth grabbing. However, in time, it was revealed that this was because lucky money was hardly sacred at all—it was used for buying things. This was even more shocking news than hearing only heads-up quarters are lucky. I expressed my amazement; daughter and mother laughed. I thought about the dime my mom let me carry on trips as I absorbed yet another harsh blow to family tradition.