Clues and Answers
Some time ago, my father called me up and requested that I do something I couldn’t decline. My grandma was dying from lung cancer in Florida and my dad asked that I go down and pay my final respects. I’d never been all that close to Dottie, but she was my grandmother, and I felt both obligated and a bit curious as to what we all might say to each other. So I went.
I arrived at their house in Florida, along with my brother and dad, and entered what typically might be called a parlor, if my grandparents had been typical grandparents. But they weren’t. They had spent much of their lives traveling and living in various parts of Asia, and the dim cool room in which my grandma sat was filled with Buddhist artifacts. Teak dressers, and framed kimonos. In the middle of the room sat Dottie, presided over by my stoic, intensely private and loyal grandfather. Her legs were covered in a quilt and she was surrounded by what I will always equate my grandma with- copious amounts of books, mostly large print. We all exchanged pleasantries and sipped coffee and took turns trying to escape from the horrible discomfort the situation presented.
Not more than half an hour went by and we were getting ready to leave. It was then that my grandma surprised us all. It was if she had had enough of the trivial chitchat and was ready to address the issue of why we were stuttering amongst ourselves. Saving us all from our awkwardness, she leaned forward, looked at us squarely in our eyes and asked, “Does anyone want to know my final wish before I die?”
And there it was. The word death had been spoken, let out of its cage to run loose around the room. The relief was so great because I immediately had a task to accomplish. Not only might I possibly learn from her the greatest regret that she waited until her death to confess to, but perhaps I could even fulfill her final dying wish. I would be free from feeling so useless standing before this woman who only wanted one thing. I could be her savior.
My grandma picked up the daily crossword puzzle from the table next to her- the crossword puzzle that she had religiously completed every morning of her life. She proclaimed to us all with a sneer that the current editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, Mr. Will Shortz, in her opinion, couldn’t edit his way out of a paper bag. And that her wish, her final desire, was for the previous editor, the ball-busting esoteric granddaddy of all crosswords, Mr. Eugene Maleska-- that Eugene would resume his position as editor due to Will Shortz’s incompetence.
Now I ask you, what the hell kind of last wish is that? Even I, a bona fide word geek who would rather read the dictionary than have sex some nights, even I wouldn’t squander my last wish on something consisting of patterned number squares and corresponding word clues. I mean, what’s the sense in that? Why not wish for a trip to the Alps, or make a pilgrimage to your ancestral homeland, or hell, ask to shoot a bear like that kid with cancer did through the Make A Wish foundation? And what’s more, I ask any of you puzzlers, is there that much of a difference between editors? After all, everyone knows that a Sicilian spewer is Etna, that Nick and Nora’s dog is Asta, and that butter substitute is oleo. And Napoleon’s isle of exile is and always will be Elba. So what’s the big deal?
Honestly, when I think back now as to why my Grandma asked for such a surprising, random wish- why she really wanted Eugene Maleska back at his post as the editor, I can only answer that it’s because she was used to the guy. I guess when one is in the final stages of life, or death, confronting the end and not knowing what is going to happen, it’s not so crazy to want to do a puzzle that you know well, that you’ve become used to over the years, that offers clues and hints that are certain and known and leave absolutely no room for any more questions.
But my grandmother should have known that Eugene Maleska dies back in 1991. All of the geeky old-timer addicts know that! Just as I knew that day in my grandma’s living room that I wasn’t going to be anyone’s hero.