Mom And The Magical Index Cards

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Memory is a funny thing. My daughters think of my mother
whenever they get a whiff of “dryer smell.” Index cards have the same effect on

Mom had absorbed the Chinese teaching that “the palest ink is stronger than
the strongest memory.” Her personal version was: “Why waste energy memorizing
something you can look up?” Index cards were her tool of choice. She used the 3
X 5 size and stored them in recipe boxes.

One set was for birthdays and anniversaries. Each birthday or anniversary she
wanted to remember had two cards. One reminded her a month ahead of a coming
event, giving her time to buy an appropriate gift. The other reminded her a week

After my mother died, my father used the cards to keep up with all those
birthdays and anniversaries. That worked well for people my mother had met, but
dad had trouble keeping the set current and so the birthdays of people my father
had met more recently wound up being less effectively remembered.

There was also a set for dinners and receptions. My father was pastor of a
major midtown church and we entertained frequently. There were three collections
of cards. One was for menus. Another was for the events, listing those who
attended and any other important information. The third was for people and
listed what they were interested in and how to recognize them.

Recognize them? Yes, when you come in contact with a lot of people it helps
to have a quick way to know who’s who so you don’t mistake a member of some
nation’s UN delegation for an actor in a recently-failed play.

Before any event at our home, my mother would pull out her cards and brief my
sister and me on the guests. We were expected to ask them questions that would
get them talking. As a result we were often praised as “wonderful
conversationalists.” One description I still remember is of a British diplomat.
“Strange mustache,” it read, “Don’t stare! Ask about tiger hunts.”

Many of the lessons we absorb from our parents aren’t taught so much as
demonstrated. I’m writing this in front of a work board covered with notes on
index cards. There are also the index cards I use for checklists, stacked and
ready to my right. And there is the Levenger “shirt pocket briefcase” that holds index cards. Mom
would be pleased. After all, why waste energy memorizing something you can look

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prosimpli   |   20 Oct 2018   |   Reply

Great write-up. Who would have known index cards could be nostalgic for some. Your mother sounded like a very organized person! I wonder if she would have opted for her index card system or one of the now-a-days digital solutions that exist.

I think index cards – tangible cards – are way better. You gave me some great ideas on how people use index cards. I never thought about using for events (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.).

Conversation tips are also a great idea.

Wally Bock   |   21 Oct 2018   |   Reply

Thanks for adding to the conversation. I think the answer to your question depends on when she encountered the digital tools. Mom was born in 1914. She developed her basic index card habits during the Depression and refined them for the rest of her life. She died in the early Eighties.

I think if mom encountered the digital tools in her teens and twenties she would started using If she were in her 90s when she encountered them, I think she would have kept using her index cards. She was familiar with them and they worked. She perceive a need that digital tools could fill.