Finding the key to happiness

By Kris Ferrazza | Oct 15, 2020

Never put the key to your happiness in someone else’s pocket.

I learned this message early on in life, but it wasn’t until recently I fully understood it. Or at least I thought I did. The epiphany came after I accidentally misplaced the key to my china closet.

Now to fully understand the gravity of this situation, I’d have to explain the relationship I’ve had with this antique cabinet. My father bought it for my mother years ago. I can’t remember if it was a birthday or an anniversary gift, but its arrival into our home was dramatic.

Everything about this china closet screamed “breakable.” And with five kids in the house, its mere existence was a recipe for disaster.

I remember my father muttering, “I need to have my head examined,” as he placed it carefully against a wall in a heavily trafficked area of our home. We got a stern lecture about avoiding any horseplay near or around the fragile antique, with its rounded glass front and ball and claw feet. It was a sight to behold, I must admit, and they heralded its arrival.

Over the years, there were many close calls, to be sure. We children had a habit of sliding on the floors in stockinged feet. That meant many of us ran and slid past, under and around the china closet daily, missing the glass by mere inches and eliciting gasps and gray hair from the grownups.

Cries of “look out for the china closet!” were heard on the regular. My parents would shield it with their bodies, protecting it from harm. Anytime my parents heard a crash and learned someone hit their head on the floor or a door frame, they’d express relief instead of alarm.

“At least it wasn’t the china closet,” they’d say.

Adding to the golden cabinet’s mystique was a keyhole. Yes, it had its very own key. A gleaming, old-fashioned key. My mother was the keeper of that key, and it was kept hidden away from our grubby hands and prying eyes.

That key was the holy grail of our childhood.

Sometimes my mom would have us turn our backs so she could hide the key. Other times she would muse aloud, “Now, where did I hide the key?” which only added to the intrigue. It was so secretive, even she didn’t know where it was half the time. Talk about your forbidden fruit.

The treasures the china closet held defied description. They ranged from antique glassware to beloved gifts my mother received as a young bride. There were antique china dolls and tiny silhouettes. All of these things were precious to her.

Over time, she started to put all of the things that were closest to her heart in there. They weren’t always valuable. I once presented her with a caterpillar I made using glass marbles and googly eyes. The worm wore a jaunty plastic top hat, as I recall, and was the product of an after-school meeting of the Brownies and Girl Scouts.

She proudly accepted the gift. I later noticed he was preserved under glass for all time, locked inside the china closet. What an honor.

Time passed, and we all grew up and left the nest. Incredibly, the china closet survived. In 1999, something shocking happened. I got married and, as the eldest child, my mother gave me the china closet as a wedding gift.

Even more shocking, she still had the key.

She presented the key to me, along with the closet and the antique sherbet glasses that always were front and center on the top shelf. How could she bestow such a gift upon me? At first I didn’t even know what to say. Then almost immediately, I picked right up where she left off.

“Be careful of the china closet,” I would say. Now that I had my own home, I’d rise and stand in front of the glass to protect it from running nieces and nephews, my mother’s grandchildren.

Inside were the sherbet glasses, as well as gifts I received as a new bride. I added a few tiny portraits of friends who were near and dear to my heart, who had passed. There were arts and crafts projects my sisters’ kids created and lovingly given to me.

Once my own daughter came along, I added special baby gifts. There were pretty things, fragile things, precious things. Then there were worthless but sentimental items: birthday candles, souvenirs and tiny hair bows.

There’s no doubt I am my mother’s daughter.

Recently, we moved the china closet to renovate the living room, and emptied the cupboard where I’d kept the key hidden for 20 years. That upheaval led to a yearlong search for the key — the holy grail. I watched as the items inside the china closet grew dustier and dirtier, and I had no way to get into it.

My husband offered to pick the lock one day, but I wouldn’t hear of it.

“I’m sure it wouldn’t take much to get into it,” he said.

Nothing doing.

So last weekend, I ventured into the hayloft of my barn and went on a treasure hunt. Yes, I was in search of the holy grail.

I found the boxes from the cupboard, and started unwrapping newspaper and tissue paper. There were cups, cups and more cups. Tea cups, espresso cups, latte cups and baby cups. There were candles, tea pots, antique silhouettes and hand-painted vases from Italy. Sugar bowls, butter dishes and creamers. Salt and pepper shakers, wine glasses and water glasses.

On and on I went. But every discovery was a disappointment. I would unwrap the item, shake it, listen for the jingle of a key hidden inside, and then rewrap it. I did this for 20 minutes until I finally heard the telltale jingle.

Back inside the house, I unlocked the china closet and took out one especially grubby antique pitcher. I washed, dried and replaced it. Then, I looked at the dozens of other items and realized I didn’t have the energy to do any more.

So I twisted the gleaming key in the keyhole, breathed a sigh of contentment and hid the key once again.

And the beat goes on.

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