This Old Thing?

The western world is ingrained with the idea of “out with old and in with the new”. It’s new and shiny vs. old and tarnished. Certainly, I do like some of the new and shiny things, but I also value some of the old and tarnished. So I recently got to thinking about the oldest object I still use on a regular basis: my key ring.

Now, what exactly do I mean by the “oldest object” and “use regularly”? Well, that’s a little fuzzy. I have a coffee table that may very well predate my existence, but it did not come into my possession until my twenties, so I don’t feel as strong of a connection to it. I also have a few artifacts tucked away from my early childhood (notably bookcases which are now in the kids’ rooms), but I don’t interact with them very regularly. So it seems that I’m mostly thinking about what object has been in my possession the longest that I still use at least weekly, and that definitely comes right back to my key ring.

As you can see, it’s not a particularly fancy thing, just a metal ring looped around twice so that keys can be slid on and off through the gap. In most ways, it’s completely unremarkable, except for the fact that I have been using it for at least thirty-five years.

When I first got it, it was actually a bit fancier. There were two identical rings held together by about three inches of black leather. I got it when I was a kid, no more than ten, possibly as young as seven or eight, and I paid probably no more than fifty cents. I put my house key on one ring, and hung it by the other ring on a push-pin stuck into my bedroom wall. I know I had it by age ten, because that was the year Mom went back to work part-time and would not be home until thirty minutes after school let out, so this was my way of letting myself into the house.

Eventually the leather strap broke, and the other ring was discarded, but by the time I turned sixteen, I added another key to the surviving ring: the key to my old 1972 Chevy Impala. The years passed, and it saw several dorm keys come and go, including one to my now wife’s room. (Rowr!) Then came the key to my first apartment and then that first rented house. I was married and working by then, so I added the keys to my wife’s car as well as one for the front door of the office.

That’s when the first key came off: my old house key. Sure, some keys had already come and gone. After all, I had to turn in the dorm keys or face a $50 charge for changing the locks. The apartment key had come and gone as well, and I don’t know how many bike-lock keys had passed through like smelly transients. But my house key had stayed the whole time. That one was permanent. Right?

But I didn’t live there anymore, and that point was made clear the first year of my marriage when Christmas rolled around. My mother called to ask when we were driving up to visit. I told her I wasn’t. After all those college years of being apart during the holidays, my wife and I were determined not to travel for Christmas. “But don’t you want to come home for Christmas?” my mother asked, and I finally said the words that slashed the apron strings with all the grace of a machete: “Mom, I am home.”

I took the house key off that very day.

Other keys have come off more easily. We sold my wife’s car, and I handed over the key, taken right off the ring then and there. The rent house key left without leaving an impression, and when we sold that first starter house to another couple, I again pulled the key off and handed it over at the closing. Surprisingly, when I sold my software company and headed off to greener pastures, there was no hesitation at letting that key go. I suppose that meant I was really done.

I used to keep an empty 44-magnum bullet on it as a separator, making it easy to grab hold of the right car key in the dark. That had to go after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001. I thought about simply removing it for flights as some short-term fix, but I knew that was a recipe for misplacing it. Plus, I suppose I realized that the security restrictions were not going to be temporary. I suppose it’s still rattling around in my nightstand, but I haven’t seen it for years.

But other keys have hung on… notably that brass one with the notch. That was the key to my first car. I sold it back in 1997 or 1998, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to remove the key. At first I told myself that I was using it as an easy-access pocket knife for ripping open letters and packages, but now its teeth are so dull that I’m not sure it would tear even Kleenex. Even if that old Impala is still out there and running, I doubt this worn key would still turn the ignition. Yet it remains.

But through it all has been that one little key ring, bought ages ago with coins saved from my allowance as a sign of my impending maturity. Of all the things in my life, all the little icons and rites of passage, it’s funny to see what survives.

So how about you? What’s the oldest thing you’re still using?