Whitney Dibo

Four Down: To Caress. Six Letters, Starting with an S

When my grandfather had his stroke, over 1,876,000 Washington Post crossword puzzle clues poured out of his ear and onto his pillow. I get that number by multiplying 60 years of crossword puzzling times six days a week—he always skipped the Sunday puzzle for reason that it was, and still is, absurdly hard to complete—multiplied by 120 clues per puzzle (on average). I’m even willing to concede that my grandfather could have forgotten 50 percent of the all the clues he painstakingly figured out during his tenure as a Washington Post crossword devotee, but that would still make his stroke the thief of at least 936,000 hard-earned clues. As my grandfather’s brain held its breath, countless anagrams, esoteric vocabulary and clever puns tumbled out onto his pillow, which was no doubt freshly laundered by my grandmother.

As his wife of 63 years slept beside him, my grandfather’s brain formed a stubborn blood clot inside one of his 84-year-old arteries, blocking oxygen to the left side of his brain—the side that, for so many years, delivered answer after answer to The Washington Post Monday through Saturday puzzle. The left side of his brain, the side responsible for linear thinking and problem solving, knew immediately that “Paradise” (five across, four letters) was E-D-E-N. It had known that one for years. “That one is a crossword puzzle staple,” he’d told me. I was 12, and we were nestled in the corner of the beige U-shaped couch in my grandparents’ rec room. His arm was slung around me, able to wrap around my little frame and write the answer in four white boxes.

A dozen years later, the oxygen in my grandfather’s brain was determined to hang onto those precious specks of information. It pushed and shoved in vain against the solidified clot, intent on reaching those erudite neurons on the other side. After all, these were neurons that had lived through The Great Depression and World War II; they had seen the end of Vietnam and the advent of the Internet era (neurons do not regenerate over time, so I mean this quite literally). These were neurons that could recite the entire silent Amidah and speak Yiddish—and everyone knows that neurons like that are hard to come by these days.

The left side of my grandfather’s brain had deeply etched grooves from years of answering puzzles, well-trained brain circuits that allowed him to see the answer to “Whack, Biblically” before I even understood the question (correct answer: S-M-I-T-E). The left side of my grandfather’s brain could, from across the room, answer my grandmother when she asked, as she often did: “Who was Charlie Chaplin’s last wife, Herbie? First letter O.” Without pausing he’d tell her it was Oona, Oona O’Neil, who was also the daughter of late great playwright Eugene O’Neil. The grooves in his brain shot the answer to his mouth like an ice luge.

“A crossword writer does not do anything by accident,” my grandfather told me, sitting one summer in a sinking lawn chair on a beach in North Carolina, his paper splashed with salt water and folded on his knee. I was 14, waterlogged from a particularly aggressive undertow, peering over his shoulder from my spot on the shaded sand. “It means something when the writer gives you a question mark. It means something else when he gives you an abbreviation, and something else when he writes, ‘in other words.’ And remember this,” he said, leaning close like he was about to divulge a buried family secret, “The tense of the clue always matches the tense of the answer.” He winked, and I nodded solemnly.

“So what do we have here,” he said, nudging me towards a lengthy across clue: “Wash. bigwig. Twelve letters.” I studied the puzzle, knowing he already had the answer. After a few moments, he quietly filled in half of the white blocks to form the word “M-E-M-B-E-R.” He glanced at me with all the faith in the world as the beach breeze ruffled our paper.

“Let’s talk this out,” he said calmly. “A ‘bigwig’ means what?”

“An important person,” I said as my grandfather shook the sand off our puzzle.

“And what do you think ‘Wash’ is short for?”

I paused. “Washington?”

“That’s right. You’re almost there.” I rolled my eyes, not feeling any closer. “So the answer is an abbreviation of an important person in Washington . . . who might that be? Just take your time.” He winked and pushed the paper toward me. A few silent minutes passed.

“Member of Cong.!” I suddenly shouted, waking my grandmother who was dozing beside us.

“That’s right,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “Nice work. That one almost had me stumped.”

He had raised his children with the right side of his brain. Often failing to remember the details in their intricate, busy lives, the right side of my grandfather’s brain told his heart, as it had for 60 years that he loved them unconditionally. The right side of his brain, the hemisphere that reigns over the realm of gut instinct and big picture, chose not to short circuit when two of his four daughters married Christian men, or when the linen and bedspread store he and my grandmother owned on Rockville Pike went under in the early ’90s. I imagine it was the right side of his brain that kept its cool when they both went to work at Bloomingdales in Montgomery Mall after their store closed, he in the furniture department and my grandmother up the precipitous escalator in the bedding department. Both well into their sixties, small business owners for over a decade, they took their lunch break together in the food court.

When I cried to my mom that this didn’t seem at all fair, that my grandmother didn’t look right in a blue Bloomingdales’ apron, she told me that my grandparents didn’t see it that way—that they were happy to have each other, happy to still be working together. Besides, my grandfather’s shift ended a whole hour before my grandmothers’, which gave him time to sit under the bright fluorescents of the food court and do the crossword.

“See what he’s trying to do to us here?” my grandfather said, a smirk crossing over his neatly shaved face as the long, thematic 13-square clue came to him. He always referenced the writer of the crossword puzzle like a sworn enemy—a venerable enemy to be sure, but someone with whom we were in direct and total competition. I was 18 with my feet up on the coffee table, convinced that my single semester at college had rendered me a crossword master. I stole a gin-soaked olive from his signature martini and willed the answer to come to me. The clue: “A spender’s lament.” We had a few letters, an F here and an N there, but nothing jumped out.

“I don’t know it,” I sighed finally, nestling my head onto his shoulder and closing my eyes. I listened to my grandfather’s steady breath, and waited for him to deliver the answer.

“If I had a nickel for every time you said that . . . ” he chuckled, filling in the letters and finishing off his gin. I sat up, insulted, until I understood. A spender’s lament: if I had a nickel.

The first recorded crossword puzzle appeared in an Italian magazine in 1890; a simple four-by-four grid with no shaded squares—just open white blocks for unfussy, unpretentious four and five letter words. Thirty-six years before my grandfather was born across the ocean, while his parents were still braving the pogroms of Eastern Europe, upper-class Italians tried their hands at the game for the first time. It wasn’t until 1913 that the puzzle landed in the United States, penned by a carpetbagger journalist from Liverpool named Arthur Wynne. Wynne dubbed his puzzle the “word-cross,” and ran it first New York World and before it spread to The Boston Globe.

His crossword, however, was not initially embraced as a reputable American pastime. Today, the same glasses-clad intellectuals who boast weekly scrabble games and documentary film knowledge also “work out their brains” with the daily crossword, but the game did not always hold such high credibility in the brainy, academic coterie. In 1924, The New York Times editorial board decried the crossword as “a sinful waste of time, the utterly futile finding of words all of which will fit into a prearranged pattern.” Crossword enthusiasts, like my soon-to-be-born grandfather, would, they claimed, “get nothing out of puzzle solving except a primitive form of mental exercise. Success or failure in any given attempt” they wrote, was “completely irrelevant to mental development.” A year later The Times pronounced the crossword a fading fad, a “craze” that was evidently “dying out” and would “soon be forgotten.”

But despite these accusations, these dismissive mudslings by its future employer, the crossword hung on. In 1944, while my grandfather was frantically trying to impregnate his new wife to avoid being drafted in the last months of the war, a series of crosswords in The Daily Telegraph alarmed Allied security forces, some of whom were convinced the puzzle had revealed in the inner-workings of a secret military operation. The name of the operation (“Overlord”) and the landing site, (“Omaha”) both appeared in the May 2nd, 1944 puzzle. The author of the puzzle, a schoolteacher, denied any wrongdoing.

And that wouldn’t be the last time the crossword would make political waves. In the mid-90s, a puzzle crafted by newcomer Jeremiah Farrell had Americans convinced The New York Times had accurately (or presumptuously, depending on who you spoke to) predicted the winner of the 1996 presidential election. It turned out that the key clue (39 Across: “Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper”) could be solved by either B-O-B-D-O-L-E or C-L-I-N-T-O-N, depending on other malleable clues within the puzzle. Will Shortz, the current editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle, called the trick “the most amazing crossword stunt he’d ever seen.” My grandfather had missed the upset entirely, given that he stuck to The Washington Post with utmost loyalty.

The night of his stroke, as those old-timey neurons withered from lack of oxygen, all those three-downs and 52-acrosses faded away, all those double entendres and obscure catch-phrases lost their meanings. By the time my grandmother awoke, the D.C. area had lost one of its finest crossword artists and my grandmother had lost her husband’s brain. I’d like to believe that Wayne Robert Williams, who penned The Washington Post crossword for years, bolted awake when those clues poured out of my grandfather’s ear and onto his pillow.

I spotted my grandfather as I rounded the corner. He was sitting in a communal room with other wheelchair-bound patients (other peoples’ grandparents with withering World War II neurons, no doubt), his face slack and dreamy. The nursing home smelled like nursing homes do-like the musty remnants of old bodies and old memories, bizarrely mixed with institutional cafeteria food that smells vaguely of childhood. He looked up when I walked into the room and smiled a half-smile on the right side of his face. The book I had just read on strokes told me that active motor skill on the right side of the body meant damage to the left side of the brain—the crossword side of the brain, the speech and learning part of the brain. I held my grandfather’s hand and chose to believe that he was all right brain now—all raw emotion and no logic, all gut feeling and no ability to comprehend the bleak fact that he had lost all his clues. His white hair was uncombed, something I had never seen in all my 24 years.

I know you’re supposed to talk to stroke victims, the book I read told me that too. It said that familiar sounds were a comfort, that the lilt of a family member’s voice was often calming, even if the neurons in the brain that were once responsible for speech interpretation suffocated long ago. But as I talked and talked I began to feel silly, patronizing even. Despite my best efforts I slipped into a baby talk of sorts. And it was no good.

It was then I spotted a newspaper folded up carefully in the corner of the room. I hesitated. Was this downright cruel? Was this akin to abuse, to have my grandfather look at the familiar configuration of the Tuesday puzzle with no way of communicating the answers? I opened the paper and sat next to him, taking my chances. I hoped that the smell of the ink on the paper, the recognizable form of the crossword on the page, with its little white squares and blackened boxes, would spark something. How could it not?

“One across,” I said slowly, as my stroke book had taught me. “Paradise. Four letters.”

This one I knew. This one I had known for a long time and he had known it for longer. “Eden.” I said. “That one’s a staple.”

He nodded, slow and deliberate. It seems a few clues were still lodged in there after all, struggling for air.

“One down.” I said. “Part of the water cycle. Nine letters. Starting with an E.”

He looked at me and shrugged. I shrugged back—the answer, for the first time, eluding us both.

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