I took a seat at the breakfast table on Monday morning, pen and newspaper in hand. My grandmother barked, “You’ll need a pencil for that,” and she slid a yellow Eagle brand no. 2 across the cigarette smoke-filled expanse between us. I knew she was right, but I pretended not to see the pencil. Purple ink was much more exciting, and I would mark lightly. We worked mostly in silence—she on the cryptoquote and I on the crossword, while my grandfather read the obituaries. I sipped black coffee as my eyes scanned the puzzle. At ten years of age, I was already an old soul.
This was my first day back on my summer routine after 4th grade, and it was the first time my grandmother had let me work the crossword by myself. I felt such satisfaction as the horizontal intersected the vertical with perfect harmony, filling the final empty squares. By the end of it, my fingers were covered in newspaper ink and purple marks. I washed my hands, made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and joined my sister in the living room to watch Nickelodeon while One Life to Live, Jeopardy, and Oprah blared from the kitchen television facing the breakfast table. I would check my answers with the next day’s paper.
Tuesday arrived like judgment day, and with it, a new paper. When my mom dropped us off before work, my grandmother already had the newspaper opened up to the crossword answer key, and yesterday’s puzzle was beside it. She even had my coffee there, cooling to a palatable temperature for a ten-year-old. I remember thinking that this was the nicest thing she had ever done for me. I glanced at the key, and my eyebrows rose as my heart sank. One early false assumption had ruined so much of my puzzle. The letters fit together perfectly—but they were wrong. Incorrect, yet indelibly marked in purple ink. My face said it all.
“Didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, I guess.” My grandmother looked entertained by my misery. “Maybe next time you’ll use that pencil.” I showed her my first mistake—the one that gave birth to all others. “I might have put the same answer there,” she offered, “although I would have put it in pencil!” She studied the puzzle for a few more minutes. “Where on earth did you come up with your answer for 6 Down?” she asked disdainfully. I had known she would ask about that one. “Well, I had the E, A, and S from 3, 5, and 8 across. It seemed like the only word that made sense,” I answered, feeling heat rise in my cheeks. “Yeah, but don’t you think it was a stretch? You were just trying to make it fit.” Again, I knew she was right. I surrendered. “I’ll use a pencil next time,” I mumbled as I left the table and joined my sister in the living room. I didn’t feel like doing the crossword puzzle that day.
To this day, I have never done a crossword puzzle in pen. The buildup of eraser dust on a surface where I’ve been working on one is a perfect reminder that I never should. Recently, I’ve started to consider how my grandmother’s advice applies to other areas of my life. Where else have I made permanent marks that I should have only penciled in? What false assumptions color my thoughts, decisions, and the beliefs that I build my life upon? What answers have I accepted simply because they fit a framework that may have been faulty from the beginning? Today, I’m giving up purple ink and accepting the inevitability of eraser dust that accompanies the honest examination of my beliefs. I’m trading dogmatism for a humble, penciled-in “I don’t know.” I seek answers backed by evidence, not answers that comfortably fit with the ones my parents or teachers or friends gave me—answers that may not be correct in the first place.
I’m scrapping the whole thing, pouring myself a fresh cup of coffee, and starting over. I’m okay with unoccupied squares. I’m okay with eraser dust.