I got my first house key when I was eight or nine years old. It was attached to a string which I wore around my neck, making me one of the many latch-key kids of the early 1980s. I’d walk home the short distance from school, unlock the door with my key, and then call my mom at work to let her know that my brother and I had arrived safely at home. Since then, I’ve never been without a set of keys.
Returning from a morning walk recently, I flipped my key ring around my finger, and noticed how, despite all of the changes over the last four decades, the keys I carry have been ubiquitous and constant. When I got that first key, we did not have cable television and relied on the three major networks for news and entertainment, with the occasional foray into UHF for an old black and white film. When I had that first key, we spoke with local friends on the phone. For more distant friends and family, we sent letters and post cards. Email was far in the future.
Keys have a way of spontaneously multiplying. One key inevitably leads to another and eventually a string around one’s neck is not enough. A key ring is required. I don’t remember the first key ring that I had, or why I needed more than one key. Perhaps it was in junior high school, when I needed a key for a locker in the gym. Perhaps it was when I turned 16 and needed a car key in addition to a house key. Over time, the keys accumulate. We don’t get rid of keys as easily as we gather them and their weight grows heavy in our pockets. Every few years, I’ll sit down to purge the set of keys of ones for which I no longer recall the purpose. Those exiled keys go into a bag in the junk drawer containing a lifetime of cast-offs. Looking at the keys in that bag, I sometimes imagine writing a memoir titled, The Keys to My Life. The cover image would be that freezer bag of keys.
The weight of the key ring attracts other objects. My key ring today contains a fob for one of our cars. Cars, it seems, no longer require keys in the traditional sense, but the fobs weigh more. There is a regular car key for the other car. There are two house keys and a small little key for a locker in my office building which I haven’t used in three years. A Field Notes bottle opened is attached to my key ring, as well as three miniature library cards, one for me and one for each of my daughters.
Kelly’s key ring is different and I can tell from the weight alone whether I’ve picked up the right set in the morning when it is still dark and I’m heading out for my walk.
With all that has changed since I got my first key, I find it comforting that this same mechanical device is still used to secure our cars, our house, our shed. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting an electronic “smart” keypad for the house, but I’ve resisted. A key, like a manual typewriter, is old-school technology, simple, and serving a single purpose. When I use my iPhone for nearly everything but phone calls, it’s nice to know there are still objects I use every day that are simple, noble little inventions that unlock access to the cool air of the house on a hot summer day, or the warmth of the house in the cold of winter.
Written on 2 April 2023.
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