Words matter: Clarity found in Mom’s crumpled crossword

A crumpled up New York Times crossword.

I’ll begin with a confession: We finally removed the last of our Christmas decorations just last week. The debris field from dragging out the desiccated tree looked like a crime scene despite our efforts to contain it. (We’ll be vacuuming needles out of the carpet until next December, I’m sure.)

In my defense, as a child we spent Christmas at my Auntie M’s every year, and she celebrated the actual Twelve Days of Christmas. That meant decorations remained in her house until the Epiphany: The symbolic representation of when the Christ Child was revealed to the Magi. Religious history lesson aside, it’s clear that this year, in our house, the Magi came late. Maybe their GPS took them off course, I don’t know, but as I packed the characters from the Creche (Nativity) this morning, I wrapped them carefully in the same newspaper that has cradled them for ages, and wished them a safe journey back to the attic.

The scraps of newspaper that protect our ornaments and decorations are reused every year, until they become too worn or torn to be of use. They envelop an odd assortment of items: Among other things, a rhinestone alligator from a trip to New Orleans, various arts and crafts made by my daughter over the years and, as per German and Family tradition, a whole lot of pickles. (Google it.)

This past year, as I was unwrapping ornaments, my fingers growing filthy from ink, I studied the newspapers, like I always do. I smooth them out into a stack, often checking dates and reading headlines, even perusing a few articles. Just like the sentimental history of the ornaments and decorations they protect, each scrap of paper tells a story.

At one point, I came across a page with a completed New York Times crossword puzzle from September, 2014. It was filled out in ink, without error, in the clear, distinctive handwriting of my mother.

It was a special moment for me, not just because my mother passed away in October of 2017, but for its symbolism as well.

Like every mother/daughter relationship, ours was complicated. We had trouble communicating on many levels, but wherever life took me, I could count on an occasional phone call from her when all we would do is complete the NYT crossword together.

This took place over decades, even when hours, miles, and sometimes continents kept us apart. She could decipher the clues to older references, I the newer stuff, and together we crossed the generational divide — learning about each other and the workings of our minds from what we knew of life, through simple words and phrases. It brought a depth to our relationship that regular attempts at conversation frequently found lacking.

When she was diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, those collaborations changed as her illness rapidly evolved. Over a very short period of time, along with her ability to reason, she started to lose motor functions. Writing became increasingly difficult as her hands began to tremble. She could still fill out the crosswords, but her beautiful script (she studied calligraphy in college) began to degrade as her tremors increased. Before long, writing became indecipherable and then impossible.

Over the same period of time, she rapidly lost her ability to speak and use facial expressions. Dementia is unique to every individual, and for my mother, it was clear that her cognitive functions far outlasted her ability to communicate on most every other level. As the muscles in her face grew still, her eyes grew wider and more eager, and in them I could often see the vestiges of her once brilliant mind.

Having long abandoned our crossword conversations, I was forced to communicate with her using simply my words, and she, the sporadic moments of awareness in her eyes. It might have seemed lopsided, but I knew she was there. It never once crossed my mind, throughout her illness, to speak to her as if she could no longer understand.

I remember sitting next to her once with a crossword puzzle in hand, reading out loud the clues and filling it in the best I could without her input. With her head turned toward me, she struggled to speak in an effort to participate despite her impairment, and I felt that same, unique connection we had shared over the years, simply from playing with words. As I spoke, she listened, and responded by gripping my hand with a strength that eased the trembling, if only for a moment. It was a clear comfort for the both of us, and it left me speechless as well.

I took a picture of that crossword puzzle, then put it back where it belonged in the stack of recycled papers we used to wrap up Christmas this week. At this moment, it could be wrapped around anything from a beady-eyed glittered hedgehog to a fragile glass bell that has been hanging on a Heil Family tree for over 100 years. It only matters that it’s there.

I’m comforted by the memories of those moments, sharing words with my mother. I’m also comforted by the thought that those words hold safe, not just sentimental objects, but the memories of her in my heart.

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