A Creative Non-Fiction Piece by Lorna Wood : “House of Words”

House of Words

“I don’t understand it. This has to be ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips,’” Mom complained.
	“Do you want me to have a look?” Dad asked mildly, raising his head from the arts news.
	“No,” Mom said. “I’m doing just fine.” 
	A composer, Dad lived in his own sanctum of music, but his second love was language. Each week, he efficiently completed the acrostic, diagramless, or puns and anagrams puzzle, perhaps aided by his habit of completing twelve-tone matrices and writing fugues. Mom claimed the crossword as her territory.
	I was eager to help and earn her approval. “Can I try? Please let me look.”
	“All right,” Mom said, grudgingly. “But don’t get frustrated. This is hard even for grown-ups. And don’t put anything in unless you’re absolutely sure. This is pen. You can’t erase it.”
	I nodded solemnly. There was no use arguing about the practicality of pencil, and anyway I agreed with Mom that pencil was the coward’s way.
	I sat next to her on the sofa, and we put our heads together. “‘Tim’s tune,’” I mused, reading the clue. “Who’s Tim?”
	Mom explained over Dad’s disgusted noise. He was not a fan.
	There was no way around it. Not only was “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” Tiny Tim’s chief claim to fame, downward answers definitively established that “ipoe,” which suspiciously resembled “Tiptoe,” was part of the answer.
	At this point I had a hunch and began solving more intersecting downward clues to confirm it. When I had “heulip” near the end, I counted on my fingers and said, “If you left out the t’s it would fit.”
	Mom quickly counted on her fingers. “Lorna, you’re a genius!” She gaped at me in astonishment as I proudly filled in the letters. Then, groaning, she pointed to the puzzle’s title. “‘Strip Tees.’ I should have known. Though I am a little relieved. I thought this might not be suitable for children.”

	For a little over a year, when I was eleven to twelve, Mom and I worked the Times puzzle every Sunday. It was a break from my heavily scheduled weekdays and a time to bond with her. My linguistic skills always made her proud. When we were stumped by a few empty squares at the end of our labors, Dad was allowed to fill them in. The finished product seemed a testament to family unity.
 	In hindsight, though, I believe the crossword was something else for Mom, part of a multi-pronged linguistic defense against chaos. This battle had begun early. She is two in the earliest episode of abuse she recorded. Around that time, according to her, she taught herself to read, and her scribblings on the witch’s picture in The Wizard of Oz suggest that she knew what the story was about, mulled it over, and saw in the melting witch a hope of relief by the time she was four. At seven, she was sneaking into the fourth-grade library at her Catholic school to read Nancy Drew mysteries. 
	As an adult, she continued to love mysteries, and in her work as an art historian, she tried to solve them: her articles include a reconstruction of the Mycerinus Triad sculptures and an identification of the sitter in Jan van Eyck’s Timotheus. Language seemed an ordering force in opposition to the agony of her childhood and adolescence. The mini-mysteries of the crossword clues, culminating in the orderly patchwork of a completed puzzle, were part of this bulwark against the lingering effects of abuse and her fear that she, like her mother, would develop paranoid schizophrenia.
	Parenting was perhaps the biggest mystery of all for Mom. She pored over Dr. Spock, especially in moments of doubt, and she built me a house of words of my own. When I was three, our TV broke, and she did not replace it. She read to me daily and taught me to read when I asked. She made sure I got scholarships to good schools. When my father had a sabbatical, she enrolled me in a French public school, so I learned French. On long car trips we played “ghost,” a game where players must try to add letters to a word without finishing it. And she and my father read The New Yorker to one another daily, explaining the parts I asked about as best they could. The crossword was another logical extension of her view that words would help me find sound answers to life’s mysteries.   

	Dad also had a serious reason to cling to his words. When Mom and I began to work the crossword, he had recently developed a form of epilepsy in which he would lose the ability to speak for a few minutes. Dad avoided expressing his feelings about this directly. We did not even know about his seizures until he had one in front of Mom, months after they began. But in much later life, when Dad was beginning to develop vascular dementia from years of smoking, he, like Mom, clung to puzzle books and mysteries, trying to forestall the loss of language. Looking back, it seems likely the Times puzzles were an important defense for him as well. 
	Later, when explaining about his epilepsy, Dad would smile with one side of his mouth. “The doctor said I had a scar on my brain caused by a blow to the head. And I think that blow came from a little slipper.” Still smiling, he would lightly hit the side of his head lightly with his hand. The “little slipper” was a high-heeled shoe, wielded by Mom in one of her uncontrollable rages. 	
	A few years ago, I came across a letter in which Mom told a friend during the summer before the crossword time that she was going to rededicate herself to being a good wife and mother. She knew. She fought the madness, tried to work out the puzzle. Still, her rages taught me words I wasn’t allowed to use, words that were weapons. I felt my house of words was a dangerous, unreliable structure. As I finished sixth grade, Mom gradually stopped talking to Dad, except to voice groundless suspicions about his fidelity. In seventh grade, she left, taking a job out of state. The Times didn’t come anymore. New Yorker magazines piled up on tables. 
	When I was in high school, my parents divorced, and while I was in grad school, Mom developed late-onset paranoid schizophrenia. Under its influence, she wrote compulsively, going over her past, apparently to find the seeds of her illness in episodes of abuse and injury, and often beginning fictional mysteries, though she was never able to get far. 

	The cooperative quilt of the Sunday Times crossword was not an effective shield for our family, and, as every good mystery shows, violence and fear cannot be put to rest by a detective’s quick explanations at the end. While I still enjoy a good crossword puzzle, I do not believe solving verbal clues can construct a barrier against chaos and violence. 
	I do believe it is helpful to puzzle over the clues of our own history and use them to guide our decision-making. The answers to clues like “effects of childhood trauma” or “secrets of a healthy marriage” can’t be written in pen in little squares over a Sunday afternoon; they require long study and much revision. Still, the work of mapping what happened to my family of origin and what it means for me, my husband, and my children is analogous to solving those punning, mysterious clues to the long answers in the Sunday Times crossword. Both require cultural knowledge, verbal skills, a sense of humor, and the love and support of a dedicated mentor. All this Mom conveyed to me, and I am grateful.

Bio: Lorna Wood is a violinist and writer in Auburn, Alabama. Her poetry is forthcoming in 2% Milk and has appeared in Before I Turn Into Gold (David L O’Nan, editor), Angel Rust (Best of the Net nominee) and Poetry South (Pushcart nominee), among others. Her fiction has appeared in Doubleback Review (Pushcart nominee) and on the Litro [USA] Lab and NoSleep Podcasts. Her creative nonfiction recently appeared in Feed, and her most recent scholarly essay is in The Palgrave Handbook of Affect Studies and Textual Criticism. Find out more at https://www.amazon.com/author/lornawood or from her blog, Word Music, here: https://lornawoodauthor.wordpress.com.

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By davidlonan1

David writes poetry, short stories, and writings that'll make you think or laugh, provoking you to examine images in your mind. To submit poetry, photography, art, please send to feversofthemind@gmail.com. Twitter: @davidLOnan1 + @feversof Facebook: DavidLONan1

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