Daddy’s Keys… by JoAnn

A bunch of keys that are on top of each other.

Whenever I hear someone speaking of a hardworking man, my first thought always goes back to my daddy. I have for sure known good, hardworking men in my 57 years on this earth. And I have loved several as either my husband, my father-in-law, or my son-in-law. But my daddy will forever remain at the top of my list.

Growing up on a large property in a country setting, I witnessed firsthand how hard my daddy would work to keep our home and surrounding property in not only a good working order, but very comfortable and pleasing to the eye. It was something he had been in love with for many years, even before I ever came along.

His dad and stepmother had lived just down the mountain for many years. So, he knew those woods well and had always dreamed of owning the property on top of the mountain. When he and my mother wed in the early fifties, they rented a little cottage type house beside his dad and stepmom’s. Not long after, the property “on the hilltop” came up for sale. At that time the house included was a two room, humble little home. But the eleven acres surrounding it were the real dream for my daddy.

Fortunately for all of us, my mama and daddy were able to buy this dream. I only wish that I could have seen the look on my daddy’s face when he knew that mountain top was his! The twinkle in his clear blue eyes must have been so beautiful, and the pep in his step must have been unmistakable. Probably like that of a schoolboy who just won the game for his team. I imagine my mama may not have been so happy. Knowing her well, I believe she may have felt that they had bit off more than they could chew. She may have doubted that my daddy could do all that needed to be done in order to make this two-room house into a family home that could hold the children she intended to raise. And the woods, they were so thick. She must have wondered what on earth my daddy was going to do about all those trees? They needed a yard after all, and a nice size vegetable garden or two. Oh, I’m sure she had many doubts!

Soon my mama would learn just how hardworking the man she had married could be. He began building onto the house by adding a bathroom, a small bedroom, and enclosed back porch. That would do for the first baby to be born. Then he added on a hallway, two more bedrooms, and a small front porch. Of course, Mama needed a nice sized chicken house, and Daddy a good-sized shop to hold all his tools. The long, steep driveway needed constant upkeep, as did the yard all three of us kids would play in for many years to come. What about the vegetable garden you ask? Not one garden, but a very large one, a smaller one, and a big strawberry patch! Not to forget the compost pile as my daddy believed in organic growing. His tomatoes were like none I have ever tasted since! They were what they call “heirloom” today. Back then they were just huge tomatoes that were sweet as honey! We would eat them like they were candy. Don’t get me started on the bounty of sweet strawberries. My dad had an extremely green pair of thumbs!
It may be obvious that enough vegetables were grown for my mama to can and freeze to feed us through the next year. Daddy would also sell much of his surplus, and Mama would sell her fresh eggs. Our dirt cellar would be filled with jars of tomatoes, green beans, pickled cucumbers and beets. Not to mention jars of jellies and jams made from the wild blackberries that grew on the property, and the apples and peaches from our fruit trees. Wooden bins were filled with potatoes and onions. Along with the deep freeze on the back porch, we had our own supermarket right at home.

Did I mention that my daddy also worked a regular job at the same time? He did indeed. But his passion was to be right there on those eleven acres. And with all these acres came buildings, cars, trucks, tractors, lawnmowers, fences and gates. And with all those things came locks with keys! My daddy had a full key ring. He used to let me hold them sometimes when I was bored. I would ask him what does this key go to, and this one? He knew what lock each, and every key went to. Sometimes he would let me tag along during his chores and do the locking and unlocking for him. What a treat that was for me!

Like clockwork, every day between 4:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m., Mama would have supper ready, and Daddy would come through the back door after his daily chores outside were done. And like clockwork, that big ring of keys would go to its prominent place, on a key rack just inside the kitchen doorway. I must have seen my daddy place those keys on that hook thousands of times throughout my life. Even after we moved away to a big city for 20 years so Daddy could find work, he and Mama moved back to the old house, and Daddy fell right back in to his daily routine of chores, and would end his day hanging the same ring of keys on that rack, placed in the exact spot it had always been.

Wherever Daddy went, the keys went with him. They must have been heavy in his pocket. Perhaps he felt like something was missing if they weren’t there. They seemed to hold so much more than a mere way of opening a lock. I think they gave my daddy a feeling of confidence. Maybe knowing that as long as he had those keys, that meant he had his mountain top home. And other than his wife and children, that was all he ever wanted in life.

Even after many, many years passed, and my mama passed away, Daddy continued to carry that ring of keys. He no longer needed them every day. Long gone was the ability to have a big garden, a strawberry patch, a locked gate at the end of the driveway. Gone was his ability to drive his truck or his tractor.

About nine months after my Mama’s passing, I talked my daddy into coming out for a visit. My brother drove him the 400 plus miles and dropped him off. I was aware that Daddy had all the markers for dementia. But until he arrived, I had no idea how bad it had gotten since my mama’s passing. He was out of it. He had no concept of time or place. I wondered if he even knew who I was, much less his grandchildren. Obviously taking him out of his usual surroundings took a real toll on him. He became progressively worse over the course of a few days. This was the first time I had been faced with this. I had no idea what to do. I called my brother, and he turned around and came back. He took our daddy back home and immediately to his doctor where it was made clear that he could no longer live alone. My daddy never lived on his beloved property again.

A few days after my daddy left my house, I was going through a basket of dirty laundry, filling my washing machine as I went. About halfway through the pile of dirty clothes, I look down, and there were my daddy’s keys! The same old key ring, with worn smooth keys, that my daddy had been carrying around for all the years I had known him. Somewhere in his mind, he must have been looking for the place he always hung them at the end of his day and perhaps thought it was inside the doorway of my laundry room. They must have fell into the basket.

I stood there, crying silently, holding onto my daddy’s keys as though I was holding onto his life. It was a symbol of his life. The one he loved so very passionately, and the one he no longer had control over.

I hung those keys on a nail I had inside the doorway of my kitchen. I would take them down from time to time and just hold them. Feeling my daddy’s energy on every smooth surface. There they stayed for many years until life forced me to remove them. Now, they are packed securely away with other mementos.

The keys are the only thing I have left of my daddy. Gone is the beautifully humble childhood home and property. It’s difficult for me to ponder over the memories without crying. It took some time just to write this story. But every day I miss my daddy and am so extremely proud he was mine. So, with that I want to honor him with sharing my memories with others. He would have liked that.

I love you Daddy, and I will keep your keys safe for you.