A few months ago, I attempted to discipline myself and began sorting through the many boxes that have followed me from college and through two cross-country moves. Since many were packed by moving companies, I have been reluctant to just toss the unopened boxes for fear that some precious memory or artifact would be lost. Most of the sorting was mundane, easily sending old college loan papers and revolving account bills from long bankrupt establishments to the shredding pile. But one box held treasures from my childhood. High school dance photos, my teenage diary, junior high love notes, and a potpourri of cherished remembrances. Within minutes I was transported to another time, felt the pangs of first love, and remembered that within this busy fifty year-old woman there was still a childhood waiting to be remembered.
Nestled at the bottom of a wooden box I found a slightly tarnished brass key. It wasn’t any key, it was a wing-shaped key to a mechanical spring loaded clock. I could immediately picture the midnight blue faux marble mantle clock, embellished with brass lions on its sides, each holding a brass ring in its mouth. Its ornate brass hands swept over an ivory face, kept dust-free behind a glass door with a delicate latch. I thought it was the most beautiful clock I had ever seen. It belonged to my paternal grandmother. For a short time she came to live with us, bringing all of her exquisite furniture to our basement. I used to sit down there in the darkness and pretend I was transported to a princess’s boudoir. The clock was a mantle clock, and since there was no fireplace or appropriate place in the basement, she suggested that it be put on our mantle. We lived in a late ‘60s modern suburban home with a magnificent free-standing fireplace made of petrified rock. It separated the living area from the hallway to the bedrooms and basement and featured a long mantle. The elegant clock was striking against such a blend of modernism and ruggedness. Its hourly chimes resonated off the fireplace’s hard surface and filled the room.
When my grandmother moved to a more permanent home, she left the clock behind. My mother supervised her three children as we learned to find the key hidden under the belly of the clock, carefully open the glass window to reveal its face, insert the key into the keyhole, and carefully wind without breaking the spring. At first I had to stand on my tiptoes to reach, but eventually I could stare face-to-face with this object of beauty. Setting the time and winding the key was one of my favorite things to do.
I turned the key in my hand. For all these years, I have been the secret keeper of the key, the only thing left of what was to be a family heirloom. For a long time that key resided in between my bedroom mattress and box spring, carefully placed next to my diary. I wondered to myself what else had I kept hidden under the proverbial mattress? Closing my eyes, I can hear the drunken, angry voice of my father during one of his alcohol-induced rampages. I hide under the covers in my bedroom, trying to block out the fear and reality of what was really happening on the other side of the door. My father’s rage was rarely directed at physically hurting people, but inanimate objects were far from safe, especially if the rampage escalated to this level. I use my pillow to break my sobs as the sound of breaking of glass, shattering wood, and the thud of a large object crashing against the living room wall punctuate the yelling. I wait. The cacophony of violence is always followed by an eerie silence. I watch myself in the dawn of the morning, creeping out of bed and tiptoeing into the bright light of the living room. I turn slowly around and see the gaping hole on the mantle. Dreamlike, I slide the glass door and step outside, open the door to the garage and carefully lift the lid to the garbage can. There, almost beyond recognition are the fractured remnants of our family time piece. I reach in and find a single splintered panel with the lion’s head still holding the brass ring, and underneath the precious brass key. I carefully put the key in my bathrobe pocket and quietly make my way back to the sanctuary of my bedroom.
I look once again at this key in my hand. For many years after, I hid the key in various “safe” spots as I maneuvered my way through new residences, my parent’s divorce, college, and eventually adulthood. Today, as I examine this antique key in the light of the day, I vow no longer to be the keeper of secrets. When people stop me to examine the key that now hangs on a brass chain that I occasionally wear around my neck, I tell them that it is a reminder of the power of history and the freedom that comes from telling it.