Sparked by Words

Five Across, Four Down

That which we encounter everyday should be that which we celebrate. That which we celebrate can be that which teaches us how better to do what we love. And that which we love can inspire us to write, even when we think our inspiration took off with the last Mongol invasion of Central Asia.

Crossword puzzles occupy a lot of my time, especially true in the last eight years. I don’t have an obsessive love of crosswords, but my mom always did. A pop-in visit to see my folks was as likely to be met with the urgently asked, “What’s a seven letter word for something important?” (gravity) as a heartfelt, “Glad you came by.” Right there, the beginning of a story for NaNoWriMo. Whose mom wants the right puzzle word more than a visit from her progeny? Yours, course. (Well, mine, but you know what I mean.) You thought you were empty headed, completely bereft of words to fill a book, and yet right in front of you, there they are: words a-plenty. Just have to pluck them from her puzzle and plop them into your 50,000 word story.

After my father’s death, crossword puzzles became a link between mom and me, one of the essential strategies for keeping her Alzheimer’s diseased brain as highly functioning as possible. We work them together, and I’m still amazed that she often knows answers I don’t. (Clue: Precedes while. “Erst,” she said. Oh yeah, erstwhile. Now I get it.) These clever word games have taught me a lot in eight years, skills I didn’t know I needed but now seek to augment as much as possible. The more I sit beside my mom, helping her focus on crossword clues and answers, the more I learn about writing. There’s another NaNoWriMo story waiting for a keyboard, should I want to use it: cross word puzzling through mom’s illness. Sort of a mental travelogue.

Patience, spelling prowess, trivia knowledge, peculiar humor, vocabulary building, archaic words, unusual context, flash fiction, courage, tenacity, personal relationships – all these are benefits of doing crosswords. All are applicable skills for writing.

I’ve developed the patience to work at solving a puzzle even when I know the answer is in the back of the book. There’s a certain satisfaction when mom and I complete an entire puzzle and we haven’t cheated once. She contributes about one tenth of the answers, an amazing fact given her condition. The rest is up to me and I’m often stumped. I lean over the book, staring at clues and wondering what could have possibly been on the puzzle creator’s mind to have written such an obscure clue. Kiln: oast. She knew the answer and spelled it correctly. I didn’t. (By the way, beer lovers, did you know that the hops were dried in an oast? What interesting trivia we gather in puzzles.) By the time we’ve finally completed the challenge, I’m thoroughly pleased for having stuck it out. Mom beams. I write a personal note across the top of each puzzle to its creator: Harry, can’t you find any modern words, or, You’ve got a sense of humor, Martha, a wicked one, but humor all the same. Mom loves reading the notes later in the week so I make sure to write one every time. My silly comments make her smile.  My writing has an appreciative audience. I value whatever readers I have.

Puzzle solving teaches about unexpected humor. Most crosswords incorporate several clues related to the title. “Rare Gems” clues included 20 across: Unpolished. No spaces between words, no hint about how many words needed, and the answer: diamondintherough. The clue for 30 across: Had an appetite for Lillian Russell: DiamondJimBrady. The last clue in the gem category, 40 across: Faceted field: baseballdiamond. I groaned that it wasn’t a fair clue, but mom reminded me, “It’s just crosswords.” I grinned. She was right, and it was funny to think about diamonds in so many ways. Rare gems indeed.

A writer needs a broad vocabulary, an internal thesaurus stuffed with words to suit every occasion. Especially useful for me was the reminder that rectos are “right hand pages” (the answer to 14 down,) and then I remembered that left hand pages are verso, which brought me to recall that a leaf is paper with two sides. Yes, all paper has front and back, but a leaf has writing on both sides. Now I’m on to leaf with all its meanings and applications. Every tot learns to gather leaves as soon as she can toddle outside, but leafing through a book has more to do with recto and verso than biology. Leaf sounds poetic to my ear while bract is emphatic, frond drifts in the breeze, pad sunbathes, and petiole and stipule put me back in seventh grade science class. The puzzle proved a useful meandering through related words as a leaf is a major player in one of my books. At my next revision, I’ll check for variety and intent of its synonymous words.  At the moment, mom wants to know what clue I’m reading, and we move on. Alzheimer’s doesn’t make her want to wait for me.

The puzzle entitled “Cut Me a Deal” provided a mini course in flash fiction. The answers included (I’m making it easy on you by separating the words, though the puzzle didn’t) Shuffle the deck, Shuffle off to Buffalo, Stacking the deck, and Deal me in. That’s a pretty generous prompt for writing flash fiction. The story is nearly there; all you need is a main character. So, Ronald Rucinski, you thought you were just a puzzle crafter, cribbed in your corner with naught but the computer light fending the darkness of the room. Now you’re also a high stakes player in a grimy casino off the main drag in Las Vegas, trying to bolster your flagging bank account with a poker faced attempt at betting the bank, working the room, and raking it in. “Deal me in,” Ronald Rucinski said, sliding his toothpick between the amber ivories in his mouth and narrowing his eyes as the dealer shuffled the deck. He hoped the slick bastard didn’t stack the deck like the last chiseler. As a story, it needs work, but all work needs more work. Still, it’s a start, and all stories must start someplace. “Cut Me a Deal” is even a decent working title.

Mom and I exhibit courage when doing puzzles. We write in pen. Pencils dull too fast and I have the courage of my convictions, though evidence suggests I’m often wrong. A writer must be courageous as she faces that blank page each day, grasping at flitting words and forcing them to her tome. Commit to the pen and you’re halfway there. OK, maybe a hundredth of the way there, a thousandth, but still, have pen, will write, and there you are, off on your book’s journey, wherever it may take you, down the occasional false path, but writing all the time. Writing quickly, as NaNoWriMo demands, because 50,000 words can be wrought from crossword books, but you still have to arrange them in a story order of some kind.

The more I’ve worked crosswords with my mom, the more I’ve learned about life. The more I learn about life, the better I write. It’s been an odd place to glean an education and a peculiar way of building a relationship with an ill person. Thank you, Mom, for all you’ve given me, 50,000 words and more. May God protect you and keep you as long as possible from the worst ravages of your disease.



Crossword puzzle image courtesy: Wikimedia.Commons



Comments on: "Five Across, Four Down" (40)

  1. Sharon, your story is just wonderful. Warm and humorous and so true.
    May you learn many words whilst love grows stronger all the while.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so glad that crosswords are helping your mom to keep her brain as highly functional as possible. Alzheimers is such a terrible disease and it is so important to find ways to fight it. I´ve heard often that music also helps, especially singing or playing an instrument.
    When it comes to crosswords I´m kind of hopeless, except when someone asks me something like your mother does with you, then I can find the answer almost always immediately. But when I sit in front of a crossword puzzle myself, there´s not a chance 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Loved this post, Sharon, it reminded me of so much. Doing crosswords was something I also shared with my mother, although she didn’t have Alzheimer’s, thankfully. But she did them until she died, and I’ve kept the habit, although it is my great regret that I simply can’t do the ‘cryptic’ ones in the British papers. Even if I have the solution in front of me, I still don’t get it… However, I also enjoy the clues to be found in the title, the humor, the puns, etc. And I agree you learn a lot. Enjoyed reading this💕😘😘

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have never sought out crosswords but I know lots of people who love them. Now I can see why!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nowadays most people play on smart phones when they have to wait. You know I don’t have a smart phone, so guess what I turn to instead? I always have a pocket sized puzzle book on me.


  5. pen! courage indeed! do you mind if I reblog this?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I should do crossword puzzles but I’ve never been that interested in them despite the obvious value there is. It’s great you still have a way to connect with your mom. You might be more in tune with her now than you had been in your past.


    • You’re right, my mom and I do connect over her puzzles. Alzheimer’s changes people’s personalities, so when my mom gets angry or frustrated, doing a puzzle will usually calm her down.


  7. Sharon, I enjoyed your post! My mom also loved crossword puzzles and I know that’s what kept her brain functioning as long as it did. Wonderful that you do them together! Thank you for sharing your story.


  8. Oh my, I am the worst crossworder ever! My mom, with her dementia can still pull out words, much like you describe, from thin air. She was always so smart (in an absent-minded professor sort of way). On camping trips as kids, we would play games that involved words and mom was always champ! I learned so much from her. That you continue to connect with your mom in this way is wonderful and heartwarming to read, Shari. Despite her condition, I’m sure treasures every moment with you!


    • I’m not sure what my mom treasures, but I certainly treasure puzzling with her. It has become a shared experience that we both enjoy. In fact, I realized exactly how smart my mom is, as you noted about yours, through the puzzles. Nice that you got to see the intelligence in your mom, Terri.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on Happiness Between Tails by da-AL and commented:
    Guest Blog Post: “Five Across, Four Down,” in Sharon Lynne Bonin-Pratt’s exact words

    Love words? So do I! No matter how hard we try to be precise though, verbal communication can be confusing. Here fellow blogger, Sharon Lynne Bonin-Pratt, shows us one example of how when we combine our actions with our words, magic can result…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. […] how hard we try to be precise though, verbal communication can be confusing. Here fellow blogger, Sharon Lynne Bonin-Pratt, shows us one example of how when we combine our actions with our words, magic can […]

    Liked by 1 person

  11. just reblogged this – hope you like how it looks on my site 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jenna Barwin said:

    Very touching, Shari. My mom loved crossword puzzles. She did them in ink her whole life, until Parkinson’s disease stole her away.


  13. I can remember watching my mother do crossword puzzles. The entire time I wished for the same ability. I wanted to be her kind of smart. I have yet to finish a crossword.
    Thanks for this, Shari.


    • I understand where you’re coming from, Audrey. I never did a crossword either till I realized I would have to help my mom with them if she was going to continue to do an activity that she’d loved all her life. Thus began the crossword team. I’ll never forget the first time we completed a puzzle without having to look in the back for answers we couldn’t figure out on our own. It is a certain kind of smart and I’m still not as smart as my mom. Did your mom ever ask you for help with hers?


  14. Here’s the line that jumped out at me, “A writer needs a broad vocabulary, an internal thesaurus stuffed with words to suit every occasion.” This is so true! I make it a habit of reading with a dictionary beside me. Even if I loosely know the word, I look it up to know it precisely. “For every occasion” is the entire point! Well done, Sharon!


    • Thank you so much, Claire. I always like when someone points out a line as meaningful to them, and I often do the same for others. Do you use a real book or do you look up online? I have a two-volume dictionary, a 1200 page thesaurus, and a spiral bound copy of Diana Hacker’s Rules for Writers at hand. Sometimes I just get lost wandering around in their pages, an immersion of word gathering.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a dictionary AP on my cellphone. I find it immediate and convenient. The only problem for me is that I was used to a particular AP that suddenly changed its format, and consequently, the “favorites” I’d spent a couple of years racking up disappeared! I’m still miffed. I’d been in the habit of glancing at my saved list, every so often. I’ve reverted to old school since then, and write the words I like and want to keep close to the vest in a spiral notebook.


      • I’m grinning – I have an online folder with favorite words and I add a few each week. I guess that’s why they call us wordsmiths?


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