A Puzzling Anniversary

On February 15, The New York Times celebrated the 75th anniversary of its famous crossword puzzle. The puzzle very nearly didn’t make it into the paper, as an earlier editorial had pronounced crossword puzzles “a sinful waste of time.” Nevertheless, just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the editor decided that the public needed the relaxation of solving a crossword.

My mother might have disputed the “relaxation” part; the crossword puzzle was a part of her morning routine for at least the last 25 years of her life, and she approached it with dedication and sometimes, trepidation. Her forecast for the rest of the day could be found in her success with the puzzle, and it was a bad day when there was more than one clue tugging at her brain as she moved through her other activities. She was a true believer in the power the crosswords had in maintaining her quick wit and intellect, and she could tune out every other distraction while engaged in a tough puzzle.

An avid student of everything, she kept notes tucked into the pages of her Bantam Crossword Dictionary I found recently. It is a battered book with failed binding and loose pages, but it served her well for years. Note in the photograph, her study of roman numerals that had appeared in prior puzzles; the other side of the sheet contains such factoids as the names of the four Beatles, “soul in France—Ame”, “Israli airline—ElAl”, and “ginseng plant—aralia”, and more.

I still marvel at the fact that she did her crosswords in INK! The invention of the erasable pen may have made it a bit easier in later years, but she actually formulated her answers so carefully, the eraser was rarely needed. I print my puzzle answers, usually in caps, but Mom’s puzzles were distinctive with her neat cursive letters in each block; I’ve never seen another like them.

When she moved to a care facility, her eyesight began to fail and her LA Times and NY Times crosswords became too difficult, so we enlarged them on a copier for her. The care center took a cue from Mom’s puzzles and began doing group crosswords with the puzzles enlarged to poster size. When Mom attended those sessions, she always took first prize for the most correct answers. She confided once that, left to her own devices, she could have finished the entire puzzle in half the time, but she thought it was nice to give others a chance to play.

I held onto Mom’s hardcover crossword puzzle book for a long time; in fact, I think it may still be packed away somewhere in my house. She hadn’t finished all the puzzles in it and I thought I might get around to them one day. I love words and I love puzzles; clearly, I inherited the crossword puzzle gene, but my husband introduced me to cryptograms years ago and not long ago, an insidious game called 7 Little Words, which I have on my Kindle, so my puzzling has moved to other avenues. Still, seeing the story about the New York Times crossword anniversary has me wondering what other sinful ways we puzzle addicts might have found to waste our time, if we hadn’t found word puzzles.