For many years, I carried a keychain with a key to my grandmother’s house (which was never locked), a key to the house of some old family friends, and a key to whatever dorm room or apartment or I was living in at the time (which was also rarely locked). Sometimes I had the keys to the apartments or houses of other friends, or places where I was house or petsitting. Notably absent from this list, even during the times I lived there, was a key to my mother’s house.
From the ages of seven to eighteen I went every summer but one to camp in Maine. A counselor would pick me and other campers arriving then up at the airport in Portland — my flight always arrived in the late afternoon or evening — and drive us back to camp, where my trunk had been shipped and was waiting for me in my cabin. I’d dig around in my pockets and my carry on bag for my trunk key. I’d try to remember the last time I’d seen it or used it. Not to lock the trunk — it locks automatically when the lock falls into place. But surely, surely this year I’d remembered that I always had this problem. But I hadn’t. I couldn’t find the key, and I’d go to the dining hall for a knife and force the lock open. I still have that trunk. The last time I locked it was in November 2010, when I was packing to move back to Iowa. I was sure I had the key. I’m sure I do, still, somewhere, but I don’t know where, and my skill at popping open the lock with a knife is gone.
I have the key to the u-lock for my bike but not the u-lock. There’s a cord with a MasterLock currently locked around my bike handles, but I don’t have the key to the MasterLock, though I have some keys that I think perhaps go to another padlock that I can’t find. I have small appliances without cords and and cords without appliances, containers without lids and lids without containers. Along with the detritus that all but the most skillful of us collect over a lifetime, I seem to have acquired a particular talent for missing pieces.
There is not much you can do with such a life but make art from it. Even that is suspect, of course. No one in her right mind could stand to read a story that began “My life has consisted of locks without keys and keys without locks,” and you’ll notice that I did not start this story that way, although saying you lack a key to your own mother’s house may sound even more maudlin. (Sorry, Mom.)
Motherhood has many gifts, but it will rob you of any illusion you might have had of independence and competence like a thief in the night. A more enlightened person than me might regard that as a gift, too, and come to Jesus, or at least Hillary Clinton, on the subject of it taking a village to raise a child. I am not that person, though (despite having found Jesus long ago), and I resent the things I no longer am able to do for myself due to lack of time or energy or talent or strength. I regularly broke into my own house as a child, climbing in through windows or piling things up so I could climb up to the back porch and get in through the porch door. I cracked that trunk lock open with nothing but a ten-year-old’s strength and a table knife. I hiked miles alone in the wilderness in Wyoming and trained myself one summer to ride up the Benton Street hill in Iowa City. These seem, in the face of attempting to install a child bike seat, like simple pursuits, things I could do on my own, things that required no tools save the ones that were to hand and no strength but that I had or could develop in myself.
I often believe once I’ve found the first line of something that it will write its way to an ending, and often it does. When it doesn’t, I tend to abandon it as a failed start, an idea that doesn’t have an essay in it, or one that I haven’t found yet. I’m not sure what the ending here is, except that there isn’t one. We are always who we are, and I will likely never find my trunk key, or never learn to keep track of it. I may start to tell people that it, and everything else I’ve lost, are sitting on a ledge on the south rim of Oregon Basin in Park County, Wyoming, having fallen out of my pocket with my old car key that, to the best of my knowledge, is sitting there still, though the car is long gone, and the wind and the sun and the snow have doubtless faded the keychain, a small rubbery piece of plastic in the shape of a cow that said IOWA and LAURA.