Friday, December 3, 2010

The Writing of the List

Of my childhood Thanksgivings I can recall many things vaguely…the crunchy bits of stuffing I would sneak from the turkey pan, the brown paper lunch sacks of nuts and oranges we would receive from the NCO club on base, waking in the morning to the fragrance of roasting turkey and my Mom’s frazzled hair from her early, early morning of wrestling that same turkey into the oven. Many little pieces of Thanksgivings past come to me in little swirls of wispy thought, but the one memory I hold very clearly is “The Writing Of The List.”

Writing these words seems so humdrum compared to the drama and pageantry and immense significance of this event. Perhaps I should write it in all capitals to give it more weight and consequence… "THE WRITING OF THE LIST” … Yes, that feels much more appropriate.

Sometime after the turkey and the pumpkin pie, and the talk, talk, talking, and the carry, carry, carrying of dirtied dishes had stretched out into an eternity, my sisters and I would be allowed to start working on “THE WRITING OF THE LIST”.

My Mother would go and retrieve the important tools of this event; lined paper, freshly sharpened marigold-orange pencils and the thick world of dreams enclosed between the shiny covers of the JC Penney’s and Sears Christmas catalogues.

With a Non-Commissioned Officer in the Air Force for a Dad, and a stay-at-home Mom, we did not have much money growing up. Of course, we didn’t know that because all of the other little kids on base were exactly the same. New clothes were meant to be cherished, new shoes were a big back-to-school event and the one Barbie we each owned was so well taken care of that each high-heeled black shoe was accounted for. I won’t tell you that we had to walk uphill four miles in the snow to school (actually that was my parents story !) but I will tell you that anything brand-spanking new and in the box was an event ! I wonder if maybe that’s why “THE WRITING OF THE LIST” felt so important.

The three of us girls would lie on our stomachs. The shiny box-of-candy catalogue cover seemed to almost glow in the room light and then…. Oh the sweet suspense of opening the first catalog to page one. We looked at each page. The ladies clothes always seemed to be first and stretched on forever. Occasionally one of our fingers would linger on a fuzzy scarf or a sweater. The underwear pages were always a source of much eye rolling. I mean, really, who would ever wear a black bra with lace all over it? The pages with men’s clothes were quickly passed over, but we also paused briefly on the men’s underwear page. I can recall my face growing red and hot and glancing at my sisters to see if they were looking as closely as I was. They were.

And even though I was aware of what was coming all through the pages with clothes and underwear and tools and baby strollers, the first page of the toy section always felt like a surprise. One set of blue eyes and two sets of brown eyes always grew round and reverent at the treasures printed there. And when we were finally, finally at that destination the serious work of “THE WRITING OF THE LIST” could begin.

Every page was studied in an agony of decision until, suddenly, one of us started writing. We were very organized in the “THE WRITING OF THE LIST”. Each coveted item was carefully numbered. Our pencils grew dull with the flurry of wanting and wishing…so much information to include on our measly sheet of paper to ensure Santa would be certain of what we really, really wanted. And the choices seemed endless… this came in green and pink and black... Oh what color would be the best? That seemed wonderful but would it break? Would it be better to write just a few items, or to inundate Santa with so many things that we would for certain get one of them?

Items were crossed off, pages became dog-eared, pencils would be re-sharpened, papers would start looking damp and crumpled and the bickering would start. “I saw that first…. I get to write it on my list.” “Santa won’t bring that for you because you’re stupid.” .... and about then our Mom would give us a time warning and we would quickly, quickly go back through and write stars on what our hearts truly desired, double check a few page numbers (if Santa didn’t know what page it was on we might not get it after all) and try to be certain that we had included all the things we wanted the most in the world.

Solemnly we would give our smoothed out papers to our Mom. She would look each one over and stack them carefully together on top of the catalogs, and the mundane ritual of putting on pajamas and brushing teeth would bring us back to earth and out of the land of dreams.

The pillows of my childhood always smelled of fresh air and scratched my face a little from being dried in the wind or the sun. My sisters even breathing was always the metronome I fell asleep with. On Thanksgiving night I would lay awake feeling a small worry that I might have missed something really, really important during “THE WRITING OF THE LIST”.

In the memory of this story, I am astonished to realize I can’t recall ever actually receiving the items on the list. And if I did, I don’t recall what they were.

It is only now, so many years later that I finally recognize that it was never the “something new in the box” that made “THE WRITING OF THE LIST” so magical. It was the possibility of the list. I never truly understood things were never about the toys. It was always about the wishing and dreaming and the breathless ‘oh-what-if’s’ that made those vividly remembered moments so important.

Life has a way of making us feel there is no use in wishing sometimes. The weight of being an adult and every day worries can make us forget that every day is a catalogue of limitless possibilities. No matter how much sadness or sorrow or grief or pain we are going through, the only person that stops us from “THE WRITING OF THE LIST” is ourselves.


It isn’t the circumstances, or the people, or harsh words and criticisms, or chronic illness and sadness, or money worries that stop us from “THE WRITING OF THE LIST”. We stop ourselves.

No matter what is going on around us, it is still, and will always be, our choice if we want to write the list or not.

I hope you’ll excuse me now. Even though Thanksgiving was a few days ago, I need to find a marigold-orange pencil and some lined paper. Regardless of the fact that my eyes are older and sadder now, I plan to open them wide in surprise at the catalogue of possibilities that life offers me. I will write until my pencil is dull, and then I will sharpen it again and again until my list is so long I cannot possibly ignore the potential of hope and the dream of believing.

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Shay said...

This post made me want to have a cry Jenny because it was just so beautiful. Yes life is full of possibilities. We should all keep a list.

Thankyou. You have touched my heart (again!)

Debbie said...

I have read you for a while, but this is my first time commenting.

You have made me cry this morning. I relate to every single word you wrote and remember making the list so well. It seems to me that we skipped directly to the toy section when we did it.

The lump in my throat is mostly a happy lump of memory, but it's also a little bit of a lump of realization. Somewhere along the line, I stopped wishing.

I'll probably be thinking about this post all day as I shop, and I think I'll even come home tonight and make out a list.

Wonderful. Wonderful. Wonderful.

Wanda..... said...

Thanks for the memories, Jenny...there were 3 daughters in my childhood home too, along with the Sears Catalogue!

“THE WRITING OF THE LIST” was a great post Jenny, always keep a big supply of paper and pencils!

I actually have a book titled..."Lists To Live By...for everything that really matters"

Have a wonderful season with your 3granddaughters...I have 3 too!

Jules said...

For us it was David Jones and Farmers.
The pages of those catalogues were such an adventure. oh the delight to be held on every page.
You are right, and I am guilty of not writing my list at present so with your words travelling through my head I am off to sharpen a pencil too, to grant myself limitless possibilities! Thank you.!

Deb said...

oh what a great memory....I remember going through the catalogs...and earing the pages....what fun

Jocelyn said...

Oh Jenny...what a post this was!!!!

It is so true and I remember doing the same thing as a child...we never had a lot of money....but somehow Christmas was always amazing....The catalog filled with all the possibilities and now I need to go back to that place...

Life does throw things at us...but the thought of THE LIST is just wonderful...You brought tears to my eyes today..good tears....knowing that there are dreams, wishes and hopes!!!

Thank you sweet friend!!!

Cheryl said...

Lovely reminder.

Auntie sezzzzzz... said...

Sweet. Oh those Christmas Catalogues! Weren't they wonderful? I'm so much older than you are, that I may well remember even more magical ones, than you do. :-)

And I'm here to say THANK YOU for taking the time to comment a reply, to my blogging Questions. Thank you!

Gentle Winter hugs...

Jeanie said...

I love the idea of having the exhilaration of possibility no matter where we are in life.

MrsJenB said...

Oh, Jenny...

I started reading this, and I began copying lines which stood out to me, to point them out to you and tell you how beautiful or poignant they were...but then I realized that I was highlighting most of the post!

How absolutely beautiful. Your descriptions are incredibly vivid. I remember writing out my own lists and you're right - it was such an event - "the thick world of dreams enclosed between the shiny covers of the JC Penney’s and Sears Christmas catalogues" - so true.

I wrote something yesterday, not nearly as eloquent as you have, regarding wishes. It ties in to what you say at the end, about not remembering what you got or even if you got it. It's the making of the list, the possibilities, that you remember.

In my post I said: Throughout my life, I have found that it's more fun to want things. To drool. To, dare I say, covet. Because once I have everything I want...well, I have everything I want. Big deal. Now what to do with it? And there's the rub. It's much more fun to want things than to actually feel obligated to use all of the wonderful things I have.

I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to direct my friends here today, because I feel that this needs to be shared. Thank you once again for your beautiful words!

Jessica B said...

Ah Jenny...
You made me have a tear in my eye this morning with this post...

Not just because your memories of writing the list pretty much parrallel mine - except there were four of us little girls, and only green eyes in the bunch.

But also because you put into words the feelings of growing up and forgetting the possibilities of hope and the longing for surprises amidst the realities of every day life.

Thank you... it was a lovely post.

Ei8ht Beach Street said...

I absolutely LOVE this post. I love the memories you trigger and the connection made. Brilliant. Thanks so much for the wonderful tale.

Ames said...

Oh Jenny Thank You for bringing back a wonderful memory I had long forgotten! My dad would pile the four of us girls in the bed with him and we would look at the Sears Robuck and Spiegel Christmas catalog. ~Ames

Unknown said...

I was right next to you on the floor, writing that list too! I even own a few of those Sears Catalogs from our era....we can look thru them the 17th! :) It was always magical....always! And leave it to you my friend to make me realize a brand new list is to be written again.....thank you for this meant a lot in so many ways!!!!! I am starting that new list soon..... Love you! Sandy

Amy said...

Oh! That was beautiful! I love that you actually wrote it out and opened so many people's eyes to the possibilities. I try to live my life that way. My Norman Rockwell Life as I call it. It will never be so picture perfect. It isn't even close. But if I keep wishing and hoping and dreaming, maybe one day it will be. So I wear skirts and aprons. I bake cookies and sit down and read stories with my son. All because if I act out my dream, my heart's desire, maybe one day it will really and truly come true!
I hope your marigold pencil and fresh sheet of paper can make your dreams a reality, or at least lift your spirits and give you something to believe in again! :)

Susan Anderson said...

Jenny, this post is one of your best ever. Not only is it absolutely wise and true, but it goes down like buttah. So well-written!

I am going to read it several times more and then send it to every single one of my children.



PS. I loved the Sears thing too, by the way.

PPS. I am going to make a list like the one you describe very soon. (The life kind.)

Anonymous said...

Now I will go make my list - I am allowed to use my choice of catalogs right? Think I'll go with Nieman Marcus ;-)
loved your post jenny

H said...

In themidst of battling with a burst water pipe, a house without mains water and more snow beginning to fall outside, it is good to be reminded that life is a possibility, not a problem.

"Alone again.... naturally!" said...

I still write the list to this day...just isn't for me anymore. You speak my heart more times than I can count Jenny. Those memories are precious to me too. My list making day wasn't thanksgiving day (being canadian), but sometime in dec. My mother would say "it's time to make your list"! I would grab the Sear's catalogue (canadian version) and others and just dream dream dream!
P.S I do not know how to link my email to this blog, can you help me.

Sue said...

Jenny-there are times when I read what you write and I just wish I could walk across the states and give you a big old hug. This is one of those times. I remember the thrill of that catalog for both me and then again for my kids (they aren't nearly as thick these days). I can still feel the excitement in my stomach on Christmas Eve, hoping that my new stack of Nancy Drew books would be waiting the next morning.

I really do think that maybe those were the good old days. Our expectations were much lower...our thrill of the small things much bigger.

Hugs to you my friend. Now head on over and sign up to win free cookies at my place!

Pondside said...

That was exactly the way it was for me in 1962, Jenny. We had the Simpsons-Sears and Eaton's catalogues and they were dog-eared from use.

Rebecca S. said...

Oh, I remember combing the pages of the Sears Wish Book, too. So many possibilities! We used to laugh at the photos of men in those pyjamas that looked like satin smoking jackets, and I longed for a black velveteen suit with a ruffled lace collar.
Looking forward to things is part of the magic of life, isn't it. I love the build-up to Christmas because of the possibilities you describe. It is so important to keep some of that girlhood wonder in our hearts.

Marlene said...

Thanks for bringing back memories, Jenny! My sister and I used to race to the door for the Sears Christmas Wish Book every September when it arrived!

JJ said...

A fantastic story that brings back great memories. By the way, I want you to know that my father (May he rest in peace) was the real Santa. Thank you!

Melinda said...

What a great story.
I remember those days of making "the list for Mom and Dad to check over before sending it off to Santa.
What a wonderful memory.


Pat Tillett said...

That was beautiful! What a stunningly good piece of writing.
My granny had us pour through the catalogs also. Of course, she called them "wish books." I handn't thought about them in so many years!
nice job...

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

This is a really nice take on the whole Christmas list experience. I suppose the catalogs promoted consumerism just a bit, but they were also a way for us to figure out who we were and what we might be passionate about... how to set priorities and communicate information. We never got everything we asked for, and we knew not to expect it, but we got some things, and we were delighted.

People Who Know Me Would Say: said...

Yeah, um....a couple things: Change the AF guy to a Navy vet, take away the paper, pencils, catalogs and the mother green lighting the activity....replace it all with childhood dreams that Santa really existed and anything was possible.....and our childhood Christmases were identical. I always knew you were my long lost sister. MWAHAHAHA!

I still dream of endless possibility even when reality tries its darndest to shut me down. Reality can be such a butthead sometimes.

Busy Bee Suz said...

This is such a sweet memory Jenny.
Love your list analogy....perfect.

I loved the sears/Penney's catalogs too...I would sink into deep daydreams reading them.

Jojo said...

What a wonderful post. I'm always wishing and I don't reserve it just for Christmas. In fact my son and I just had a blast with the Thanksgiving Wishbone!!! We all need to do more wishing, believing and laughing. Having read your post, I'm inspired to make a new wish list!!!

Gina said...

Well Jenny, I remember oh so well the WRITING OF THE LIST :) I did it, and also had my 3 girls do it when they were smaller. I think I will share your post with the 2 grown ones, just to make sure they don't forget the significance of THE LIST. Thanks so much for your wonderful story, it brought tears to my eyes and made me want to HUG you!!!