Monday, June 6, 2011

Make A List; Do It; Cross It Off

It's good to know that those of us who make lists are in such elite company. Beginning June 3, an exhibition (To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumerations from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art) at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City celebrates this most common form of documentation by presenting an array of lists made by a range of artists, from Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder to H. L. Mencken, Eero Saarinen, Elaine de Kooning, and Lee Krasner.

The tip-off to my mother's brain tumor should have been the lists we started to find all over the house—on backs of envelopes, on junk mail, on the windowsill in the kitchen (I don't be "on" the top of the sill, I mean written on the furniture!). After the operation, while trying to make order of her house, we found them tucked into pocketbooks, in boxes in the den, in the piles of papers that littered her home. The lists apparently went back a number of years. It was her attempt to compensate for a memory that was being impinged by the growing tumor; we thought it was just a sign of aging.

My memory of my father is intertwined with lists. I see his scratchy handwriting on index cards, where he kept lists of chores to be done on the weekend; things he wanted to remember to do at school (he was a junior high school principal); what to pack when going on vacation; all of our names and birthdays; his investments; etc. Every suit he owned had a blank index card or two in it, always at the ready to start a list. After he died, we found those index cards, now yellowed since he'd been retired for many years, still in his jacket pockets.

My mother's list-making should have been a warning, however, because she never made lists. She remembered birthdays and anniversaries of her children, grandchildren, relatives, and friends. She had stacks of greeting cards ready to go. If she needed something at the store, she ran out immediately to buy it (more on her shopping habits in another post). When she wanted something in the house done, she relegated it to my he would put it on his list. But never did I see her write something down for later use. Until recently.

But now her list-making has become a frenetic habit. It's as scattered as her thinking. My brother bought her a daybook, hoping she'd organize her thoughts in a logical way, recording the lists by day/date, then crossing items off so they'd be out of her mind. But brain trauma doesn't work in an orderly fashion. It has a life of its own, and so do her lists. Now, when it's on her mind, it goes on the list.

Last fall, she added "apple juice" to her shopping list. Why? She had seen a newscast on tv that said apple juice was a good source of antioxidants. Cleaning out her cabinets this spring, she saw the apple juice. "Why is this here?" she asked me. "It was on your list," I told her. "Take it home; I don't like apple juice," she replied. So much for lists.

I have always been a list-maker and take joy in crossing things off. It makes me feel like I've accomplished something, though sometimes as I add yet another task to be done, it makes me feel overwhelmed. So I wonder, what will be the tip-off to my own children that something is amiss? A list-less home?

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