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There Was A Key

Thu Aug 17, 2017

This blog post has nothing even remotely programming-related in it. It's just a hominid writing names in the sand. If you wish to be enlightened, go elsewhere.

You have been warned.

There was a key

I had it on my key chain. It was one of those large, iron, old-timey ones that opened simple locks made a long time ago. A few people noticed it occasionally, while I fumbled with my FOB trying to get into my building, and asked something like "why do you have a fake key on your key chain?"

It wasn't a fake key. It was the key to my grandfathers' house. It opened the storm doors that closed on the kitchen, and protected the inner doors from intense rain. There was a set of three of these keys. One was with my grandfather, one was with my grandmother (although she usually kept it in the kitchen), and one was just a spare. In October of 1992, when my family moved from Croatia to Canada, I promised my grandparents that I wouldn't forget them. I took the spare key with me and kept it on a succession of key chains.

It reminded me of Omišalj

I wasn't born there; I was born in the relatively larger city of Rijeka in 1984, three weeks too late. My grandparents took care of me in their apartnment, because I was a giant crybaby and kept screaming when my parents left me in day care while they worked. The city didn't interest me. It was small and restrictive, and there was little fun there for a child my age. The childhood that I remember vividly all happened on the island of Krk, in the small town of Omišalj.

Running on beautiful, sunny beaches (and occasionally one very muddy one). Fishing off the Omišalj pier. Walking through the forests and along mountain paths. Stopping for ice cream and pizza as we ran through the town full of old, stone buildings. Sitting in the shade under grape vines and fig trees, treasuring the occasional respite from the sun. My grandmother always knitting and gardening. My grandfather alternating between watering the strawberry patches, smoking three packs a day while sipping on a glass of white wine, and telling us stories about the adventures that he'd had during his own childhood. He kept the cigarettes away from us scrupulously, he was a doctor afterall, but ocasionally let me try the white wine. I'd never try more than a sip, and never liked the taste.

Those memories stood out in shining, gold relief. After we moved to Canada, once my family established themselves a bit, they sent my sister and I back to Croatia every summer to visit. I was a complete goddamn obstreperous asshole about most of this, as I recall, but I treasured it. In 2004, I took my last trip back. I had a lot of things to do, and even more things to think about between my new post-University startup job and starting my own family. In 2005, my grandfather died. Without knowing it, during the previous summer, I'd already talked to him for the last time. I didn't have the vacation days to go to his funeral, and couldn't have afforded the trip myself in any case. The key then became a physical memory of him, as well as of my island-town childhood.

My worries kept me away

By that point, I already had the feeling that the town had changed from what I remembered in my earliest summers. In addition to all the other worries that kept me away, I was then also worried of shattering the fragile illusions that surely composed my childhood. The key stayed on my key chain, and reminded me of the nostalgia-polished memories of my early days, as well as my dead grandfather, my living grandmother and the island I saw myself as having come from.

My grandmother had, as far as I had known, never left the island of Krk. I'm sure she must have done some travelling to nearby European countries, but she certainly never went further than Montenegro. In 2007, she visited us in Canada, and stayed with us for three months. She marvelled at our new country, and the lives we led. She met my then-girlfriend-now-wife, my sisters' mate and some of our parents' friends. She was still afraid of being forgotten. I knew I wouldn't. Couldn't. Because I had the key. But I didn't have the courage to show it to her.

On the last day of her visit, on the way back to the airport, she was asking me again not to forget her. As we sat in the car together, I took out the key sheepishly and showed it to her. I wanted to explain what it meant to me. That it was a constant touchstone to a childhood that I treasured probably more than I should. That it reminded me of my grandfather, and the adventures we had together on Krk and in Rijeka, and that I'd never forget her.

Before I could say anything, she said that I should throw it out because the door it fit had been replaced the previous year. I put the key back in my pocket, and said nothing. Instead, I reassured her that I wouldn't forget her, and bid her farewell at the airport.

After 13 years, I went back

In 2017, I went back to Croatia for the first time since 2004. Mainly, I went for my sisters' wedding, but I did say hello to some old friends and family that I hadn't seen in a very long time. My grandmother was still doing ok; I stopped by a few times. During one visit, I asked for one of my grandfathers' wine glasses, which she gave me.

The beaches were gorgeous, and the pictures and videos I'd given the internet made most of my Canadian friends jealous. Some of them were quite confused about why I'd stay away from such an island paradise for so long. It's safe to say that, though it had definitely changed, this place certainly lived up to the memories that I had been polishing.

I came for one other thing.

I wanted to visit my grandfather

On the morning of August 16th, at around 11:30 am local time, I packed two glasses, a bottle of wine, and my key chain, and left my parents' summer house to take a long walk in the sun. I stopped by a newsstand to buy a pack of cigarettes and a cheap lighter, then I took the south road out of town towards the Omišalj graveyard. It took me about half an hours' walk to get there, and another half hour to actually find the grave. I'd only ever visited my great-grandparents before, so his was unknown to me. He's buried with his mother-in-law's family in a fairly populated plot.

I was alone in the graveyard; living people wait until the sun is lower in the sky to be there. I removed my backpack, placing it gently on the ground. I withdrew the lighter, and the pack of cigarettes, took one out and lit it. I don't smoke, but he did, so this was important. I placed it out of the wind, being careful not to drop ash all over the headstone. I withdrew the bottle of wine and, removing the cork, poured some into my grandfathers' glass, then some into my own.

My grandfathers' glass, I placed silently onto his grave, next to the cigarette. My own I held aloft. I didn't cry, though I wanted to. Instead I spoke a traditional Croatian toast:

Živili

Which roughly translates to "Long may we live".

I drained my glass. If I drank normally, I'd probably have poured myself another, but I didn't have much time left. The cigarette I'd lit had already ashed down by a third. I withdrew my key chain. As I worked the old storm-door key out, I told my grandfathers' grave the story of how I kept it with me, and what it meant. I didn't cry. I told it that I was sorry I didn't make it to the funeral. That I miss, and remember him still. That I had a loving wife, and two sons I was doing my best to raise well. I told it goodbye. By this point, the cigarette was burned down to a nub, so I put it out.

There was a key

It's on my grandfathers' grave, next to a glass of white wine I left there with it. I cleaned up the cigarette, and threw out the rest of the pack, along with the lighter. Then I hefted my backpack again, and started on the road north which would take me back to Omišalj.


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