Not a Cross Word Between Us

It started when I was in high school, doing crosswords with my mom, after dinner, over a cup of tea and a cookie or two. Maybe three. We had a three-cookie-rule in our house back then, the maximum allowed at one sitting.

I’ve long since moved into a home of my own, but whenever the opportunity presents itself – a Sunday dinner, a shared holiday – my mom and I will huddle together over a newspaper, a cup of tea each, cut with milk, an erasable pen in hand (Mom’s preference, I’m more of a pencil girl). My mom will choose a puzzle from her stash in the magazine rack. She saves the crosswords out of the paper, every day, for this very purpose. We hunch over the table, taking turns with the pen, reading the clues out loud:

“Critical situation, starts with a ‘c’?” she asks.

“Clutch?” I offer.

“Maybe,” she says. “I’ll pencil it in.” She enters the letters neatly, her printing far more legible than mine.

“Big band? Ends in r-n-s.”

“Horns?” I scrunch up my nose, unsure. “It fits, but that makes absolutely no sense.” We scribble it in and later it turns out to be right. You can’t count on a crossword puzzle to necessarily make sense.

“Light brown,” says mom.

“Light brown? What kind of a clue is that?” I ask, rhetorically, of course. “There are only about three thousand words for light brown.”

“Ecru?” I suggest.

“No, it’s five letters.”

“Cream? Um, beige?”

“Maybe beige. It does end in ‘e’… “

We pause, staring at the page, stumped. Then mom moves on:

“Frequent disclaimer.”

My brain is still working over light brown. “There’s another word for it.” I say, leaning back, staring at the ceiling. ‘Light brown.’ It’s the colour I painted my front hallway for pete’s sakes.”

Mom continues without me. “Rubbish? Hmm. Maybe trash? No, tripe.”

“Coat named for a British lord…”

“Taupe, it’s taupe!” I sit up sharply, practically knocking the chair over in my enthusiasm. Sweet relief!

“Good one, Lis!”

We are jubilant, over taupe. Who knew? The next few answers come easily, quickly. We are humming along now, riding a wave of cross-word momentum.

“Boss?” mom asks. Last two letters a-d.”

“Lead!” we exclaim at the same time.

“Corn devices,” mom says slowly, contemplating.

“It looks like ‘loppers’,” I say, knowing that’s silly. Corn loppers, you know, to detach the corn from the husk.

“Poppers!” quips mom. It goes like this sometimes, like a volleyball game, one setting the ball, the other spiking it over the net.

“Impose… first letters are o-b-t. Seven letters.” I start running through the alphabet trying to decide what letter would logically come next.

“Obtrude?” I don’t know which of us came up with that. Neither of us knows if it is even a word. But it sounds good, and that is always a useful test.

After about an hour, a handful of clues are left unsolved. We give up for the evening. My neck has cramped from scrunching over the paper. Mom packs up the paper and leaves it on the buffet. We pick it up again over breakfast the next morning and I finish the last few words at lunch-time. There is something about leaving unanswered clues to simmer overnight, over a few hours even, that works a strange magic. Answers that eluded us at first try will suddenly present themselves.

It takes us fully two days to finish this puazzle, but we do, in the end, defeat it. Our favourite kind of crossword, it takes time and considerable thinking. A strange bond over words we have, my mom and I. Scrabble. Writing essays in high school, I’d read aloud a paragraph and she’d offer edits. Searching memory for exactly the right word to express an idea. And through all these years – living at home, growing up, learning, rebelling, leaving finally – this is one place we could always come where there has never a cross word between us.