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My grandparents lived in Burbank, California, which enabled them to save on electricity by using a clothes line instead of a dryer. As a child, I remember handing my grandmother, Rose, clothes pins as she hung out the week’s wash.

They lived in a small bungalow with a tiny utility room off the kitchen for their hot water heater, wash tub, several narrow cupboards for storing food and cleaning supplies, and a small washer with hoses and cords awkwardly stretched to reach the plug, faucets, and drain.

No doubt, the washer was considered a luxury, justifying it’s coveted place in the utility room, and need to cater to its peculiarities. One afternoon, it showcased how we tend to mindlessly perform routine tasks.

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September 1963

One morning, just as Grandpa was coming in the back door, I heard the washer complete its cycle. Busy in the next room, I called out, “Honey, will you please shut of the faucets.”

Preoccupied with some gadget in his hand, he nevertheless stopped and shut them off. Rose_cropped

Later, I noticed he had not disconnected the electric cord, and he happened to be outside within earshot, I called to him, “Honey, next time you shut-off the faucets, will you first…”

I got no further.

He called back, “I didn’t shut off the faucets.”

“You did. I asked you to.”

“I didn’t.”

And you know me, always trying to prove my point, I insisted he come in and let me show him. “I never leave it like this I always disconnect the electric cord first, like this,” I explained as I pulled out the plug.

Re-opened the faucets, I showed how I stretch the cord across both faucets, letting the end dangle. I then continued, elaborating on how when I close down the handles so it can’t fall behind the washer or get entangled in jumble of other cords and hoses behind the washer.

Grandpa listened, and watched me in silence. When I finished, he asked quite coldly, “Are you insinuating that I am losing my marbles, that I don’t know what I am doing or what I did?

“Of course not,“ I assured him, “it’s just that we do things so automatically…” Turning away, I could see he was rather disturbed. I had the good sense to shut my mouth along with the faucets.

Later that evening, not wanting to make an issue of it, or discuss it further. I hurriedly threw in a remark during a TV commercial that he was exaggerating the importance of that memory lapse, and he should have no doubts about his mental alertness.

But let’s face it. As we get older, we are inclined to get more forgetful and absentminded. I don’t think, however, it is due to mental deterioration as to our being creatures of habit, and automatic reaction. As we get older, there are more things we learn to do without forethought.

It was not necessary for Grandpa to disengage his mind from the gadget in hand in order to disconnect the faucets. His fingers knew to comply without calling upon his mind for directions.

Many a time, I myself have returned to service the machine to find I’d already done. So what’s so terrible about that? I’ve also come into the kitchen to find I had forgotten to turn down the burners and the pot is boiling like mad. Please refrain from telling me what’s so terrible about a boiling pot!

The other day, I looked high and low for a spool of thread to find I had accidentally put it where it belonged, which is the last place I’d think of looking. I just shrugged my shoulders and called myself an idiot. What would I gain if I sat down and worried about it?

I think it’s a healthier sign to be able to do ordinary tasks without conscious thought, even if we don’t remember having done them, than to be burdened with constantly having to be aware of the actions of our body. If doing routine tasks means wholly concentrating on the step-by-step tasks of directing our fingers, hands, arms, and legs, we’d never get beyond buttoning our shoes.

I do believe in providing gentle nudges to my memory. While I once I might have prided myself on not needing reminders, now I am not ashamed to circle on the calendar when bills are due, important dates, things to buy, tasks to do, and when someone is scheduled to visit or I’m supposed to be somewhere.

My desk and is peppered with notes and reminders.

Of course, I may promptly misplace the lists and reminders, but then I could always write another reminder to remind me to look for a reminder that…

Rose Ridnor