At the end of the month, just 69 days after spending three weeks with family on the East Coast, I am heading back for another visit. Wish me luck… Like many family vacations, the most recent started auspiciously enough.

In the damp cauldron that is summer in New Jersey, my husband Keith and I delighted in the air-conditioned coolness of my childhood home, watching mediocre movies on tv and enjoying spectacular meals with my parents. Life was good.

Then, a few days into our stay, I noticed my mom staring intently at us, her bright green eyes narrowing pensively as she scribbled away on a full-sized note pad. Apprised of the expectations of us as two (fairly) able-bodied visitors with some computer knowledge, Keith asked, “Is that our to do list?” as my mom wrote line after line. With a quick nod, she answered yes, and continued writing. “Looks like a few pages, at least,” Keith bravely noted, and was immediately silenced by her ominous response: “Keep it up, Keith. Just keep it up.”

The next day we were pleased to discover that instead of a to-do list, my mom was compiling a list of things to take on her upcoming trip to Martha’s Vineyard – a much needed respite from being the sole caregiver for my father, now hollowed by Alzheimer’s disease. “I didn’t want to disabuse you of the idea of a long to-do list. The look of fear on your faces was priceless!” she confided to me later. But a list she did give us before heading to Massachusetts. There were some things on the list we completed: Select, purchase a new computer. Transfer all files. And some we did not: Install a new alarm system.

Days later, my mom, looking well rested after her hiatus, was singularly unimpressed with the results of our efforts. “I give you a C+,” she announced, barely glancing away from her new, glowing, 27-inch computer screen. The next day, as we retraced my mom’s journey to Martha’s Vineyard from car to train to plane for our own vacation, Keith channeled his lawyer training, and using just his thumbs, tapped out an appeal for a review of our dismal grade that featured 20 points that he felt should be considered in objectively assessing our performance: #1. Bought a grill (and returned the grill) – we had good intentions. #2. Bought charcoal (and returned the charcoal) – ditto. And so on, it continued until #20. Cable TV downstairs – just press a button and say football or track and field and Mr. Webb will be a happy camper.

We had already received my mom’s formal, and highly detailed letter of rejection of Keith’s request by the time our small plane landed and we spied my mom’s sister and my uncle waving from across the tarmac. Ever resilient, we spent the next few days lolling about, catching up with family and friends… and eating more fried foods and ice cream than was wise. Again, life was good.

Then one evening, my aunt announced that we were going to have a little “set to.” Concerned more by the improper use of the term than her cheery tone, I exchanged looks with Keith and my uncle. Warily we sat down at the dining table as my aunt brandished two sheets of handwritten notes: our to-do list for our remaining vacation time. Undaunted by our documented, previous poor performance, my aunt had ambitiously compiled a carefully curated list with 36 ITEMS TO COMPLETE before our departure that ranged from moving various heavy objects to stripping and painting outdoor furniture. #20. was particularly optimistic: Clean out garage fridge.

Family… there really is no other assortment of people quite like them.

Find similar articles


More stories


It was New Year's Eve, and the Bay Area was just beginning its blanket of rainy days when my friend first shared the news with us. 


In the season where family looms large, Keith and I decided to take some time for ourselves. The timeline was predictable: Months before...