The Yellow Legal Pad

You never wanted to be on the receiving end of one of my dad’s yellow legal pad letters.

They were notorious, if only just in our house – usually a ranting scrawl of illegible words in his classic cursive (always using his special blue ball point pens) with a bit of his humor as a conclusion or an aside.

These letters were the result of some injustice he encountered by a large corporation, usually related to a clerical error that consumed his time or his money. I loved my dad’s rants. When computers came onto the scene, it was my job to transcribe them from yellow legal pad into something legible and properly spelled. But before this, he’d sit in our living room and read them aloud as if he was an animated playwright reading a masterpiece to his adoring audience. He always got a laugh.

The yellow legal pads were my dad’s solution to most things – when we’d start humming and hawing, he’d tell us to wait, get a pad from his desk, and sit down with it before we could continue. It’s here that my sister and I worked out our problems. All decisions scribbled onto the pad.

These could be, and often were, related to what step to take next in life – where to go to college, what job to do, what major to have, what path to take. We made endless pros and cons lists. When I look back on them, they all appear more or less the same – I want the freedom to determine my own time, I want financial independence, I want to do what I am passionate about, but I don’t know what that is, even now. I am passionate about so much and nothing at all.

When we were young, when my dad had an uncommon day off from the 3-4 jobs he did to keep us afloat, we would have him all to ourselves for a “dad’s day.” I learned in the Netherlands this is an actual thing, usually on Wednesdays, in a country that supports men taking days off to take care of their kids, but ours had no such formal or scheduled regularity. It was a treat, my absolute favorite day when it was managed.

We would always start the day with a yellow legal pad, making a huge list of every possible thing we could do on that day. Anything was allowed. We added the most ridiculous things and then always picked the same: visiting an arcade and going out to Chinese food afterwards. The possibility of doing anything was what made it special. I loved the ability to choose.

With the quiet and stillness of pandemic life, I am re-energized by making lists of possibilities. My husband was sad this morning, and I told him we needed the yellow legal pad. We needed to make a long list of all the things that make us happy in this moment, so even with everything closed, we still have choices in terms of what to do today, tomorrow, and for what sometimes feels like endless months ahead. I told my husband there are still options – smaller things for sure- but there is still an important list to be made. Walks in nature, our new puzzle, countless online communities for creative endeavors or for working out. I can follow an aerobics class in South Korea now. My friend in The Netherlands signed up for a Scottish women’s writers group. I took a yoga lesson last night with my high school friend, she based in NYC and the instructor in Chicago. There are still options.

This is comforting to me. The yellow legal pad still acts as my North Star in times of confusion, like a weighted blanket whenever I am feeling overwhelmed, my dad guiding the way through his methods. Long lists of possibilities, of pros and cons.

I found my latest pad this morning: a list of what to do in The NL during my uncle and aunt’s very first European trip together in 2018, my husband’s list of Thanksgiving foods (with assignments attached) from our 2019 celebration feast with 20+ people, our requirements for a new 2020 apartment, and most recently, a list of tasks to do before we moved.

Now as I sit here in my fancy new apartment looking out at the birds by my desk, I realize the pad has helped pave the way to this moment. To all the special moments up until now. Yellow legal padding through life.

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