I was about seventeen when I first learned about my grandmother’s Worry List. I had been asked to help following Gammy’s cataract surgery and, after preparing lunch (a.k.a. placing an order with the local pizzeria) for her and Gampy, I found myself puttering around their apartment. I dusted some shelves, lingering over the hardcover collection on the history of the British Royal family, complete with full-color photos of the Queen’s massive compilation of jewels. I washed plates by hand, the blue fluted Royal Copenhagen china that I had long coveted, and gently replaced them in the cabinets. While my grandparents napped, I amused my cynical teenage self by taking inventory of the stash of canned goods they hoarded in a spare bedroom, remnants of Depression Era food-insecurity. But nothing fascinated me more than the pile of handwritten lists I discovered on the table beside Gammy’s recliner in the living room.
It was a stack of linen stationery, seemingly identical until I looked more closely. Each was dated and placed in chronological order, today’s date on top. As I studied the first, I realized that Gammy had listed each of her family members, beginning with her brother, her children – my mother, my aunt, and my uncle – followed by their spouses, then each of her grandchildren, arranged by age. Next to each name was an illness or personal crisis or desired goal. It looked something like this:
The second sheet of paper, dated October 9, was structured identically with slight variations in the concern after each name. Different on this sheet, however, was the tick mark (✔) after every entry. The third, dated October 8, also with tick marks, was, again, similar but with tiny modifications. I leafed through the rest of the heap and found they dated back to the beginning of September.
I had no idea what this represented. An itemization of our family’s woes? An inventory of our shortcomings? Emotional self-flagellation for our inadequacies? I could barely wait until I was off duty to speed home and interrogate my mother about Gammy’s bizarre accounting of our family’s failings.
“Oh,” she told me casually, “that’s Gammy’s Worry List.”
“Worry List?” I demanded. “She worries so much that she makes a list of it?”
“But…why?” To me, this practice seemed more worrisome than anything she’d written next to our names.
“It’s quite efficient if you think about it,” Mom said. “She’s a born worrier – you come from a long line of worriers, so it’s in your genetic make-up—”
My teenage arrogance cut her off when my eyes rolled around in my head.
“Face it,” she said. “It’s inevitable. Anyway, she used to spend a lot of time and energy worrying, and, as the family grew, she found herself spending all of her time worrying about everyone. So, she developed the Worry List. She writes down everyone in her family, jots their current concern next to the name, then limits her worrying to 5-10 minutes for each one. As she moves down the list, she checks it off. She doesn’t need to worry about it anymore that day. When she gets to the end, she puts the list aside until the next day when she updates it. Where she used to spend all of her time swallowed up in her worrying, now she is done in about 3 hours and can get on with her life without obsessing about everyone else’s problems.”
“Gammy needs to chill out,” I said smugly. “What a waste worrying is. It doesn’t change anything.”
“Someday you’ll see.”
Well, someday came. As my responsibility-free teenage years morphed into my twenties, events occurred that changed my never-worry attitude. Loved ones passed away. I had children of my own. Financial concerns became a reality. I started to watch the Evening News and read local and national newspapers. And I began to worry.
When my husband was sent to consult with a cardiologist, I was haunted by my father’s death of a heart attack. When my son played at a friend’s house whose dad was a hunter, I recalled news stories of children being accidentally shot while playing with a parent’s gun. When my daughter struggled to fit in at her new high school, I flashed back to the time I had found her sobbing on her preschool playground because she was being bullied. I worried about my mother’s decline and dependency on me when she was diagnosed with cancer. I found myself worrying so much throughout the day that it spilled over into the night when I would lie awake, worrying.
As my children grew up and moved into New York City, I’d scour the internet for current crime rates. I sent them articles about being aware of their surroundings at all times and never going out at night alone. I became obsessed with their safety and their happiness and their health. The more I worried, the less I slept, and the more irrationally worried I became.
“You need to chill out,” my husband said, echoing my long-ago mindset. “Worrying doesn’t change anything.”
That’s when I remembered Gammy’s Worry List. What had once appeared to be a silly exercise now showed itself to be a brilliant solution. At the same time, my family had grown accustomed to my idiosyncrasies and did its best to appease me. Now, my husband exercises and sees his doctors regularly, so I stop envisioning him keeling over behind the wheel and causing a forty-car pile-up. My son contacts me by text or by phone, at least twice a week, so I don’t think his lack of communication is because he’s been the victim of a Mafia hit and thrown into the Hudson River wearing concrete shoes. And, my daughter graciously allows me to have access to her location via Snap Chat, so, just in case she’s been roofied, kidnapped, and held hostage in a storage unit in Queens, I’ll know how to find her. These accommodations have allowed me to whittle my Worry List to the barebones, looking something like this:
Thankfully, my worrying has become so streamlined and efficient that I only need to devote about an hour a day to it. My sleep is better, my blood pressure is normal, and I have time to do far more amusing things, like writing about my worrying. At least I’m not as bad as my grandmother was. I’m not spending three hours on my List. Because that would be insane.