Black-and-white photographs captured Mam best:

Attacking her crossword puzzles with zest.

Later she’d solve them with me on her lap.

She still tells how she’d left one uncompleted


On the chair for just a moment, defeated

By a clue; and when she returned, the gap

Had been filled with the squared-off, tidy scrawl

Of a four year-old. I’d stand, embarrassed-proud,

As every visitor and relative was wowed;

But as my brains slowed down to the sloth’s crawl


Of prodigal and dissolute teenage years,

More and more the story pressed like a weight

Upon my shoulders. How I used to hate

Her telling and retelling it to my peers

And new or potential girlfriends — verbatim!

Pretending to be shrewd and versatile,

I gave up doing crosswords for a while

But never faced her with an ultimatum

To stop recounting it. I must have feared

The best of me belonged with that young child,


That my quota of glory had been piled

High then and spent, and that subsequent years

Were just steps down further into mediocrity.

Visiting her recently in hospital,

I flicked her paper open on the puzzle-

Page and caught anew that monochrome beauty:

The fresh grid’s half-rotational symmetry;

The deafening white noise of near-vacant squares

With tiny numbers in the corners there

Suggesting an exponential difficulty;


And buzzing clues, all vying for attention

Like calves or young chickens in a battery

Or milk and white chocolates in a locked chocolaterie.

Whose pen first would break the high surface tension?

That’s when I saw what the spiel must have meant

For her: beyond maternal pride in a chip

Off the old block, she’d found cryptic comradeship

Startlingly close to home, a square-eyed friend

To help with anagrams and synonyms

In The Guardian, The Independent, The Times.



Sean Ruane