Lists and their uses

  1. Write libraries about acquiring Thinking Design through Literature
  2. Check with the board of elections to be sure I’m still registered to vote in Manhattan
  3. Pick up necklace from Chris in midtown
  4. Buy ribbon to cover base of Julianna’s wedding cake
  5. Get stuff for BLT’s (dinner)
  6. Replace AA batteries 
  7. Have lunch in midtown with Joan
  8. Follow up on HighGround archive proposal; call Kathy and Tucker
  9. Clean desk
  10. Pack books for country

This is today’s (much-cleaned-up) list of things to do.  It’s the type of list made to assure the list-maker that she’s aiming to be productive even when she’s not working on a dedicated project – a book, a lecture, or research for one or the other.  As lists go, however, it isn’t nearly as interesting as lists of things done. I have some of those, too. Like the list of books I’ve read – or at least those I can remember.  Also, lists that most people would call budgets, made to show not only what I’ve spent but, more importantly for me, what I’ve spent it on, what I’ve done. This is the truly gratifying aspect of tax season: seeing last year’s exchanges penciled in longhand on graph paper.

My favorite lists, however, are those that are continuous, lists that speak to lives not just days. My mother specialized in these. There was her list of household purchases, which included virtually everything she bought – dishes, rugs, bikes, cars, even the house itself – between 1957 and 2018, the year she died.  

She also kept a list of all the objects she accrued from her work at estate sales. Quite considerable, given she didn’t work on a regular schedule, this particular list has an added dimension. It doesn’t just record what she paid but it also notes who each item was purchased for – virtually everything is annotated with one of our names. A detailed record of maternal generosity and prudence, this list leaves no monies unaccounted for and hardly any wasted space on the page.  Paper had its value too. 

There is yet a third species in my mother’s warehouse of lists, one that we only were able to fully appreciate after her death. A few weeks after she was buried, my three sisters, my brother, and I decided we would start the task of clearing out her condo.  Most of the decisions had been made with her long beforehand. My mother couldn’t bear the thought that things that were of value, and valuable to her, might not find another home and guardian. (In the spirit of itemization, I should note that among those things were my grandmother’s secretary, a hammered copper bowl that was a wedding present, an Arts and Crafts bookcase she got at a house sale, and her china and her silver, only purchased years after their wedding when they could afford it.) 

In any case, we decided to start small.  It was early December and divvying up her Christmas ornaments made sense. What I hadn’t seen before was her ornament list. It was a reminder (in case we could have possibly forgotten) which of us gave her the wooden rabbit (her maiden name was Hare), the raffia angel, the Nutcracker, or the drum. You could say that we were looking at a will of sorts, since the presumption was that we would take what we gave.  But in her handwriting, it felt like something else. This was a reciprocal list, made to be used once by its maker and once by each of us.

Friends have asked me why my mother was so thorough.  Money was always to be husbanded in a family with five children, true.  Apart from that, I believe the lists testified to managerial skills that could otherwise have run a company and a family. I also believe that her list making gave material substance to a life marked by doing, not sitting still.

Composing lists is no different than making any other object, in the sense that it requires taking a break from the to-ing and fro-ing that govern our days – a respite my mother surely needed. Most satisfying to her daughter, though, is that the list itself becomes an object of contemplation after the fact. My eye follows the cursive of her handwriting and sees such care in those lines. They assure me that lists of things ‘done,’ are not about the past but about things worth remembering now – including the lists themselves.

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