“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it. – Albert Einstein 

While often exhausted and infuriated, I try not to take for granted all that I have been given the opportunity to do within these hellacious times. This summer, I masked up and fought alongside family and community as we protested against voter obstruction, educational misconduct, sexual assault, and police brutality.  Now as the leaves fall, I teach high school English, coach Varsity Girls’ Volleyball, co-host a podcast, and co-edit a literary magazine.

Some of these roles fit me like my favorite sweater and others I’m breaking into like a new pair of shoes. Still, as my weeks are jammed with missions, obligations, and adventures, I find myself asking, “What do I do to take care of myself”?  Besides the latest Netflix addiction and the occasional Java Chip latte, I’ve leaned towards a newfound love in a passed-down pastime: the Crossword. 

The first time I saw my grandmother, Leila Jean Mills, doing a crossword puzzle, we had just come home from church. It was a pretty pleasant Sunday afternoon: the pastor hadn’t preached too much, the after-service cookies were my favorite (chocolate chip), and best of all, I didn’t have any homework. It meant that my weekend away from my parents would end on a high note, and I’d go back to school full of stories of leisure and love. 

My grandfather, Henry, liked to read the paper. He mostly hit the highlights: the front page, the sports section, and oddly enough, the obituaries. And I, the typical elementary school kid, always reached for the comics, scouring for the newest adventures of Spider-Man or the latest antics of Calvin & Hobbes. However, without fail, my grandmother did three things: put on her glasses, sharpened a pencil, and began the Daily Crossword. 

Alex Mill’s grandmother working on a crossword

She didn’t have any particular process, like some who first complete the Down section and then the Across. Literature, Science,  History, Music, Pop Culture… the boxes contained years, centuries even, of knowledge and humor. She would lean over the paper, skimming over the clues like Scrooge counting his gold, and when she finally found something she knew, she didn’t hesitate to fill in the tiny boxes with the finest of print, smiling to herself as the words soon became an accomplishment. When I had finally gotten down to the bottom of the funnies, where I left Dilbert and Cathy unread, I could see that she had moved onto the Daily Word Search, an activity in which even my first-grade brain could partake. 

“Granny, how did you get so good at this?”  I asked.

“Oh, I just pay attention. When you live this long, you get to learn some things, you know,” she answered. 

That wasn’t a particularly satisfying answer for me back then at the age of nine, but now, days shy of turning 30, and my grandmother, now having reached the impressive age of 99, I completely understand her mindset. It is both an act of grace and defiance that she has not only survived these countless decades, outliving both friend and rival, but that she has maintained most of her independence, especially her mental faculties. While she no longer drives (to her disappointment) and she laments how slow she walks, her brain is still sharp as ever, especially as she completes the activity that reminds her of her wisdom, her patience, and her peace. 

Leila Jean (Granny), Alex Mills at about 9 or 10, and her Aunt Karen, her granny’s second youngest daughter. 

I’m blessed to have acquired such skill as well. Words bring me comfort in all sorts of ways— books in both printed and audio form, subtitles as I watch anime, and unraveling anagrams and recalling facts of one of my favorite shows, Jeopardy. Still, when the nights are quiet and my to-do list is low, I take on a new task: completing the  New York Times Crossword app. A completely millennial take on the concept, the app has both enhanced and crippled the good ole fashioned newspaper. I admit, it allows cheats that I sometimes use on the hardest clues, but I show myself grace in understanding that for me it is about learning, while for my grandmother, it’s about remembering. 

Though nowhere close to her age, I too have lived. I’ve traveled, earned a couple of degrees, acquired and lost lovers and friends, and have had to change priorities and perspectives. My awareness as a Black woman is cultivated by education and relationships that have fortified me for the hurdles of surviving and thriving in these unbalanced economic and political times. With all that’s happening,  I am comforted by the small fact that the Matriarch of my family is still here to impart with me big ideas and small bites of wisdom. Though sometimes stubborn and bossy, she helps me maintain that my mind is my own, and to take care of it means to pursue knowledge with the best of intentions. 

On Sunday evenings, the one day a week I’m officially tapped amongst my family members to spend the night with Granny, I find solace in that wisdom. The small cups of coffee over the evening news, her glancing over my shoulder as my fingers clack against computer keys. She’ll ask me how’s work, how’s my health, how am I keeping sane amongst all that is happening in the world. She putts around with a cane, doing small chores as she recaps the last thing she saw on television to me (usually a western or a particularly intriguing category on Jeopardy). I often ask her about current events, moreso to gage how she’s feeling about living through yet another piece of society, where she will either smile (good event), shrug her shoulders (nonchalance), or sigh (sad event). 

No matter what, we end up at the kitchen table, newspapers open, pencils sharpened. I am here to learn and she always remembers. 

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