One Key at a Time

Something goes overboard from the dusty catch-all that forms the base of my desk lamp.


Getting down on my hands and knees under my desk, I retrieve a frequent-sleeper card for a hotel chain that I think I’ve graced with my presence only once or twice.  Surfacing, I bang my head.


Particle-board may not be as attractive or as expensive as wood, but it is just as hard.

As I settle back into my chair, I take another look at the junk in that catch-call: a twenty-year-old solar-powered calculator; three rocks from the beach at Tuktoyaktuk; a broken piece of china smoothed by wave action and picked up on a beach east of Inverness, Scotland; a four-month-old reminder notice for my next ‘annual’ physical, still fourteen months out; two data sticks; a metal bookmark embossed with two puffins; a newspaper clipping with my name on it but referring to Hurricane Isabel, sans the ‘Hurricane’; and a key.

I pluck the key from its slot and turn it over in my hand, thoughtfully. I have no idea what it’s for.

Oh, I can tell it’s for a standard door lock, but which door? That’s the rub.

It’s not one of those new cheap keys — it has some heft — so I figure it’s not for any door of any house I’ve owned in whole or in part since 2002. It’s possible that it’s for my Edmonton house which was built in the early 1950s, although I’m pretty sure I rekeyed that when I moved in.

It’s possible that it’s for the Edmonton apartment that was home from 1994 to 1998. The apartment block was built in the 1970s I figure, and likely had not been rekeyed in all that time.  But truly, I have no idea.

This old-fashioned, singleton key reminds me forcibly of a tin of keys I found in my parents’ home when we were clearing it out in preparation for their move into the lodge. Shelves and basement boxes yielded oddments not unlike my desktop catch-all, adjusted for scale.

Five spray cans of Off! Deep Woods Mosquito Spray. This, in suburban Calgary. Five.

Three tins of dried-up shoe polish — two black, one brown — from the days when my father’s fine motor skills still allowed him to spit-shine his dress shoes.

Jars of nails and screws; slightly rusty hand tools; purses not used in thirty years; toys from two generations of children; board games missing essential pieces.

And somewhere in there, a tin of old keys, the locks they fit long since misplaced, thrown out, or moved away from.

How does such a collection happen? You find a key you don’t recognize and somehow you hesitate to throw it out. After all, if you can’t remember what it’s for, how can you be sure you won’t need it again? So you set it aside, hoping that time will bring clarity.

And so the collection grows, one key at a time. Not taking much space, there’s little incentive to dispose of it. And for some perverse reason, the longer you keep an unknown key the harder it is to chuck. It’s not a reasonable response, but there it is.


I drop my mystery key back into the catch-all. It could be a sombre warning of all the things I hang onto without reason: the old junk stuffed into basement boxes, the outdated attitudes tucked away on my mind’s shelves.

But today I must be feeling more positive than usual, because today it makes me wonder about keys that I don’t even know I have.

Keys to puzzles, human and otherwise.

Keys to problems, acute and chronic.

Keys to the meaning of life?  Well, let’s not get carried away.

But maybe I do already have everything I need, and just need to figure out where it all fits.


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14 Responses to One Key at a Time

  1. Marion says:

    I have my Dad’s key collection (he died in 1986), as well as my own collection. So, you know, if you find a locked suitcase you can’t open …

    As a four or five-year-old, I locked myself in the drawing room of our house and then couldn’t manipulate the big old key in the lock to open it. A worried mob of parents and friends on the other side of the door were ineffective in securing my release, and the key wouldn’t fit under the door, so they couldn’t open it from the outside. A couple of hours later (it seemed, probably it was a lot less) a neighbour man from down the street came in with his huge collection of keys, and I was out. And grateful.

    Never underestimate the value of “I think I have a key that will fit that.”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – Wow. Are any of your kids going to hang onto this heritage collection of keys, do you think? Maybe every community should maintain a list of special resources like that. Certainly one never knows what might be useful again. The Big Buy just charged up a mower battery for a friend, using a trickle charger that the Big Guy bought twenty-or-so years ago (he figures) and had never yet had occasion to use, thus reinforcing his tendency to retain rather than to chuck.

      • Marion says:

        Somehow I don’t think the ‘younger generation’ has any appreciation for a key collection. How it pains me to say that: I still have a bit of that looking-over-the-shoulder-to-see-if-the-grownups-are-watching-feeling at times.

  2. Norm Haug says:

    As I read your blog, I kept eyeing my own lamp base: two watches; two keys; a zip drive; several buttons; a light bulb to replace a running light on my car; a large commemorative coin; a lobster shaped paper weight; lip balm and a lapel pin from Salisbury Cathedral. Every few months I sort my “junk” and put it into little tins and plastic boxes which reside in my bottom desk drawer. I also have a side cupboard for accumulated bits and bobs: the obligatory key collection; several containers of small change; several pairs of cuff links (I never wear long-sleeved shirts). I think it must be a generational thing.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Norm – And to think that none of us qualify as hoarders! Imagine what that affliction would produce. As for whether it’s generational – I dunno. The specifics kept, maybe, but that keeping impulse I’m not so sure. It seems to me I know a younger generation (or two) that keeps stuff pretty determinedly.

      • Marion says:

        I too have tins and boxes in my desk drawer (sorted and organized). That’s where my keys are, as well as a stack of ‘interesting’ business cards with addresses and phone numbers long extinct. I also have quite a few of those plastic sheaths for insurance slips/credit cards, in case anyone is short. And don’t get me started on coins – a few from everywhere I’ve been, many in currencies no longer current. Oh dear, I feel a cleanup binge coming on, and that’s never good. I just end up sorting things into tidier tins and boxes.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Marion – There now, you see? The stuff defeats us! We can move it around but disposing of it takes more ‘stuff’ than I have, most days.

  3. Jim Robertson says:

    Like the others, I too plead guilty to having a junk (a.k.a. valuables) collection in several strategic locations (i.e. I know where they are which at times can be a novelty as I progress through the years).

    Keys yes, small magnifiers, watch bands, the odd coin etc etc. Hopefully my kids will be smart enough to recognize their value and place them in “file 13”.

    I also have a few locks, with no keys……

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Ah, yes, old watches. Don’t get me started. As for your locks with no keys – check with Marion. Maybe she can help.

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    Not just keys. My workshop has little plastic drawers filled with nuts and bolts and various sizes of copper rivets (does anyone still use them?) and nails too small to use, and cotter pins and tiny pieces of chalk and washers, to say nothing of several sets of Whitworth wrenches that fit nuts not even the British use any more, and, and, and…. I think I belong to the last gasp of a series of generations that never threw anything out, because, well, you know, you never know when you might need that particular thingie, whatever it is. When my uncle died, he had a whole garage filled with projects he had never completed, and parts that he might need for those projects. I’m making a point of clearing out some of my accumulation, but only of the stuff that I’m sure will have no future use. Which isn’t very much….


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – What amazes me is how tiring it is to go through hordes of stuff. I find that the decisions required intimidate me from even starting, weighing me down somehow. Maybe the Buddhists are onto something – there’s something liberating about disengaging from the material world. Not that I plan to throw out my rocks anytime soon… As for the copper rivets, I have no idea. Maybe you could send them to the Mint to make pennies. Oh. Maybe not.

  5. And then there is my object collection — made on purpose. I now have over 3,200 objects that I have scanned (sometimes front & back) and turned into digital graphics.
    If you really look at at any object, it is rather miraculous. Somebody designed and then made them. How can we throw anything out? Especially those things we’ve imbued with layers of emotional entanglement.

    Things rule; we serve.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Well, there you go – turning objects into art. (That’s not what happens in my house, just so you know.) But I like the thought of appreciating things, rather than taking them for granted. And there comes Buddhism into the discussion again, no? Aren’t they the folks who advocate picking one thing to take notice of every day – a colour, a shape – as part of increasing our appreciation for the world’s richness?

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