The Key to the Past

keyYesterday morning I felt something crunchy in the pocket of my blue jeans. I reached in expecting to find a crumpled receipt but instead pulled out the key to our safe deposit box in its cardboard envelope. What the heck was the valuable key doing there?

Weeks ago we had been applying for Barb’s pension from Lutheran General Hospital, where back in the 1980s, long before the days of Advocate or Aurora Healthcare Systems, she worked as an Occupational Therapist. The application required a copy of our marriage license, a document we have not been asked for in 42 years (or is it 43?)

A trip to our bank vault failed to find the license but despite the pandemic the Cook County Office of Records was able to mail me a certified copy in less than 10 days. I scanned it into my PC, mailed a copy to the pension administrator, then made another trip to the bank and placed the original in the vault. I must have jammed the key in my pocket that day and totally forgot about it–until I reached into my pocket yesterday and like Little Jack Horner I pulled out a plum.

Do many people still have bank safety deposit boxes? They are very special repositories. This last visit brought back so many memories. The box itself contains some of the remembrances, the matured US savings bonds, the decades-old mortgage documents on the houses we raised the kids in, the certificates for trees planted in my honor in Israel. But the memories weren’t all on pieces of paper.

I was flooded with memories of the First Commercial Bank, on the corner of Morse and Clark in the city. Four times a year throughout the 1960’s I would walk to the bank with my dad or mom and sister Linda. We’d enter the busy bank lobby and immediately on the left was the elevator–the first one I can remember. Mom or Dad would let one of us kids press the green button inside the elevator car and we would descend to the basement, just one story down.

In the still and quiet basement, under the unnatural glow of fluorescent lighting, we would approach a high counter, behind which would be a very serious-looking lady or gentleman. We would produce a silver key, sign a register, and be admitted through the giant steel door, a door as thick as my mother’s arm was long, into the vault.  We passed aisles and aisles, rows and rows, of metal doors, each requiring two keys. The clerk would locate our family box, twist in the keys, and lead us to a private cubicle.

What were we doing in the vault four times a year? Dad and Mom owned “coupon bonds” with interest payable 4 times a year. To claim the interest, coupons needed to be cut from the bonds and turned in to a teller in the bank, with the proceeds deposited in the family account.

I doubt it was very much money, but the ritual made it very important to me. I remember on sunny days if the four of us were together the walk included a stop at Ashkenaz for soup and a bagel. And I remember thinking we would be clipping those coupons forever.

Sadly, the last time I visited that vault was as the executor of my mom’s estate. The bonds, Mom, Dad, and Linda were all gone–but the memories of those afternoons, the walks, the elevator, the clipping, will always live in the safe deposit box of my memories. I can always reach into my jeans and find the key.


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