My mom knew how to do puzzles with words. She loved Scrabble and had some wild, afternoon-long arguments with my dad about whether a certain word was legal – usually he was trying to create an imaginary form of a word. She did crosswords, especially double-crostics, because you could learn something from them – an author’s quote, a book title, and of course the answers to the clues themselves. She even liked the insane cryptic ones. Somehow she always managed to figure out the quirky logic of the clues that were meant to mislead her. No word puzzle seemed too much for her mind, or her vocabulary, to solve.
Ordinary crossword puzzles were no challenge unless they were from the Sunday Times. She had books of them everywhere. Sometimes she bought the same book a few times. That might have been our clue.
They say puzzle solving can help avert Alzheimer’s, but they don’t say that they can keep dementia at bay. Every day her newspaper came and she solved the puzzles, but at some point she forgot how the acrostics worked. Soon she filled in only some of the words in the crossword puzzles and then threw the papers away.
In her later years I visited her twice a year and we spent many hours at a time working on puzzles under the drooping branches of her beloved flowering cherry tree on the lawn, sitting in plastic webbed aluminum lawn chairs, until we could hardly stand up. We worked on the Sunday Times puzzles from one of her spiral-bound books. I read the clues and she tried to answer them. She was still quite good at the crossword-y kinds of questions. Apparently doing so many crosswords for so many years had etched these common crossword favorites into her long-term memory. However, newer terms, or more complex questions eluded her now, and I’m sure many of them wouldn’t have before. If I suggested an answer, she was quick to recognize whether it fit or not, so she still knew the words. Most puzzles have a number of long, or multi-word answers that fit a theme (often involving bad puns, or joke spellings, it seemed to me), and these held large parts of the puzzles hostage, unless we solved enough of the cross-words to figure them out. Often their ambiguous clues required guessing how to interpret them in order to figure out what they wanted for an answer. When suddenly the light came on with one of these long answers we would often laugh hysterically as we finally understood what the clues meant. My mom suffered from stress incontinence, and some of these laughing bouts would send her hobbling and chuckling to the house before it was “too late”, as she said.
Working on these puzzles was something my mom was able to do in the present, and so she was really there with me while we worked on them. These were many of our best times together in her last years.
© 2009 Michael Yanega
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