Me, My Mom, and Wordle

I finally found a place where the Venn diagram of our interests overlapped.

Two faces in a Wordle grid
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

Every morning, for as long as I can remember, my mother has done the crossword puzzle, and I have not. It’s not that I’m anti-puzzle. It’s just that crossword puzzles are her thing, not mine, and I, the eldest of her four daughters, have spent the better part of my life defending the border where she ends and I begin.

She called me Debbie. I insisted on Deb. She urged me to go into a safe career with financial stability. I became a war photographer, then a writer. She likes the suburbs. I chose cities. She worked as a homemaker. I work for a paycheck. She stayed married. I got divorced.

You get the picture. I’d been so busy defining myself in opposition to my mother that I never bothered to figure out where our Venn diagram of interests might overlap. Or how my rejection of her habits and beliefs might strangle our adult relationship.

After college, I moved to Paris for work. Then Moscow. This was before cellphones, when long-distance communication was prohibitively expensive, and caves in Afghanistan did not come equipped with pay phones. I did not mind this. My need for independence and my quest for meaningful work overrode my need for roots, Thanksgivings with the family, filial ties of any kind.

Then my father died from pancreatic cancer at 67. It’s not that I’d imagined my parents would live forever, but I did assume they’d live long enough for me to appreciate them in their golden years, after my own kids were grown. Instead, Dad died when my youngest was 2, and soon thereafter I was a solo mother of three with financial woes, one health emergency after the next, and a sudden, sinking feeling that, had I followed my mother’s advice and chosen a more traditional path, my life might have been less stressful.

My mother, I could tell, was unhappy with my choices, even if she never said so outright. She didn’t believe in divorce. She felt hurt by my writing about my life and our family, which I get! I can only imagine if one of my kids ever wrote about the time I screamed at their father for squirting half a lemon into the pan of salmon I was searing without asking whether the recipe called for it—it did not—before I stormed out of the house like a petulant child. (Spoiler alert, kids: It was never about the lemon!) Or the countless times they saw my mother and me having arguments that ended in raised voices and tears. None of us comes out well on the page.

Now my mother is about to turn 80, and I’m old enough to realize that whether she got the daughter she wanted or I got the mother I needed is at this juncture irrelevant. I had to figure out a way to let her know how much I love her, despite our differences, despite anything I’d ever written or said. But how? Years and opportunities were slipping by like sand through the hourglass of that soap opera she used to love when I was little, and I’d lie next to her on her bed, asking one annoying question after the next: Why is she angry at him? Why is he kissing that lady who’s not his wife? She would patiently answer each one, when all she probably wanted was just a quiet moment to herself.

I needed to find the adult equivalent of those soap-opera moments of bonding. Or of that glorious year before puberty stole my brain and compassion, when I took up needlepoint right after Mom did, and we’d sit on the couch in parallel play, each completing one stitch at a time. I had to find a way to meet my mother where she was, not where I wanted her to be.

Enter Wordle.

Like millions of others, I started playing it in January, after reading the story about the man who’d created it for his partner. No, I’m not a puzzle person, but I loved that Wordle stemmed from a love story. I also loved that I could figure out the five-letter word in the time it took to drink my morning coffee. Crossword puzzles are for people like my mother, with more patience and time.

A week or so after discovering Wordle, I drove down from Brooklyn to my childhood home in Potomac, Maryland, to visit Mom with two of my three kids. She’d been isolated and alone throughout much of COVID, so we were making up for lost time. She’d also been Swedish death cleaning the basement as her ninth decade loomed, and she needed our help lugging heavy boxes up the stairs. These boxes were time capsules representing various eras in our lives. Inside: a yellow Walkman, college textbooks, cheerleading letters, bar mitzvah dance-party pins, photos of Halloween pumpkins long past, inkless pens, thick magazines (remember magazines?), and the cartoon greeting cards my dad had designed to earn a little extra cash while he was finishing up law school during my infancy, after turning his back on a career as the artist he might have been had I not been born.

“Do you ever regret that choice?” I asked as he lay dying.

“No,” he said. “Never.” But he also spent the last four months of his life, when he wasn’t undergoing chemo, at his easel, painting.

That first morning in my childhood home, between coffee and cleaning, I spotted Mom, bathed in dawn light, curled up in her usual place in the corner of the living-room couch among pillows we’d needlepointed together, doing her daily crossword. Here, I realized, was an opening: “Have you tried Wordle yet?”

“No,” she said. “What’s Wordle?”

I showed her. The two of us sat side by side, twirling strands of honey-colored hair between the fingers on our right hands—my daughter does this too—solving that first puzzle. The next morning, before leaving to head back to Brooklyn, I did Wordle again with her, only this time she did hers on her computer, and I did mine on my phone, and then we compared answers.

Every day since, though we’d never previously in my adult life been in daily contact, one of us has texted the other at dawn. “3!” Mom will text on a good day. Or I’ll text, “Ugh! I’m already at 5 and can’t figure it out! Help!” When both of us have solved the puzzle, we’ll call each other to compare the paths that got us there.

Sometimes this leads to longer, more intimate conversations: about my frustrations over the boundaries of a new relationship, about her frustrations over the boundaries of time. Twenty-three years separate my mother and me—the exact length of my marriage, which felt like it came and went twice as fast as my first two decades, and half as fast as the fifth and now sixth ones. My youngest is nearly out of the house and spends half the week at his father’s. My middle child is off at med school in Buffalo, sharing a home with the boyfriend she met in the Peace Corps, and my eldest has moved to Istanbul. I’m proud of my children’s independence, but good Lord do I miss them the way I now know my mother must have missed me at their age. When that BeReal notification pops up every day, I am Pavlov’s dog, lapping up the tiniest digital crumbs of their lives.

Mom always begins with adieu, then story—a tactic someone taught her, she can’t remember who—even if adieu provides many green or yellow letters. She’s deliberate about her solutions, plodding, just as she is in life. Her chosen words are calculated text, not inadvertent subtext. Me? I still want that thrill, which I’ve now had 11 times, of solving the puzzle in two tries. So, true to my nature, I always begin with the same word, share—plucked willy-nilly from my subconscious the first time I Wordled, more tell than tactic—followed by intuition and chaotic guesswork.

One recent day, I got khaki in three tries, while it took Mom five. The next, she got poker in four, while it took me five. Tomorrow, she’ll do it her way; I’ll do it mine. Together, sooner or later, we’ll end up in the same place.