When my Mom and Dad were married, they didn’t do puzzles, play board games, or have much consistent fun. They sometimes played cards, but their banter always seemed mean-spirited. Life with them as parents tended to be grim, serious, and full of arguments, dark looks, fights, and lots of other gray, gritty stuff. Two years after my parents’ divorce, my Dad married my step mom.
I was twelve, afraid of, or mad at, (or both) pretty much everything. That included Ellen, my new step mom. I was afraid she’d be mean to me or resent me or eat up all my weekend time with my Dad, which was the one bright light in my life in those days. She didn’t. She taught me how to do things as a family instead, something that was completely new to me.
I remember the first weekend I spent with Dad and Ellen. Sunday rolled around. I got up and grumpily wandered around, wondering if I was supposed to fix my own breakfast or what, since neither of them was up. I moodily sat on the couch, feeling sorry for myself. My Dad wandered past in his bathrobe, got the paper, and went back into the bedroom. I was kind of ticked, which doesn’t take much for an already moody twelve-year-old, and I figured that, by gum, I’d just go knock on their door and ask for the comics.
Their bedroom door was open, they were both decent in modest nightclothes (so much for my Mom’s ranting about sirens and houris and man-stealing sluts, but she was kind of a loon anyway), and they were sharing the newspaper and talking. They invited me in with smiles, their hair all disarranged and their faces still sleep-creased. This was new to me; it felt intimate and different.
I edged in, wary as a wild cat, and asked for the comics, ready to bolt at any second. My Dad peered over his half-glasses and his paper and said, “Sit down, you can read in here with us.” I sat on about 2 inches of bed, reached carefully for the comics, still ready to run hell for leather, just in case.
My step mom finished with her section of the paper, declaring, “Geez, some people are complete NUTS,” and looked at me and said, “I just can’t believe the things these celebrities get up to. Do you want to look at this section?” She handed me the features section, very matter-of-factly, and started rooting through the rest of the paper.
“Where’s the crossword puzzle?” she asked. “I like the Sunday crosswords because they’re harder,” she told me. Dad rummaged through the paper, too, they found the section with the puzzle in it, and she folded the paper, took out a pen (a PEN!) and started to work. I could barely concentrate on Snoopy or Prince Valiant or B.C. in my comics because this was all brand new behavior to me. It was so… nice.
“Hey,” said Ellen in her legal secretary’s voice, “do you happen to know what a 6 letter word for rotten is?”
“Are you asking me?” my Dad asked.
“Anyone,” said Ellen.
This was the moment I had been dreading. I thought, if I can’t come up with the answer, I will feel stupid and they’ll be disgusted with me and things could get ugly. I started to inch off the bed.
“Putrid,” said my Dad.
“Oh, that fits,” said Ellen, and she scratched it in. I stopped inching away. I read some more comics, feeling more at ease. My Dad mumbled stuff about whatever he was reading, Ellen would occasionally blurt out, “Oh, it can’t be, that’s just DUMB,” at her crossword puzzle, or ask if we could think of a word that fit. It was easy, it was intimate family time, and I began to relax. Ellen got fed up with lying in bed, handed the puzzle off to Dad, and she went off to make breakfast.
“That was nice,” I said to Dad as he studied the puzzle.
“She’s a nice lady, BoS,” said Dad, “I have a lot of fun spending time with her, and I think you will, too.”
He was right. I treasured those Sunday mornings with the three of us lounging around in our nightclothes on their big, king-sized bed, the newspaper spread all over the place. Over the years we talked about a million things, laughed, poked fun at each other and at life, and shared many thoughts as well as space and time. Dad and I were always impressed by Ellen’s knowledge of arcane or bizarre words. She would tell me bits about her first marriage, or about when her son was a little boy. I told them both about school things, Dad would share funny things about events at work. Ellen always had first dibs on the crossword puzzle, which she always did in pen, declaring jokingly that people who did them in pencil were amateurs.
I didn’t realize how much those Sunday mornings meant to me until I went off to college. Those, and Ellen’s chili, were things I longed for every weekend I was away and even after I got married. My husband is not much for newspapers or crossword puzzles, so I kind of drifted away from the particulars of that experience over the years until a few years ago.
Ellen died in November of 2001, and the first thing I did was buy a crossword puzzle book, the day after the funeral. I sat at the dining room table early the next morning, filling in blanks, in pen, crying and missing her terribly. By the time the kids got up, I was done crying but I was still working puzzles. My daughter asked, “What are you doing, Mom?” I looked at her, then 11 years old, and so much like me at that age, and I smiled. “A crossword puzzle. Ellen used to do them all the time. … Do you know who Jacob’s eighth son was?”
“Nooooo,” she answered, giving me the “you’re such a goof” look, “but I can give you a big hug!” And she did.
We have a five-year old ritual now, where one of the kids brings in the local paper, we share it around the dining room table before dinner, and I get first dibs on the crossword. I do it in pen because people who do it in pencil, well, they’re amateurs. The kids think my vocabulary is amazing.
I miss you, Ellen, and thank you so much for everything.