My grandfather passed away on New Year’s Eve, 2004. He was a complex and conflicted guy. At times he could be inexcusably harsh, but he also had a sly and silly sense of humor. This Jekyll/Hyde situation left one guessing as to which grandpa would show up on a given day, but I rooted for the sweet, funny family man, and tried to dismiss the cranky curmudgeon when I could.

In his later years, he became increasingly immobile and dealt with chronic pain. He was a great outdoorsman, a navy mechanic, and craftsman in his youth, but years of hard work and the resulting physical damage caught up with him. Still, he kept up with several hobbies even as his body failed.

Joe on a bike
Joe Downey on a tiny bike on a Navy ship.

When I was a kid, my grandpa turned me on to coin collecting. It’s definitely a “young boy and his grandpa” sort of activity and I’ll always identify it that way. These days I have little time to devote to squinting over dimes and looking for mint marks, but I still appreciate the storytelling and historical aspects of collecting. When I see an old coin, I like to imagine who held it in their hand before me, and what was happening the day that chunk of metal was violently smashed into something valuable.

Maybe because he was bored and stuck in the house, or maybe because he simply liked it a lot, Grandpa collected coins until his last day at home. He had established a fairly substantial eBay habit to fill gaps in his collections, but his main late period interest was the state quarter releases. Most curiously (and resourcefully), he chose to organize the quarters in prescription pill bottles, each carefully labeled with the state’s name and mint. For the finishing touch, he engineered custom wooden shelving to hold each one of these pill bottles, with little circular holes for each one.

Quarters in pill bottles
Quarters in pill bottles.

I couldn’t help but love this. For starters, it’s telling that he had so many pill bottles at his disposal, though I hope they weren’t all from his own prescriptions (maybe he made friends with a pharmacist!) He lovingly and obsessively sorted these coins, but for what purpose other than his own amusement isn’t clear — he may have intended to share the collection with the grandkids someday.

Most bittersweet is that the quantity of coins per state decreases markedly over time. The early pill bottles are overflowing, but later states are represented by only one or two coins; the collection whimpers to an end abruptly at state 35 (West Virginia), which was the last quarter released before his death. He had the full intention of completing this collection, as I also have 15 states’ worth of empty, pre-labeled pill bottles that never met a quarter.

These bottles have been sitting in a box in my basement since mid-2005. Mainly, I’ve been too busy to do anything with them, but I’ve also been in a quandary about what to do. I was initially planning to complete the collection, but I decided against interfering with such a vivid snapshot in time.

We could also just cash them in. (Individually, they have high circulation rates, and aren’t in a physical condition to be worth much above their face value, even many decades from now.) My grandpa had a more valuable collection of older coins — which we are also storing — and our storage space is at a premium!

But cashing them in would neglect the object quality of the overall collection. All together, this is his last work. I envision him assembling the bottles, labeling them, analyzing each quarter and placing it in its right spot. I suspect that like any good journey, the process of collection was more entertaining than the end result. Yet the end result (and my imagining of Grandpa’s process) is all I’ve got left.

The question I can’t answer is: do we honor our relatives by keeping up the material things that meant something to them? Or do we simply acknowledge their contextual worth and move along? In a life busy maintaining our own odds and ends, what place do these objects have? If their value consists primarily of nostalgia or memory, then maybe the trash heap (or in this case, the bank) is where they belong. I just wonder if discarding the objects will inadvertently put the memories in the trash too.

For now at least, I still have the bottles. In a box. In my basement.