That time I became a serious collector of skeleton keys

It was a Sunday morning in late August, the sun obscured by hazy cloud cover. I touched my hair absently, already frizzed out around my head like a halo from the thick summer humidity. I wondered the local flea market, surrounded by an eclectic blend of people buying and selling farm produce, silk screen T-shirts, cracked ceramic vases, stuffed animals, rusty tools and costume jewelry. I felt separate from the rush of the crowd; my search was for something very specific. I was quiet and content with what was becoming a weekend ritual.

So far the dollars I had brought were still crumbled in my pocket, unspent and I was feeling beginning pangs of disappointment before happening on a table positioned beneath a canopy tent. Two middle-aged hippies lounged in camping chairs behind the table, wearing tie-dyed shirts and ponytails halfway down their back. One strummed lazily at the stings of a guitar. The other offered an inquisitive stare.

“Looking for something in particular, miss?” he asked.

I nodded. “I’m looking for skeleton keys.”

He rummaged around the table, covered with a diverse array of items that appeared to have no rhyme or order. After a few moments, he made a triumphant noise.

“Here we are,” he replied, and handed me a small wooden bowl.

My disappointment quickly dissolved into delight as I saw that inside were two hollow barrel skeleton keys with ornate bow tops. I handed the hippy my money and started back toward my car.

I’d found my treasure.

My collection was in the somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty skeleton keys, a strange hobby that could be traced back to the previous spring.

My grandfather had passed away in March, following a yearlong string of medical issues, starting with a stroke, followed by a heart attack, and finally, the terminal cancer diagnosis. Once the doctors were able to fix the most immediate threat to his health, something else entirely different “broke.”

My family had been emotionally exhausted from his up-and-down rollercoaster of recovery and illness. It hurt volumes more, to lose and regain hope so many times, only to lose him in the end. I’d never experienced death on such personal level before. My heart was utterly broken.

A week after his funeral, my grief was eclipsed by a feeling of restlessness. I knew that my grandfather had been in regular correspondence with cousins in Italy, but no one in my family had yet written them with the news of his passing. As a small distraction, I set out to locate the address of his family and write to them myself.

My grandmother sent me to their basement with a look that said, “Good luck.” The space was filled with miscellaneous junk: artifacts from flea markets, estate sales and warehouse store clearance racks, which my grandfather had acquired over years. His passion for bargains, even if it was an item he had no use for, earned my grandfather the label of “collector,” when my family was feeling affectionate, and “hoarder” when they were slightly less so.

I started at the far corner of the basement and worked my way back toward the stairs, digging through boxes and rifling through cabinets and drawers. My grandfather’s presence was so strong here that it was as if he were still alive, standing next to me. It was a comforting thought. Just as I was mulling this over, my hand brushed over the top of an old cigar bar.

I opened it, sure the address I was looking for would be inside, but instead I found a ring of old skeleton keys.

I had failed in my original mission, but I returned home with the cigar box, which I put on the corner of my desk. I often stared at it while attempting to write, and eventually I starting taking out the keys and sketching them in the margins of my journal. What type of locks had these been used to open? Fancy cabinetry, an old-fashioned trunk, or maybe doorways?

I went out hunting for more skeleton keys to fill the cigar box. This single minded goal led to places I had no reason otherwise to explore, encountering people I would otherwise have never met.

I found a German skeleton key at a haunted antique store near my small hometown. I spoke with the owner for almost an hour about the history of the Victorian home he had converted into his place of business, the tales of love, scandal, and murder hanging suspended in the old musty room like dust motes.

A retired couple excitedly told me their plans to sell their home and move closer to their grandchildren at a garage sale I stumbled upon, where I also found two strange looking skeleton keys in a metal tackle box. (After some online research, I found out these were actually railroad switch keys.)

At another flea market, I met a drunk Irishman wearing stained overalls and a friendly Jack-o-Lantern grin.

“Do you have any skeleton keys?” I asked, just as a cold rain started to fall.

“Do I ever!” he exclaimed, and disappeared around the side of his van. He handed me a large ring of keys when he returned. There were more than a dozen of varying shape, size and design. JACKPOT, I thought to myself, as I paid the man’s asking price. “My wife used to collect them,” he explained, his voice filled with love. Despite the steady drizzle, I leaned against his van to listen as he told me stories about his late wife, so vivid I could have painted a picture of her.

On the drive home, I was overwhelmed by another thought. What if my grandfather had bought his keys, the ones I’d found in the basement, from that same drunk Irishman? The idea filled me again with that warm, comforting feeling, like my grandfather was sharing these experiences with me, guiding me in my constant search for the next skeleton key.

It seemed as though with each one I found, I unlocked a tiny door to my heart. Over the next year, my collection continued to grow not only in size but in ways that inspired other areas of my life. I made jewelry and artwork using the keys, making gifts for birthdays and holidays. On the anniversary of my grandfather’s passing, I splurged on a really nice camera and started experimenting with skeleton keys and amateur photography. I created the beautiful and haunting images I made, sharing them with the world online.

At this point of my journey, the keys started finding their way to me. My uncle, a Civil War reenactor, dropped a handful in front of me at a family gathering. “Got these from a shop in Gettysburg,” he told me. Another time, a coworker left a shoebox on my desk containing some very large keys, with a note that said, “Found this at an auction and immediately thought of you! Would make into a lovely wind chime, don’t you think?” And again, a pickle jar filled with all kinds of keys, skeleton, grandfather clock and ones that fit old padlocks, wound up at my front door. “You’ll never guess where I found these,” my friend told me. “Inside an abandoned storage unit I was cleaning out. Immediately thought of you!”

After over three years since finding that cigar box in my grandparents’ basement, I can truly appreciate the forces at work. It wasn’t just about collecting skeleton keys, I was following a kind of healing path toward accepting the death of a loved one. I was funneling those painful emotions into creative pursuits, opening up my heart to new experiences. Those keys helped me unlock the door where I kept the memories of my grandfather in life, where I kept them alive and close to me, so that most days his presence no longer feels as far away. My strange hobby was and is a constant reminder that the answer can be as simple as finding the right key to open a door.

And if the key doesn’t work in that lock, maybe it’s just the wrong door.

A Pittsburgh native, Heather Nedzesky is part artist and part science geek who enjoys photography, yoga and travel. Her Instagram and Twitter are both @Heather52384.

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