DECATUR - A penny for your thoughts. Or maybe two. Or three. Or even 30 cents.
Whatever the number, change is in the air at the 80-year-old Decatur home Patti Dobbins is busy renovating with her fiance, Ricky Clemens.
The place was pretty much wrecked when the couple moved in back in April, but one thing they noticed was the number of pennies lying everywhere. "We had to tear out all the floors and everything and we found maybe 75 to 100 of them," recalls Dobbins, a server at the Forsyth O'Charley's, who's used to handling pocket change.
"We just picked them all up and carried on."
But like pennies from heaven, the rain of currency kept up a steady trickle. The couple soon began finding pennies in odd places where none were seen moments earlier: on the bare floorboards, balanced on the furniture and, once, even on a piece of drywall that had just that second been laid aside, ready for installation. Pennies began showing up consistently at the rate of about three a week and, to coin a phrase, it was starting to get a little spooky.
"I mean, pennies?" says Clemens, 49. "I was kind of skeptical at first but, well, I definitely believe something is going on now because I find them right, like, right underneath a paint can, and I know there wasn't one there when I put that can down."
Dobbins, who likes to serve herself with a bit of detective work, has invested heavily in research. She asked around among family and friends about the phenomenon of serendipitous numismatology and then went fishing for enlightenment on the Internet. She'd just hoped to come up with some background information, however penny ante it might turn out to be, to explain what was going on.
What she found instead was a cornucopia of coined history and stories about the strange phenomenon of mysteriously materializing pennies. It turns out that many people have long noted that pennies, and occasionally other coins, just show up unbidden, like tiny tips left by unseen ghostly guests.
"They say online that the pennies are a spiritual thing, that it's a friendly spirit, just showing you they are there and watching over you, that you are not by yourself," says Dobbins, 52, who believes she knows the identity of her penny-giver.
"Maybe my late grandma Edith Spahr; she was always so sweet and just a wonderful woman," adds Dobbins. "This would be the sort of thing she would do."
And it turns out that pennies have a long association with people who have bought the farm. The coins used to be left on the eyes of the dead to keep them closed, a tradition some say dates back to ancient times, when mourners believed the dearly departed would also need the money to pay Charon the ferryman who, in Greek mythology at least, ferried the dead across the River Styx.
Dobbins likes the idea of some kind of supernatural explanation because, if nothing else, the idea of pennies rolled to us from beyond the grave just makes this life seem much more valuable. "You know, you go to work, you come home, it just gets boring," she explains.
"But when something like this happens, it's fun and exciting."
Skeptics, of course, can't wait to spend time cashing in on their disbelief. They point out, for example, that some estimates suggest 453,000,000 pennies drop out of circulation in the United States every year and, taking a common cents approach, as it were, that wayward coinage has got to wind up somewhere. Other doubters wonder aloud why, if deceased relatives really want to send the living a spiritually uplifting message, they couldn't dig a bit deeper in the pockets of their ectoplasm and come up with a denomination more significant than a penny?
"A lot of people make the same joke: if my grandma is going to leave me money, I wish she'd leave me $100 bills," says Dobbins. "But I don't think we're supposed to spend the money; I think we're supposed to save the pennies for good luck."
Dobbins and Clemens recently did find a nickel balanced on a stool in their basement, however, so maybe the basis of spiritual giving is subject to ethereal inflation. But as any good coin collector will tell you, never pooh-pooh a penny for being a mere penny. One rare matte-finish Lincoln penny, struck in 1914, recently sold for $126,500 at auction in Rosemont.
"As for me, I love finding my pennies," says Dobbins. "And I want it to keep happening."