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90'S FAMILY

Memo: Tell Mom Thanks

Her mother papered the house with Post-its of to-do items. She vowed she wouldn't do the same. Then she became a mother herself.

March 02, 1997|KATHLEEN MALLERY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before the invention of yellow Post-its, my mother wore rubber bands on her wrists to remind her of what it was she had to do. Often, her fingers turned blue from the lack of circulation. But my mother is a practical woman, and she would use the tingling sensation in her fingers to draw attention to the rubber bands and the tasks they symbolized.

Many memories I have are of my mother stopping everything she was doing to touch one of the colored rubber bands on her wrist. Out loud, she would wonder what it was that she had to remember.

"The green one was to remind me to take the chicken out of the oven," she'd say. "The yellow one was to remind me to send book money to school with two of you." She'd be lost in thought. "The brown ones are all household items, nothing critical. But the red one, what was the red one for?"

We'd all hold still, aware of the seriousness of the moment, and speak only to offer suggestions.

"Candy," my sister would call out.

"More clothes for me," I would suggest.

"No, no," my mother would say, distracted by trying to recall the forgotten item. Then the stress would break with her recollection. "Oh, yes. I need to pick up your brother at the mall."

The advent of Post-its improved my mother's life as well as her hand circulation. But initially, she had to overcome the problem of not being able to wear the yellow squares of paper. Always quick to find solutions, she set about transforming the appearance of our home.

Her bathroom mirror, a place where I loved to admire myself as I tried on her makeup and jewelry, became a mosaic of yellow sticky paper. The Post-its in the bathroom always seemed to involve self-improvement or family betterment. "Do exercises." "Laugh more." "Discuss vocabulary words at dinner." My mother, true to her lists, would work on these items every day. But in the mornings, I would watch her hunched over, searching for a vacant space at the lower edge of the mirror for a reflection from which she could apply her lipstick.

Our kitchen changed as well. The hood that hung over our stove top turned into a fire hazard. My mother developed an elaborate system of Post-it attached to Post-it, eight or nine squares deep, all dangling in a row from the stainless steel surface. Each column represented a child's needs and was arranged in birth order. Additional columns were for grocery store lists and social correspondences. When several pots on the stove were boiling at the same time, the hot air would make the columns of yellow sticky paper dance like silent wind chimes caught in a gale.

Before Post-its, my mother stored extra rubber bands in her car on the gear shift. As she drove, she would remember things she needed to remember and would slide onto her wrist more and more rubber bands. But after Post-its, the rubber bands were discarded, and the steering wheel transformed from a circle into a pinwheel that spun around with yellow flags waving.

It's no wonder my mother always seemed to be omnipresent. If she wasn't around, her lists were.

Of course, our refrigerator changed too. On top of the holiday photographs and school memos was plastered a series of messages. My mother's handwriting defies gravity, form or consistency. She insists she was supposed to be left-handed, but nuns forced her to use her right hand for writing. One afternoon, I was trying to decode some of my mother's notes on the refrigerator. I deciphered a few: "Buy milk." "Call Bank." "Turn off garden water." And then I saw one I couldn't understand. "Grandpa George's ashes. Where are they???" Grandpa George was my mother's father.

I confronted my mother with the note. "Is this really what this says?" She assured me not to worry, that there was some note stuck on some prominent place around the house reminding herself of where she had put Grandpa George. I pointed out that the kitchen faucet, the headboard on her bed, even the wall space in every bathroom just above the toilet paper rolls were covered in Post-its. But she didn't seem worried.

"He'll show up," she said. "Besides, he'd think it was funny," she said and laughed. I didn't inherit the same sense of humor. On that day, I vowed I'd never be a list-maker. But all of this occurred before I had children.

As a child, and then later as an adult with no children, I was certain my mother was born a list-maker. I never once thought that perhaps we had driven her to such extremity, that maybe her lists had less to do with her and more to do with us.

And now I know.

Mothers don't choose to be list-makers. Either it happens or you lose your mind. Initially, after the birth of my first child, I thought I could survive on mental lists alone. As I prepared to leave home, I would chant to myself, "Wipes, car keys and snacks. Wipes, car keys and snacks."

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