I’ve long been addicted to “to-do” lists. This is partly because they provide me with the illusion of control over my life, but mainly it’s because I experience intense satisfaction in briskly checking off items on the list. In fact, I often add tasks to my list that I’ve already completed just so I can check them off, thereby experiencing a sense of accomplishment even before I begin.
Lately, however, I’m finding that my lists serve less as a pleasant habit and more as a crutch to support a failing short- term memory. Like many of my fellow boomers, this memory issue is becoming increasingly worrisome.
The other day my husband and I were trying to figure out if our friend’s father had passed away. We remembered being at a large gathering at their home but couldn’t recall if it was the grandson’s briss (gathering to mark the rite of circumcision) or the father’sshiva (visit to the home of a mourning family).
Sad to say, this is par for the course. I simply can’t retain information about other people’s lives. I don’t remember whether or not they recently took a vacation, where their parents live, the names of their children (let alone where they go to college), their birthday or anniversary, or how many sisters or brothers they have, if any. This will be the case even if they are well versed in all the details of my life and we have known each other for decades. This doesn’t mean I don’t like them; I’m sure I do and may even consider them close friends. But this is me, an unfortunate amalgamation of bad memory, indifference and self-absorption.
However, I have gotten quite skilled at mining conversations with friends or family members to unearth snippets of critical information. For example, the open-ended question “How is school going?” directed at my cousin Elaine is perfect. All I recall about Elaine is that she is a parent, but of whom, how many, which gender and how old I have no idea. This particular question doesn’t require me to specify grade school or college, whether I’m talking about one student or five, boys or girls. Strategic use of the response to the question (e.g., “Andrew’s loving junior semester in Florence”) can make it appear as though I regularly mull over all of the facets of the lives of all of Elaine’s kids. “Oh yes, I’m glad you brought that up,” I might say. “I’ve often wondered how Andrew was enjoying his semester abroad.” (Note, before she made this remark I had no idea whether she actually had a son.)
More and more, though, the system has been failing. Example: I recently ran into a friend; not one of my very closest buddies but someone that could definitely be characterized as a “good friend.” She immediately asked about my mother (who had been in the hospital recently). I wanted to reciprocate by asking a thoughtful question about her mom or dad, but I couldn’t remember if either of them was still alive.
I tried to recover by asking a general question about her family, usually a good tactic to prompt disclosure of some facts I can work with. She shrugged. “Not great,” she said, “but as well as could be expected under the circumstances.” And then I was really flummoxed. That there had been a crisis and that I was expected to be aware of it was quite clear. The challenge was to tactfully extract from her key information to determine exactly what crisis had occurred so I could seamlessly pick up the threads of conversation and sound sincerely concerned about the afflicted loved one whom, a minute earlier, I was not even sure still walked the earth.
I felt paralyzed. How easy it would be to fall into the pit by asking how her dad was doing, only to be reminded that he had died last year and that I had, in fact, attended the funeral. (That would result in a double whammy in which I not only deeply offended her but also lost the “relationship credit” I had earned for having apparently attended the funeral.)
All of this brings me back to the original subject of lists, because it occurs to me that a list of some sort is just what I need to tackle this problem. Not a to-do list, but one that allows me to keep track of whose sister is getting a divorce, husband has lost his job, son didn’t get into law school, mother is in the hospital with pneumonia or a broken hip, or father just had a stent put in or passed on.
I will name this list “Terrible Things That Have Happened to My Friends and Family” and it will be a resource to be consulted on a regular basis, particularly before family gatherings or other social events.
Armed with this information, I will be a hit at parties, at least the kind of parties I attend which are not hipster hangouts but sedate gatherings where conversation revolves around the competitive exchange of tales of worry and woe. People will be touched by the sincerity of my concern and dazzled by my surprisingly clear recollection of the details of every calamity of their lives. That is, so long as nobody peeks at the little cheat sheet I have tucked inside the sleeve of my sweater:
Shirley: mother in nursing home; father having affair with sleazy hair stylist;
Diane: husband lost toe in bizarre plumbing incident; dog put to sleep;