Forty Years, Forty Posts #18

I am a creature of habit, especially on Sunday mornings. I have coffee and a good breakfast, sometimes home and sometimes not, and I settle down with the Sunday puzzles. I start with the Cryptoquip, a letter-substitution cipher that you solve to get a terrible joke. I read it aloud to my wife. “Honey, when a carpenter is putting away his fasteners, is he filing his nails?” or “Does a baker with a dry sense of humor make ‘wry’ bread?” I move on to the Sudoku, and sometimes the crossword, though having done all the weekday crosswords, I oftener than not give myself a break from the big one.

I’ve been a puzzle fan since I was a kid. I used to obsess on the day my Games magazine would make it safely to West Africa, and I would be set up for another few days of puzzledom. I knew and admired Will Shortz years before he was hired as the crossword editor at the times and became the unofficial king of Puzzledom. My favorite constructors, though, are the brilliant duo of the Atlantic, Ms. Cox and Mr. Rathvon. The true sign of a puzzle junkie is that they have favorite constructors.

A crossword is really the best puzzle form, and I’ve solved a few (esp. those by Emily and Henry) comparable to great songs or short stories for aesthetic enjoyment. Even if they aren’t classics, though, they are nice diversions. I’ve spent weeks on lists of ditloids by Mr. Shortz or other curiosities. But my favorite memory of puzzle solving is probably the silly little cryptoquip 20 years ago with my grandmother.

She was my mom’s mom, and we always called her “Mammaw.” Mammaw had the crossword genes that she passed on to my mom, and then on to me. I remember visiting as a kid, and how Mammaw wouldn’t leave for work until she solved the crossword. She would run late as the week wore on, as the puzzles get harder, but at least she had all day to do Saturdays, which is usually of epic difficulty. She scorned crossword dictionaries as cheating and solved in pen.

By the time I was in college, I was doing the Times crossword too, mostly with a group of friends on campus. When Mammaw came for a couple of weeks, though, we solved them together every morning. Crosswords are easier when you have two minds on them, and while Mammaw caught all the obscure rivers and whatnots, I caught more of the pop culture references. Mammaw wouldn’t have known “Mellencamp, formerly,” was COUGAR or that a TV alien was ALF.

Solving the crossword in double time left ample time for the Cryptoquip. Mammaw had ignored them for decades, having no idea how to turn a nonsensical string of letters into a bad joke. I showed her how… looking for repeats of three-letter strings like XYZ that were almost always THE, and for the letters around apostrophes, which could be ‘S or N’T or occasionally ‘VE. Once you had a few letters, you find patterns that make words, and the whole thing unravels. Like a good golf course, substituion ciphers look hard and play easy.

That was the last time I saw my Mammaw, but she went on solving those Cryptoquips every day along with the crossword puzzle, literally until the day she died. According to my mother, they found her sitting up in her favorite chair, her lap desk out with the puzzle page folded back — and solved, no doubt, in ink.

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