PUBLISHED: 6:35 PM on Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Key to home can be a golden friend
Out of the past four years' worth of columns, this one has continued to receive the most feedback. But a comment I received last year meant more to me than the all others because it came from my sister-in-law. She had tearfully sent it to her son Jeremiah, stationed with the Army in Iraq. She longed to see him safely return home and hoped the column would serve as yet another reminder of a mother's devoted love.

He never saw it.

Jeremiah was critically injured Dec. 26, 2006, and succumbed to his injuries 10 days later. Still, I believe that his mother's love reminded him there would always be a golden friend - the key to home - waiting for him.

So this year, I dedicate this column to all of you who have loved ones far from home - too far from home.

I wish each one of you the very warmest of holiday wishes.


"You know how to get in" - how many times have I heard that?

Courtesy photo
  The key to home is always special.
I've carried the key to home for as long as I can remember, tucked inside my front pocket when backpacks weren't yet in fashion and PeeChees were the norm for school accessories.

When college years arrived, so did fun, late nights with friends. I never left the house without hearing Dad's curfew reminder or without him saying, "You know how to get in." I rolled my eyes and sighed; of course I knew.

And when I pushed the clock toward pumpkin-turning time, a lit porch light and a bright lamp shining through the living room curtains reminded me where I was welcome - and loved.

Then I married. My key ring expanded to include two car keys, a key to my new residence, and "home"; it would always be home.

My husband and I frequently stopped by for visits; or if we timed it just right, dinner - by simply using my key.

Career opportunities moved us three hours north a few years later. Like the childhood song teaching us that new friends are silver and old friends are gold, I added a new house key, a silver friend. But I kept the old key, the golden friend.

I realize now what a turning point that must have been for Mom and Dad to see their youngest join their oldest's quests in settling down so far away. Too far away.

I came home as often as possible. Before heading out for the journey, Dad reminded me over the phone, "Drive safely. And if we're out when you arrive, you know how to get in."

And I did.

It's been six years now since I've turned that key - my golden friend. Six years since driving up to a lit-up porch. Six Christmases since hearing Dad's voice reminding me, "You know how to get in." I would give anything to hear his voice one more time.

As for Mom, she now lives with the advanced stages of Alzheimer's at an Alzheimer's community. She doesn't say it, but I know she'd echo Dad's reminder if she could.

Still, that old, golden friend remains on my key ring and I have no plans on removing it. It's an ever-present reminder of a place where parents don't rest well until everyone's tucked into bed, no matter how old we grow. It's a place where the porch light stays on. Where embraces await.

This Christmas I'm followed in my parents' footsteps. "You know how to get in," I'll remind my adult son, who lives a seven-hour drive from our home.

And he does - even though his work schedule made holiday travel unfeasible. It was our first Christmas without him and his family.

Still, he carries a silver friend, along with an old one - the golden one. It's a reminder of a place where the porch light stays on; where he can count on hearing, "You know how to get in."

For those of you with a family member far from home, may their key ring hold a golden friend this holiday season, too.

Judy Halone is a member of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.