My wife makes numbered to-do lists that can bring present and past, wishes, ethics, ideals, and regrets into a convergence that suggests what ought to occur. Her lists remind me of free-writing. A person without academic instruction in writing and its biases might call it doodling, talking to yourself on paper, or brainstorming. Sometimes when her moving finger writes, I think that, had Auguste Rodin glimpsed her doing it, she might have inspired a creation he’d call “Woman Dreaming,” which my mind displays beside his “Praying Hands.”
At the breakfast table before she awakens, I find her latest list. From three feet away, the grace of her writing stands out. The nuns taught her cursive so well, her notes remind me of copies of the Declaration of Independence, the fluid clarity of Jefferson, Dunlap, or whoever the scrivener was. It’s like Chinese calligraphy. In contrast, her canvases are anything handy: used envelopes, the blank side of printed paper, a page ripped from spiral binding, the margin beside newspaper articles, or sheets from pads that groups seeking donations send us. Since last year such pleas fill a 12x16x5-inch cardboard box with these pads, more requests for help than usual, though pandemic conditions may have skewed my judgments on that.
While I eat toast, my wife’s notes inspire such thoughts until I see an item in all caps: “CLEAN BATHROOM DRAINS SINK AND TUB.” Damn. I imagine her loud insistence convincing me to ransack the shed for a snake and plunger to clear off the smell and rot of forgotten things from our past. If I threw away this list, maybe she’d forget the drain work.
I don’t trash the list only because the next entry is, “Send George Money.
Whoa now. I’d better ask about that. Giving money to relatives is touchy. For one thing, the main reason the mail brings us list pads from so many groups is that we give a little, though nothing to brag about, but then those recipients share our name and address with other charities. Our bank account has limits. A second thing is that relatives in George’s condition—meaning age range—sometime get too generous. Grandma Vernon comes to mind. Evangelical television broadcasts convinced her to tithe, then send even more. Her small pension was hardly enough to feed her and pay utility bills. Aunt Bette and Uncle Buster had to go to court, become guardians, and take charge of her income to save her.
My wife’s lists are maps that lead her daily from get-up to go-back-down. When the grandkids show up for her cookies, she sometimes diverts their energy from fun into labor, completing items on her lists appropriate to her workers’ ability: dusting, vacuuming, washing dishes, preparing foods, pulling weeds, sowing seeds, unpacking and displaying decorations for an approaching holiday, or packing and storing decorations after one’s passage. Unfortunately, her volunteers are not qualified to unclog drains. They prefer tamping wooden dowels into the hard ground until the little flags on them surround our front yard, stars and stripes waving in the hot breezes, giving chiggers a meal, unnecessarily announcing Independence Day two weeks ahead of time. Displaying flags this way does remind me that, as they say, we are all in this together.
Lists seem to give my wife purpose and hope. Similarly, levels of institutions and government fill the airways with their own “lists,” and though much of the content is iffy, these messages suggest that social order remains. The lists, I think, are possibilities, but also wishful thinking.
The lists I make are more like the Native American dreamcatchers. My lists cast nets of woven-together-words, hoping to catch something worthwhile, something worth sharing. Boxes and bins full of symbols help me handle confusion and uncertainties, the present and the future.
Retired college teacher Bill Vernon has reminisced in print about the values and follies of golfing, running, canoe racing, playing baseball or basketball, fishing, piano playing, hunting, international folk dancing, and hiking. He’s still active in some of these things. Vernon’s writing appears mostly in literary journals.