"How lucky I am to have something
that makes saying goodbye so hard."
Winnie the Pooh
I think there has been a changing of the guard at our house. I'm not even sure when it happened. One day dad had the puzzle book, the next day I did. It may look like there was an official handoff, but it was actually a gradual thing.
For years when my father sat at the kitchen table sipping on lukewarm coffee, he occupied his head and his hands by doing crossword puzzles. His birthday, Christmas, Father's Day, the standard gift from at least one of his daughters, sometimes more than one, has been a book filled with New York or LA Times Sunday crosswords. They are stacked up on the bamboo table at the end of the hall. When he finishes one book, there is always another one to replace it.
Even though I have an affinity for words, I always thought crossword puzzles, at least the one's Dad likes, were way out of my realm of expertise. If I'm a first grade puzzler, Dad has a PhD in the subject. My style of puzzling includes using the dictionary, looking up the answers in the back of the book and doodling on the page. Pen in hand, Dad can usually fill in the blanks before I can get to the answer page. If not, he ponders. You can almost see his brain working, like one of those Mousetrap game mazes where the marble drops from a plastic boot, into a cup which spills over into a trough, rolls through a wheel then rings a bell. Dad has a brain chock full of word definitions and doesn't need google to pull one from the cerebral shelf where they reside. Basically, I'm way out of Dad's puzzle league.
For a long time our habit was that I'd do the weekday newspaper puzzle while dad worked in his Simon and Schuster "Mega Crossword Puzzle book." He had dibs on the Sunday puzzle. This was fine with me because I could rarely complete anything past Wednesday. It took me awhile to even figure out that the puzzles increase in difficulty as the week progresses. For a long time I thought it was my brain power that diminished from Monday through Friday, which still might be part of the problem. Anyway, the Sunday puzzle was/is over my head. But one day, while waiting for Dad to get ready for church, I crossed an invisible boundary. I studied the across and down clues until I found one I could answer. Then I tried another, and another. As the weeks went by, Dad got slower and I my ability to fill in the blank squares got better. Now I'm not saying I always filled them in correctly, but by the time Dad got to "his" puzzle it was partially done.
And so it went. When Dad worked the newspaper puzzle I'd work in the book. When he'd work in the book, I'd pick up the newspaper. I traded a pencil for a pen; Bic erasable at first, but I've moved up to a Sharpie. It makes corrections difficult to read but let's face it, a Sharpie will always be my writing instrument of choice.
Some of Dad's habits remain steadfast. He sits at the table three times a day even if he doesn't eat anything. He has a cocktail at 6pm every evening, followed by dinner and a cup of coffee which lately he's let get cold. He wants company but not necessarily conversation. So while he sits I puzzle.
Sometimes I can draw him out of his whatever reverie he's in with questions like "what's a four letter word for ....?" or "How do you spell ....?" or "Who wrote Stormy Monday?"He can't remember when he took his last pain pill, but nine times out of ten he'll give me the right answer to the puzzle, sometimes in French or German. A few years ago I would have scoffed at the idea that my father and I would share the fine art of crossword puzzles. In fact I might have scoffed at the idea of us sharing anything but punches - word punches, but painful jabs nonetheless. Now I kind of look forward to the time we spend together at the table.
My parents had a 1950's kind of relationship. Dad worked outside the home. Mom's domain was inside. That changed some when mom got sick, but for all the time my sisters and I were growing up, we looked to our mother for how to do "girl" things. Mom taught us to sew and cook, how to put on lipstick, make a bed, and fold fitted sheets. It never occurred to me (and I think I speak for my sisters) to ask Dad how to use a hammer, or a power saw, or a lawn mower. We were never invited into his hobby world of photography, aquariums, guns (thank you Jesus) and Heath kits. I always thought it was because we were girls, and girls did girl things. Maybe it was because we didn't ask to be included. Maybe we should have just joined in without invitation.
When my Dad passes to the great beyond, there will be a lot of time spent divvying up his things. It gives me the creeps but they've got to go somewhere and that's what family's do, isn't it? Take small, sometimes insignificant things of a person's life - a coffee mug, a pocket knife, a pen that writes upside down, an out of date red dictionary with print so small it can barely be read, an engraved money clip - and hold onto them in order to keep the person close for just a little bit longer. Then after the sadness has eased and the mind begins to let go, the things are shuffled around in drawers and only brought out on occasions when the heart remembers.
There's still a stack of crossword puzzles on the hall table. Dad might not, probably won't, crack the cover. But I'll leave them there for the time when I'm sitting at the kitchen table with nothing else to do.
Wishing for you time spent well with someone you love,
Cartoon copied from: http://www.primate.wisc.edu/people/hamel/cp.html