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My Mom’s D-E-V-O-T-I-O-N to Crossword Puzzles

Always in pencil, never in pen, the author's mother filled her life with words


There are constants in life. Like the seven days of the week or the bright green flowers on the wallpaper in my mom’s kitchen or my mom herself, who insisted on correcting my sisters’ and my spelling errors on our letters home from summer camp. She’d identify the offense by circling it in red, instructed us to “rewrite this word correctly ten times,” and then send it back to her. Which we did.

My mother was a word girl, a children’s librarian sans the MLS. A professional book buyer, a personal book consumer and a tote bag collector, because really, how else was she going to carry around all those books? She assumed everyone loved books and words as much as she did, and her enthusiasm possibly made it so.

She was also a puzzler, of all kinds. Jigsaws, Sudoku, crosswords. Every morning, seven days a week, in pencil, in capital letters — that was the rule — she’d attack The New York Times crossword puzzle. She and my dad competed for the win, and usually it was my dad, my hard-to-beat dad, especially on Sunday mornings, when in hard copy, via pen, he nailed that challenge.

Before my mom was gone, there were undone crosswords spread all over the house, with pencils and pens by their sides…

Occasionally, there were a few dropped letters or words, pop culture references he didn’t care to keep up with, And when everyone had left the room, and the puzzle was suddenly abandoned, albeit temporarily, I slipped in those missing letters, in pen — my personal Mom rebellion — and felt good about being part of the process.

Looking for New Crossword Tricks and New Rules

After my dad died and the world went full-on digital, my mom stayed strictly hard copy, and filled in her new life puzzle with a live-in boyfriend, Bob. Together, they also swept through the crosswords.

Bob was a pencil man though, and this seemed to please my mom, that there was room for erasure and mistakes. And yet the puzzle would still get done, albeit a little more slowly.

In fact, the two of them took their puzzle questing to the next level — weekend crossword puzzle-solving workshops — and every time they returned from their lessons, they had significantly upped their ante. They’d boast about the tricks they’d learned, and new rules they could adhere to, but they, too, needed help with the pop culture references.

“Who’s a singer who also does trapeze?” they’d ask during breakfast, over the big book-cluttered kitchen table, in the bright green-flowered room.

Or, “What’s that abbreviation that means laughing out loud in emoji lingo?”

Or, “Your mother got that wrong!” Bob would say.

“No, I didn’t,” she’d respond, and they’d crack themselves up and banter back and forth during the crossword hour, even if that hour lasted all day long.

They also knew when I’d slipped in my two words, which became a running joke around their house, because I still used pen, my continual act of rebellion. And even if I didn’t, I enjoyed filling in with lower-case letters, though that also wasn’t the rule. But if there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s this: where there’s a rule, I look to break it.

Crossword Puzzles Left Behind

When the digi world turned tablet, I showed Bob and my mom my iPad, and how you could do the crosswords directly on the screen. I’d gotten my own subscription, and though I think I’m smart enough, my only potentially successful days were Mondays, when I’d feel bad if I couldn’t at least complete that easiest-of-the-week puzzle.

My mom was sick and dying, and I was trying to keep her up-to-date in the world, which was how she wanted it. But that tablet format did not resonate, as there was no paper and pen or pencil and you had to type in the letters, and overall it was not a match.

She and Bob kept on religiously with the hard copy, and ultimately added other crosswords to the mix, ripping them out of papers and magazines for easy access.

Before my mom was gone, there were undone crosswords spread all over the house, with pencils and pens by their sides, like the bright green flowers, and their stems, of my mom’s kitchen wallpaper. She seemed to want to be able to reach for a crossword, no matter where she was in her home or what was happening.

Closer to the end, my mom switched over to Sudoku, for which she and Bob had also once attended a weekend workshop. Numbers were perhaps easier to grab onto than words were. But still my mom surrounded herself with her unread books, prioritized into categories — “haven’t read but want to,” “might read,” “probably won’t read” — and ditto with the crossword puzzles, which were in various stages of completion. She never wanted to let go of a puzzle, in life, on the page, or a word, or a book or a conundrum, if there was some way she could figure it out.

Changing From Pencil to Pen

After my mom died, and the books were half taken, half donated, and the words and the undone puzzles were laid to rest, the house was sold. There was no more big kitchen table to do the crosswords on, and I’m pretty sure that for the new owners, the bright green flowered wallpaper was one of the first things to go.

I do have one of her Sudoku books, though, which I keep by my bedside, for easy access. She’d only done one of the puzzles, although I noticed it was completed in pen. Sometimes I lay in bed, looking at her handwriting, wondering why she insisted upon doing all her work in pencil.

But I’m glad she finally jumped the curb, and changed from pencil to pen. That she found some confidence in the assertive ink, even if just that one time. I wonder how it felt for her to change her constant. If that was liberating, deliberate or if in her absence, via a sole puzzle completed in pen, she was showing me that nothing is constant or ever the same.

By Jenny Klion
Jenny Klion’s writing has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, Food52, Prevention, Tonic, Purple Clover, The Hairpin, and more.

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