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Sunday, December 19, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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West By Northwest

Coins Grandmother Had Saved Now Add Up To A Treasure

Times Staff Columnist

I was recently handed a treasure. An envelope full of coins. A grand sum of $6.20.

When I was small - I don't exactly remember when - a relative came to visit at my grandmother's home in Idaho. She had just come from Nevada, where she had been gambling, and casually handed my sister and me spare change. There were some nickels, but mostly it was half-dollars - a few Ben Franklin editions and the rest the new JFK coins. To a kid, this was instant wealth, the kind of thing you could rush out to splurge on candy or gum.

My grandmother let us admire the coins for a bit, then swooped in with characteristic common sense. You know, she said, you two will blow this money. Let me save it for you until you're older. One day these coins might be worth something.

My grandmother died two weeks ago. She was 89. After her funeral, I asked relatives if they knew of any coins that had been stored somewhere, saved for us.

Yes, they said. Grandmother had left an envelope with our names on it. The coins were inside.

But the real fortune wasn't the financial value of the coins. I looked up the price of a Ben Franklin fifty-cent piece and found it worth $3.50. The treasure my grandmother left us was a stack of stories.

Each coin is a reminder of something that happened, an event or family adventure. She saved these for later, and gave them back now that we're ready to understand their value.

I pick up the coins now and shuffle them from thumb to thumb. I hear shiing-shiing, shiing-shiing, a sound like a fancy dancer makes at a powwow. I hear stories.

Irene Clark Trahant was born in 1911 on Montana's Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Her father, Walter Clark, was an Assiniboine tribal leader responsible for making the government live up to its treaty obligations. I remember her showing me a picture of him at work: He was dressed in a dapper three-piece suit, standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol where he had gone to lobby on behalf of his people. The year was 1909.

A few years ago, I took my grandmother to Washington, D.C. - and to the White House Treaty Room where her father had once signed documents. It was on that trip that I remember talking about some of the things her father had taught her about leadership. She told me people would visit her house and bring their problems, day or night. Her parents would feed them, listen and try to help.

Another coin slides to my palm and I hear another sound, the train taking my grandmother from Montana to Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kan. She recalled childhood as a time of hard work - always cooking or cleaning - and school was for her a relief, almost a lark.

One of her favorite stories was about the mailed packages from home. She and her sister would get a box of fresh jam, dried meat and sometimes a few dollars. My grandmother usually blew the loot soon after it arrived. She'd treat friends to dinner out, and snack with relish until the treats were gone.

Her sister, on the other hand, would dole out the contents slowly. She would take a small bite, then wrap the rest for later, saving each treat for as long as possible. Before the next package would arrive, my grandmother would have to ask her sister to share her goodies or lend her a bit of cash.

I loved hearing my grandmother tell this story because it was so unlike the person I knew. I only knew her frugal side.

She would never finish a restaurant meal, but carefully wrap the extra in a napkin for later. She would pack away the crackers and bread in her purse, joking, "I have a lot of grandchildren."

When my grandparents were married, during the Depression, they could not afford a home of their own. "Few of the men held jobs - they just weren't being offered to them," my grandmother said. She had an offer to work in Oklahoma but was worried that my grandfather wouldn't be able to find work there. So they stayed with his family in southern Idaho.

My grandfather finally found a job with the Census Bureau. "It paid $1 a day," my grandmother told me. "We found an old railroad box car and moved there. We lived on beans and potatoes for months and months . . . but at least we had our own home and that was better than living with his mother."

She lived in Fort Hall most of her life. My grandfather found her the house she had always wanted. Even after his death 13 years ago, she stayed in the same place. I will always remember her, a small-framed woman, sitting in an easy chair where she could be seen through a window; she was at the center of her home and her family.

The sliding sound of the coins, an accordion of silver, now makes me smile. Even though this is a sad time, I am fortunate. My memories of my grandmother are vivid and my two young sons got a chance to know her and hear her stories.

This holiday season, perhaps on New Year's Day, I will pass my stack of coins on to my sons.

I'll tell them some stories, let them admire the silver. Then I will swoop in with common sense: "Let me save these for you," I will say. "They might be worth something someday."

Mark Trahant's column appears Sunday and Thursday on Page A2 of The Times. His is 206-464-8517. His e-mail is mtrahant@seattletimes.co.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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