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Clement's Corner: Loose Change

Lionel Fitzgerald was a chap who always flashed the big notes, not wanting to deal with small change. When Lionel died his son made an astonishing discovery.

Owen Clement tells another of his intriguing tales. For more of Owen's stories click on Clement's Corner in the menu on this page.

“Do you have any loose change?” my wife Janet asked as we approached the Sydney Harbour Bridge toll gate.

Her saying “loose change” immediately made me to visualize both my parents, my father in particular. He, Lionel Fitzgerald, was a small thick-set man with a high forehead, a small bulbous nose and a deep cleft in his chin, which I inherited. He walked with a limp as, when a boy, he had broken the bones in his foot jumping off a wall. The doctor had not properly reset them. Like some small men who are self-conscious about their stature, he compensated by putting on an affected English public school accent.

He also hated dealing with small change. The first thing he did each day as he arrived at home was to empty the coins from his pockets into a wooden box in the bottom of his wardrobe. He literally “big-noted himself” by always handing out bills of large denominations; a practice that annoyed most of the people he dealt with, especially bus conductors, taxi operators and the like. As it was not part of her budget, my mother never once considered touching ‘his’ money. As was the custom in the days before the Second World War in some households, she had to manage on the housekeeping money her husband doled out to her each week.

My mother, Maisie, was dark haired, fine featured and a good six inches taller than my father. She was an excellent sportswoman, tennis being her forte. She also was of the old school where the man was considered the head of the household.

My father, a public servant all his working life, retired aged sixty-five from his last position as the head of a minor division in the State’s education department. When he died aged seventy, because of his grandiose ways, my mother was left to manage as best she could on the government pension. Fortunately, with what she scrimped and saved each week out of her housekeeping money while my father was working, she managed to pay off the mortgage on their home. When he died both my sister and I had long since left home, married and had settled down. My sister and her family had moved across the continent to Western Australia.

No amount of persuasion from my sister or me convinced my mother to sell her house and move in with us and our families. Nor would she accept any financial help from either of us. I’m certain that there were times when she did without.

When in her early eighties she became ill and had to be hospitalized for a time, I went to the house to make sure it was secure and, with her permission, finally get rid of my father’s personal effects.

That was when I came across his cache of coins. Because of their massive weight the box came apart spilling a staggering amount of coins all across the floor. I was utterly amazed at the sheer quantity, some of it in shillings and pence. Clearing a space it took me an age to stack them in their various denominations. I was absolutely stunned to find that it amounted to well over $70,000 dollars. Leaving the coins where they were, I drove to my bank and after discussing it with the bank manager returned with a number of bags which I filled and taking them back to the bank deposited them in a separate account.

I contacted my sister with the amazing news. Just how we were going to explain this windfall to our mother was something we agonized over for quite some time. Finally we decided to tell her.

She quite calmly said that she had always known that the money was there and as it was not “hers”, she wanted no part of it. No amount of convincing on our part made her change her mind. If my father had meant her to have it, she said, he would have given it to her. It was ours to do with whatever we wished.

Never once did she realize that the “kind” nurses and other helpers who saw to all her needs in her own home until the day she died were paid for by the money her husband had denied her all those years.

© Clement 2006


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