“I still have a full deck. I just shuffle slower.” — Author Unknown
When dinner was over and the dishes were washed and put away, my mother would curl up on “her” end of the couch to watch TV. Some nights she mended the heels of my bobby socks or sewed patches on my brother’s pants while she watched. On Saturdays, to the tunes of the Lawrence Welk Show, she set my and my sisters’ freshly shampooed hair in pin curls so we’d look nice for Sunday Mass. But when those tasks were done, she’d keep one eye on Donna Reed or the Cartwright boys and the other on her Dell Crosswords magazine, her ballpoint pen ready to pounce.
My mother has done crossword puzzles nearly all her life, possibly inspired by her sister Liz, an avid puzzler, too. What is it about crossword puzzles that is so appealing? Mom says it’s the mental challenge. The now defunct Chicago Daily News used to feature a diagramless one, a favorite of hers, and according to Mom, “Once you figured them out, they weren’t hard.” Her explanation of the process made my head swim.
When she was a young secretary in a one-girl office of Hires Root Beer, she and a boss often spent down time doing a newspaper puzzle together. One day, when she deciphered a clue, her puzzle acumen so dazzled this guy that he grabbed her and kissed her. Even though he apologized, my mother was so creeped out that she quit within a week. Who would have thought that her word knowledge would result in sexual harassment?
Never, ever has Mom bothered with easy puzzles. She’d go directly to the back of her Dell (it had to be Dell, not some lame substitute) and tackle the hard ones. No pencil, either; just pen. And, when all of the hard puzzles were finished, she’d bring the book of leftover easy ones to work for her friend Nancy… “not that she was stupid,” she told me.
Mom’s love of wordplay doesn’t end with crossword jargon. She chuckles when she recalls witty conversations with her old friend Joe, a fellow puzzle fan. They’d yuck it up about puzzle words and oddities of the English language. One of Mom’s favorites is disgruntled, as in “A disgruntled employee burst in and shot his employer.” Her question: If someone is disgruntled, can someone else be gruntled? Another: If someone acts in nonchalant manner, can her friend be chalant? These pressing questions never failed to amuse my mother and Joe, while my Dad and Joe’s wife Bernice surely must have been rolling their eyes at such silliness.
Macular degeneration put the kibosh on Mom’s puzzle-solving a few years ago, but this summer we’ve revived her old pastime when my brother or I visit. We read the clues, tell her the number of letters needed, and fill in her responses. And, we’re allowed to chime if an answer strikes us. Doing a puzzle without looking at it is challenging, but Mom is up to the task, dusting off her crossword puzzle jargon along with the plethora of factoids rolling around in her head.
What’s French for summer? Ete. An Asian celebration? Tet. A Mikado accessory? I guessed it was a fan, but I stood corrected. It’s obi. Mom knew what to fill in for Miami-_______ County without ever having been there. It’s Dade. First names of Hammarskjold and of Chekhov? Dag. Anton. What about a big name for a small train? Without a moment’s hesitation, Mom has it: Lionel.
This summer, we started with a toughie at the back of the book, of course. It was a thorny one, and we had lots of blanks to fill. One clue was precise and I stared at the six blank spaces as Mom racked her brain for the answer. “Exact?” she suggested. “Specific?”
“Nope, it has to have six letters.”
Hmmmm. We were stumped. “I’m going to peek,” I said, flipping to the solutions in the back of the book.
“You give up too easy, “Mom scolded, but I cheated anyway.
The answer: TOATEE. “TOATEE!” I cried. “What the heck is that? I never heard of that word!” Just who comes up with these words, I wondered. This is way beyond me.
In a flash, Mom’s look of perplexity switched to one of triumph. “It’s not TOATEE,” she said. “It’s TO A TEE.”
Well, duh. Of course she was one hundred percent right. TOATEE? Really? “I won’t tell anyone you said that, “she promised, but she couldn’t stifle her giggles. Neither could I.
My Grandma Dineen had an expression that described an elderly person whose mind was still sharp. “There are no flies on her,” she’d remark.
No flies on my mother, that’s for sure. That expression fits her TOATEE.