I’m working a crossword puzzle. A little help, please?
94 Across: G-Man Hoover’s middle name.
103 down: Port on Zuider Zee, occupied by Nazis.
117 down: Nazi submarine base in Belgium.
Notice anything funny about those clues? The puzzle I’m struggling with is the first crossword puzzle the New York Times ever published, dated February 15, 1942.
I was taken aback by the matter of fact references to the Nazis in the clues. In 1942, World War II was raging on. HistoryNet tells me that in February, the Japanese captured Singapore, taking 60,000 British soldiers captive. It would be three more years before the Germans surrendered.
The puzzle is part of a birthday present: “The First 75 Years of NYT Crosswords,” and I’m having fun with it. The puzzles are printed on newsprint and there’s a puzzle for every year. Mixed in among the clues are ads and stories from the paper.
Among the more interesting ads is one for “REIS Scandals,” which seem to be men’s briefs. These aren’t your run of the mill Hanes. These scandals are “patterned and cut to conform to male anatomy.”
The ad boasts of a “Dart-stitched pouch” that “fights fatigue.” (Those italics are theirs, not mine. Oooh! A dart-stitched pouch! And for the record, I’m not touching “fights fatigue.”)
I worked on the puzzle last night during the Super Bowl, occasionally getting help on a clue from Fred or the grandkids. (Cali came through with 54 Down: Reluctant allies of Germany). Then I woke up this morning thinking about my grandparents.
Mostly I have gaps where grandparents should be. I only ever knew one of them, my dad’s mother, Clare, whom we called Gram. The others had all died before I was born.
This morning when I woke to thoughts of my grandmother it was early. I like to get up at five, when time feels spacious. As I sit down at my desk, my neighbors’ houses are dark, and Fred and Rusty are sound asleep down the hall. These minutes feel like bonus time, time that isn’t owned by demands of the day.
Still sleepy, I google my grandmother. Clare McCann (who became Clare O’Shea when she married Thomas John) was born on Christmas Day, 1897, and died in August, 1980, just before I started my junior year in high school.
I was up the street babysitting the LeBlonde kids when she died. I want to say there was a storm that night and the power went out, but I might be making that up. I am sure about the rainbow I saw, and that I heard the news later that evening when I got home.
For some reason I did a double take this morning when I saw that my grandmother was born in 1897. She lived through World War II without knowing how it was going to end.
Then I realized she lived through World War I in the same way. She lived both before and after there were planes in the sky and electric refrigerators in the kitchen.
In the middle of the day, working on writing a sexual misconduct policy with a group of young women, I realized my grandmother was born without the right to vote, gaining it as a young woman of twenty-three.
Oh, to have been the teenager smart enough to ask her how that felt!
When I think of my grandmother, I see her sitting at the kitchen table at my Aunt Emma’s house, talking and drinking tea. I feel like a spectator in these memories this morning. I can’t put her in motion. I can’t put us in relationship.
For the first time since I’ve started posting essays every Monday, this week I worried that I’d hit my deadline without figuring out what I needed to say. It turns out that writing a post for this blog every week is considerably harder than writing a post whenever I feel like it.
Then I woke up this morning with my grandmother, and little memories have been seeping in all day. There’s this one: If you told Gram you liked something, she would give it to you.
I admired this sweater once, and even though it has always been too small for me, I’ve held on to it for three states and more than thirty years. I used to try to make myself give it to Goodwill, but I’m done with that now. It’s staying.
Likewise for this plate. I don’t remember why little-kid me admired my grandmother’s plate, but sure enough, it came home with me. For years while I was little it lived in my mom’s kitchen, then traveled with me to Chicago and Albuquerque.
The Home Book of Verse that stood on the bookshelves in my parents’ living room came from my grandmother, too. My dad brought it from down home to our house on Marvle Valley. That’s how my dad and his siblings talked about the house they grew up in on Arlington Avenue. The two volume collection was edited by Burton Egbert Stevenson (enjoy that for a moment) and was first published in 1912.
One time when my grandmother was in the hospital, I tried to memorize “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to recite for her. It’s on page 2,473, and I think I got most of it down. What remains today is “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” and the deep knowledge that you can make words sound like galloping horses.
I was still unsure of where this essay was heading when late this afternoon, the connection came. I saw my grandmother sitting at the kitchen table with her tea, and this time the picture zoomed in and I remembered her hands. Her knuckles were big and knobby with arthritis, and she was holding a pencil.
Next to the teacup on the table was a newspaper, folded open to the crossword puzzle. It occurs to me that my grandmother might have solved the puzzle I’m working on. She would have been forty-four in February of 1942.
She probably would have known who the famous one-eyed general was (1 across) or —
And I have to stop there. I was trying to find another clue to add to that sentence, and a funny thing happened. I stared at this puzzle for hours yesterday, and only managed to enter about ten words. In the past two or three minutes, searching for a clue that might capture some essence of my grandmother, I’ve answered at least that many again.
I’m not making that up. It’s almost as though someone who has done the puzzle before is looking over my shoulder, whispering answers in my ear.
So here’s the thing. The essay I was trying to write today wasn’t about my grandmother. I was thinking about the light again, and the fact that I’m hearing birds in the morning. I was trying to process the fact that the latest school shooting barely made the news.
I had thought I might use the crossword puzzle as some kind of metaphor to figure out how to live in times like these. I thought that if I reminded people that it feels like spring in Albuquerque, it might help someone be hopeful that better times are coming.
I couldn’t get there. But my grandmother, who lived through World War II without knowing how it was going to end, stopped by for the day. We worked a few clues together, and I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a little better.