The Crossword Puzzle

A Family Affair

“Clare, I need your expertise for this crossword puzzle,” I said, as I hunched over my magazine, elbow planted on the table with my chin resting in my hand. I looked up at my 8-year-old niece, Clare, as she marched over to me, proud to be recruited for an adult matter. “Ok, so, tell me what Disney princess this is,” I said as I read from the page, “with a dreamy far-off look, and her nose stuck in a book.” I cocked my head to the side as I watched her smile. “Oh! It’s Belle!” she exclaimed, “That was easy, I knew the answer as soon I heard ‘nose stuck in a book!’ because Belle is always reading.” I thanked her for her input as she walked away in triumph. To be honest, “Beauty and the Beast” was one of my favorite Disney movies as a child, so I knew the answer immediately, but inviting my niece to help me made my crossword so much more fun. Visits with my family are usually filled with outings and explorations, but during this COVID year, we have begun to bond over the little things. One of my favorites: the crossword puzzle.

My family, like many, includes an array of personalities. Despite our differences, we each have our own unique areas of expertise and skill sets. Our cast of characters includes a former librarian, a stock trading expert, an immigrant, a former priest, a precocious 8-year-old, a massage therapist, and more. Our family is home to business owners and lawyers, Ph.Ds. and college dropouts, knitters and blackjack players, conservatives and liberals. As I sat at my parents table completing a crossword puzzle on Christmas Day, I witnessed how beautifully each person’s expertise took center stage as I moved from one clue to the next. Family members cycled in and out of the kitchen to grab snacks, chat, or cook, and as they did, I sat, drawing from one person’s well of knowledge and then another, until I had woven together the answers to a completed crossword puzzle. The finished puzzle was a true testament to my family’s diversity of knowledge, and a visual reminder that expertise comes in all kinds.

I have learned to do crossword puzzles in pencil and to always have a good eraser around. It is a humbling experience to excitedly fill in a crossword answer, only to later find that I had it wrong. Perhaps I have written mistakes in ink so often, that I tend to doubt myself whenever I think I have the answer. That is where having a family member comes in handy: a real-live version of “phone a friend.” So, when the clue, “A corporation’s first offer to sell stock to the public” came up, I felt a subtle self-doubt creep in. Lucky for me, my brother, Patrick, an expert trader, and author of the daily newsletter the Chart Report, was in the kitchen to help me. “Come on, Emmy!” he exclaimed, “It’s ‘IPO’, you should know that.. I thought for a moment., “Oh, yeah,” I said, slowly nodding my head as if recalling a distant memory, “initial public offering.” I exhaled as I wrote the letters “IPO” in the crossword boxes. Another answer complete.

“OK, Ryan,” I said to my brother-in-law, an avid hiker with a trek through the Appalachian Trail under his belt, “I have a few compass-related clues for you. ‘One point south of due east,, and it is three letters,” I said as I looked up from the puzzle. He thought for a moment.  “I’m pretty sure it’s ‘East by South,’ so EbS,” he said as he pulled out his phone, “but maybe I’ll look it up.” “That’s what I said,” my sister called out from the next room, peeved that I had not trusted her original answer. She joked that this was yet another occasion where she knew the answer, but no one believed her. Note to self: my sister is a dark house when it comes to crossword and should be consulted on miscellaneous questions.  We laughed as I filled not one but two compass-related answers with the help of my brother-in-law and sister.

The finished puzzle was a true testament to my family’s diversity of knowledge, and a visual reminder that expertise comes in all kinds.

“What does that say?” My mom asked as she glanced over my shoulder. “Oh, it’s duodena, like the plural of duodenum in the small intestine,” I answered, pleased that my knowledge as a former anatomy teacher was still fresh and relevant. Sometimes, I do have the answer, but if it is something obscure, my mom is generally the best help. Beyond being an avid reader and former college librarian , my mom is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to watching Jjeopardy or completing a crossword. She knows the tricks and she has got the strategies. So, when the clue Bravo, Bravo, Bravo! appeared, she knew the answer: aahs.”’. “What? How did you get that?” I asked.

“Oh, once you do enough of these puzzles, you get to know the common answers,” she said humbly, “like you’ll see clues for the singer Etta James, or three letter words like ‘rah’ come up often.” This tip proved helpful in a future crossword puzzle in which ‘rah’ was the answer. Sometimes Moms really do know best.

Other family members chipped in their expertise and help throughout the game. My dad, a sports fan and former religion professor helped me answer a sports clue and a different clue about South East Asia. My sister-in-law, a lawyer, helped me take a stab at a law-related question. Some folks guessed answers, others knew immediately. Some guesses were successful, others were good guesses but ultimately incorrect. Some family members pondered for a long time until they had an answer, while others lost patience and consulted Google. Regardless of the approach, the final finished product was a true family affair. We don’t always agree in my family, we lead different lives, have different goals, and yet we respect and love each other regardless. My crossword puzzle was proof of that. Crossword puzzles are not fast-moving like Jeopardy nor competitive like trivia games, and yet they require a diverse knowledge of topics. No one feels out-paced or out-performed, and there is a moment for everyone to shine. Sure, it is validating to complete a crossword by myself, but making it into an inclusive, empowering quest for answers that involves all members of my family? I’d prefer that any day.

Author profile
Emily Dunuwila

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