“I hate anything with a ‘v’ in it,’’ she says, and I know exactly what she means. Those ‘v’ words can be as tricky as a used car salesman at a Saturday afternoon sale.

There are no words, scrambled or unscrambled, to describe how much I love doing the Daily Jumble with my mother.

For the past two decades whenever I visit my parents overnight it’s become tradition for Mom and me to sit down at the breakfast table with our coffee and, usually, our donuts to race each other to solve the riddle.

With the exception of her sickness a few years ago, Mom has read the morning paper every morning of her life, and if it weren’t for the pandemic this past year, I would have joined her every month or so to read the weekend edition with her and beat her at “the word game,” as we like to call it.

This is no easy feat, considering she’s as sharp as a tack and as itchy on her decoding finger as any crossword or sudoku player I’ve ever met.  

I like coming home, driving the same streets I used to run and bike on, having my kids play on the same fields and playgrounds I used to injure myself on.

Honestly, during the past year, I hadn’t realized how hollow I felt not having this physical center to return to until this morning, when Mom and I finally sat down at the breakfast table again without masks or six feet between us and tackled the backlog of daily jumbles together.

My son Jack wanders into the kitchen from his perch on the couch and without missing a beat tells us, “The first one is dunce.”

“Why Jack,” she cackles. “You’re as quick at this as I am! Stick around and help your mother out.”

He laughs back but keeps moving to the fridge. He knows this is our thing, the thing Meme and I do with each other without fail. Sometimes I win. Sometimes she wins. But we never accept defeat or outside interference unless we’re really stumped.

“Let’s skip the next one and come back to it,” Mom says. “You can see it ends in ‘ly’ or ‘ed,’ but I can’t tell which one yet.”

We sit in silence and stare at the letters trying to make them make sense. When one of us figures it out it’s as good as both of us, but I still love to watch her eyes light up and that 1,000-watt smile spread wide across her cheeks when she beats me to the word. 

I watch her rearrange METIDU until tears cloud my eyes because until this morning, until I sat beside her at the counter I ate every meal of my childhood on, I didn’t know how much I missed this, how much I’ve missed the morning jumble with Mom, how grateful I am that she’s healthy, that she survived her sickness and this horrific year —  that she’s here beside me with her pen poised at the ready to be one second faster than me.

“Tedium,’’ she says. “I think the next one is tedium. I don’t know how to spell it, but how ’bout that? Is it right?”

“My God, you’ve done it again, Ma. We’re ready to solve it!”

This is where I take out all the circled letters and arrange them above the header for the comics. We look at the picture again as I read her the clue and copy the number of letters in each word to the top of the page. Then we each start solving in the margins — she takes the right side and I take the left. 

“Are you cold Emmy?”

“No, Ma I’m good.” 

“Do you want another cup of coffee?”

“Nah, I’m trying to keep it to two.”

We squint and make sounds like, “Mmmmm,” and “Uhhhh,” and “Haaaaaa,” as we do our best unscrambling. I tell her we may have to cheat as I make a motion to get my laptop.

“Don’t bother. I have Saturday’s paper right here,” she smiles. 

She tells me the middle words and says, “We just have to think this one through.” As she refolds the paper, understanding dawns and she gives me the satisfaction of solving the riddle (as I suspect she’s always done.)

We go through jumble after jumble in no time at all and by the bottom of my second cup she says, “Can’t fool you, Emily,” but I know she’ll always be better at this than me and something is oddly reassuring about the fact that I, the high school English teacher and free writer extraordinaire, am once again bested by my retired elementary school teacher mother.

If it came right down to it, I could say that solving the jumble with Mom is a metaphor for life. It’s about how we make meaning out of the meaningless, how we take the seemingly unrelated fragments of our lives and blend them together until they make sense, until we figure things out.

Actually, that’s one of Mom’s favorite sayings, “We’ll figure it out.” She’s told me this every time we’ve come to an impasse either separately or together. At the end of every phone call, heart to heart, or moment when I’m at my wit’s end she tells me, “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.”

And we always do, together.

So here’s one last one for you, Ma.


Easy I know, but you’re a champ. 

You’ll figure it out.