CROSSWORDS by Leslie Chess Feller

“Of course, you do it in ink! That’s the only way to do a crossword puzzle,” my father snapped. “I didn’t raise you to be stupid!” At fifty-eight, I was suddenly ten years old again, a nervous little girl caught making yet another mistake. At ninety, Dad was physically frail, but his temper had not mellowed with the years. Growing up, I was often afraid of him. The second of five siblings, I learned early to hide.

Dad was a physician whose office was in our Brooklyn home. He relaxed every Sunday afternoon by doing The New York Times crossword puzzle – in ink. Opening the Magazine section, he would remove the puzzle page, attach it to a clipboard and retire to his consulting room. After adjusting the extra-long green plastic visor of his favorite cap, he would take his black Waterman fountain pen from its velvet case, unscrew the top, then carefully reattach it to the other end. I used to watch from a safe distance as the golden nib steadily filled in the squares. It never took Dad more than forty-five minutes to finish a puzzle.

“What’s a five letter word for bicker? What do you mean you don’t know?” he said, the one time I ventured into his consulting room while he was engrossed in the puzzle. Sitting behind a huge mahogany desk, he called, “Come on! Bicker! You kids do it all the time!” I stood there, scared speechless. “Argue!” he said. “It’s obvious! How could you miss an easy one like that?”

When Dad retired, my mother, a psychologist and crossword neophyte, suggested he teach her to do the puzzle. It became their weekly “date”; Dad was the acknowledged expert, Mom, the brilliant student. Word play, rife with double entendres, included frequent delighted exclamations of “Yussel!” – our mother’s pet name for our father with whom she’d fallen in love when she was fourteen.

When Mom died Dad lost interest in doing the crossword puzzle. “I liked doing it with your mother,” he said. “What do I need it for now? I’ve done a million of them.” Soon, impaired vision made reading the clues too much of an effort; his right hand, paralyzed by a small stroke, could no longer form letters.

He was a physician incessantly diagnosing himself. New symptoms, all ominous, were his sole topic of conversation. “You’re not a real doctor,” he told his eldest son, a retinal surgeon. “How dare you tell me what medications I should take?” Living in my brother’s home, he was either silent or sarcastic.

One day, dreading my weekly visit, I wandered through a bookstore, searching for something to distract him, anything to turn off the torrent of complaints. A collection of crossword puzzles caught my eye; the first was called “Dubious Diagnoses.” I hoped he’d find the title irresistible.

I arrived prepared. The night before, for the first time in my life, I’d attempted to do a puzzle. After two hours, I’d completed only half of the upper right hand quadrant. I’d been tempted to take a peek at the answers, but didn’t. Dad hated a cheater.

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Leslie Chess Feller was a published poet before she became a freelance journalist. She says, “Assignments for local newspapers and magazines led to articles for The New York Times and book reviews for The New York Times Book Review. I’ve critiqued memoirs by Carol Channing, Judy Collins, Marsha Mason, Bill Hanna, the “original” Lone Ranger Clayton Moore and June Juanico, Elvis Presley’s high school sweetheart. I’ve written features and essays for Good Housekeeping, Family Circle and More Magazine as well as for regional magazines.”

“Crosswords is a true story, one which illuminates my very complex relationship with my father. Born in 1945, I am second eldest of five siblings. My father was a difficult man, but he gave me a gift that has defined and enriched my life. He introduced me, by example, to the joy of wordplay.”

“Dad loved the clever whimsy of the poet Ogden Nash; he wrote light verse to my mother who replied with poems of her own. As soon as we learned to write, my sister, three younger brothers and I began to rhyme. You could say anything to anybody, even my very strict parents, if you did it with a poem. Birthdays and special occasions soon became exuberant poetic roasts with plenty of reason to read between the rhymes.

“In April, 1984, my first New York Times byline did what, until then, had always seemed impossible. It earned me my father’s respect. Ten years later, after Mom died, I began to share articles-in-progress with him. I wasn’t surprised to discover Dad was an excellent editor. One day, he showed me a folder of essays he’d written as a young physician. “Could these be published?” he asked. It was a shock to realize his writer’s voice was my own. Okay, it was a very early version of my voice, a bit over-written, but that was easily corrected.

My edit of the first essay made things perfectly clear. “Anyone who would change a punctuation mark in this piece obviously does not know how to write!” my father bellowed. Holding my breath, I waited for the sky to fall. When it did not, we resumed the roles he would allow. I was the writer whose words were to be edited; he was my editor-in-chief. Because he liked what I produced, “making it better” was a process we both thoroughly enjoyed and woe to any other editor who dared to tamper with a Joseph Chess approved final draft!

Crosswords focuses on my father’s very frustrating final years. By then, our editing afternoons were a thing of the past. His interest had deteriorated along with his health. He’d even stopped doing the Sunday Crossword, once a forty-five minute weekly ritual. Asking for help with a puzzle was my desperate attempt to find a way for us to spend pleasant time together. The ruse would succeed beyond my wildest expectations.

Dad would have liked the eventual essay, I think. And he would have been really pleased to have it selected as a winner in the Westport Arts Center memoir competition.

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