The Key

Brian GilhamEssays

People always ask me about my tattoo — an ornamental key covering the underside of my right forearm. They joke that it’s a key to the city. Or they ask if my wife has a tattoo of a lock. Or the dreaded question, “What does your tattoo mean?” I usually deflect.

It doesn’t mean anything. I just liked the way it looked. It’s just a key.

But it isn’t. It’s a tribute to my Dad.

The memory is fuzzy. But I remember him having this old, ornamental key. The kind of key you see in movies, with two prongs sticking out the end of it and huge loops at the top. It looked like it belonged in a castle. It didn’t look anything like the one on my arm.

I haven’t seen it in decades. I could ask my parents about it but I’m afraid seeing it would ruin the memory. For all I know it was some trinket he found lying around. A good luck charm made of plastic. Maybe it never existed — a trick of the brain.

Even if that’s true, it doesn’t matter. It’s one of the few objects I associate with my Dad, right up there with the wooden duck on his dresser and the rubber Hamburgler toy he kept in his briefcase — a gift from my brother and I. My tattoo is a way of putting a small piece of my family on my body forever.

There will be more tattoos. I’ve already begun thinking of a tribute to my Mom. Or one for my brother. Or my wife.

I don’t think I’ll ever sport someone’s name, but I love the idea of decorating my body with my life story — the people, places, and events that have shaped me.

I’ve never told my Dad about the meaning behind my tattoo. He would be uncomfortable, I’m sure. But I’ll always know. And I’ll always have a small part of him with me.