Author’s Note: “My beloved grandmother suffered through a long, miserably unhappy marriage to an abusive man, and I never understood how she endured. When I found one of her crossword puzzles after her death, the puzzle of her life finally became clearer. We all search for ways to cope, to find joy, to master our situations. Nana, completing her puzzles in ink, had found hers.”
Writing In Ink
“SWEETHEART, can you fetch your old Nana a pen from my purse?”
Eight-year-old me gladly rummaged through my grandmother’s capacious leather handbag. By the time I found the ballpoint, the crossword puzzle book was open in her lap, and she eagerly began to fill in the blank squares. I marveled at the sure way Nana solved the puzzle—quickly, confidently, in eraser-proof blue ink.
Nana was in love with language. She was a very intelligent woman, who’d made the dumbest mistake possible—marrying Pop. My grandfather took pleasure in demeaning her, calling her “BFLOW,” which stood for Big Fat Lazy Old Woman. I would hurl myself at Pop as he sat in his armchair, and I’d shout, “Stop saying that! Leave her alone!” But he never did stop for long. Nana would sigh deeply but would never push back. At those moments, she seemed to be shrinking. It was as if the woman I loved the most was being rubbed out, slowly erased before my eyes.
But when she did her puzzles! There was no defeated sigh, no hesitation at all. Briskly and efficiently, one after another was complete, and always completely correct. An avid reader, Nana knew her Shakespeare and Hemingway. A music lover and piano teacher, she knew her Chopin and Gilbert and Sullivan. Toward the end, when only the arcane words were left, her pen would hesitate over the paper, just for a moment. Then down it would come, and those last blanks were conquered.
As I grew older, I too developed a crush on words, and our shared love of Scrabble bonded Nana and me even more closely together. Emboldened by my occasional victory on the game board, I’d try my hand at a crossword, though always in pencil, and the newsprint would smudge with the vigorous erasing that always followed. Nana was happy to consult when I needed a six-letter word for stomach upset. Over time, I could figure out “nausea” for myself, but I never did develop Nana’s uncanny knack for puzzle solving, and certainly never had the courage to write down, in pen, what could not be corrected.
Nana’s completed crosswords were tiny victories in a lifetime filled with regret. When it came to the biggest thing—standing up for herself to Pop—all the confidence drained out of her. As a teenager, I grew to think a little less of Nana. Her softness and weakness did no one any favors and just made it more tempting for Pop to use her as the prime target for his bullying. To me, it was a no-brainer: give back as good as you got or get out. Nana, it seemed, could do neither.
After she died, I found a crossword puzzle she hadn’t finished. There was the bold blue ink, there were all the right answers. At some point my grandmother had stopped and put the pen down for good. Maybe she just ran out of words. Maybe the futility simply overwhelmed her, and she saw the silly puzzles as the insignificant achievements they were.
But over time, I have come to believe that she worked on that last one to the very end, and that only death itself kept her from filling in those final letters. And, after a lifetime of puzzling over Nana’s story, I now believe that while she suffered through a long and dreadful marriage, the measure of joy and solace she found in those dog-eared crossword books really did matter. In that up, down, black-and-white world of words, she was always a winner. She was a master, in a place where Pop could never hurt her.
And so, this afternoon, in memory of the grandmother I adored, I open the Sunday magazine to the crossword puzzle, a very challenging one, and reach for a pencil.
No. For a pen.
Elise Seyfried is the author of five books of humorous spiritual essays, most recently Nanamorphosis: Reflections on an Ever-Evolving Life. Her essays have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Insider, Living Lutheran, The Independent, Delaware Beach Life, Shore Monthly, The Broadkill Review, and Purple Clover, among others. Elise and her husband Steve have produced The Rehoboth Summer Children’s Theatre since 1982. Website: www.eliseseyfried.com.
Delmarva Review is a national literary journal with strong local roots in Talbot County, Maryland. The editors cull through thousands of submissions every year to select the most compelling new poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. It has featured the best new writing from 550 authors during its 16-year history. About half are from the Chesapeake and Delmarva region. The review is available in paperback and digital editions from major online booksellers and regional specialty bookstores. Support comes from 501(c)(3) tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org
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