Arthur Wynn is credited with inventing the crossword puzzle, but without Grandmar, as my mom and her siblings called their grandmother, it would not be the game it is today. First as Wynn’s assistant at New York World, and later at the New York Times, where she was the puzzle editor from 1942 to 1969, Margaret Farrar shaped and codified the puzzle. Not only did she make sure crossword puzzles actually worked (which wasn’t always the case in the early World years), she was responsible for grounding the white letter spaces in a grid of black squares, giving the puzzle its iconic look.
Words were central to my great-grandmother’s life and work, a fact that was imprinted on her dictionary—the desk copy she used daily, not one of the more flashy volumes she owned. Notes were written next to nearly every word, and the fore edge was dipped and rolled, worn down by years of her hands paging through it, flipping to check a printed definition or a penciled-in addendum. After Margaret Farrar died in 1984, her Manhattan apartment was emptied out, and my grandmother ended up with one of her mom’s dictionaries.
Granny A could find a bit of her mother in the pages of nearly every single daily newspaper in the country too—but she never found solace in doing crosswords. Touching the dictionary was like touching her mother’s hand. Struggling to finish a crossword, though, brought back her mother’s voice, telling her how dumb she was.
Granny A gave me countless books over the years: hardcover editions of forgotten best sellers, lesser collections of poetry by formerly famous poets, collections of Paris Review interviews, and books on the business of books from a more golden era of publishing. Nearly all of these titles had some connection to her father, the publisher and editor John Farrar, who started the publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux with Roger Straus in 1946. They were books published by him, inscribed to him, or featuring essays by him or interviews with him. Throughout my life as an aspiring writer, a failing independent publisher, and ultimately a journalist with a vague notion of someday writing a book about him, these bits of Farrar ephemera were a treasure trove to me—and an intimate connection between grandmother and grandson.
Until his retirement in the late 1970s, whenever my great grandfather put out new books that he thought Granny A or her six children would enjoy, he would send copies from New York to Palo Alto, where she lived, and where they would be proudly displayed on the coffee table. That would have included, in 1962, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which Farrar acquired after the manuscript had been famously rejected by 26 other publishers. Granny A was still married then, still just 33 years old, and she and my grandfather lived with their growing brood of boys and my then-nine-year-old mom in an airy redwood-and-glass Eichler home in a curving Palo Alto cul-de-sac, a neighborhood that, depending on your perspective, looked like the brightest American future or just a bit like L’Engle’s fictional Camazotz.
Partly because it’s children’s literature, and partly because it’s a classic, A Wrinkle in Time provided my first connection to my great-grandfather. It was through my mom reading L’Engle to me at around eight years old, and telling me the story of its publication, that John Farrar became someone worth knowing about. To see a book that I loved with a name that I shared printed on it elicited a kind of pride, but it was also the first time that I realized that books—writing them, editing them, publishing them—was not only a vocation, but one that I was connected to.
I recently read A Wrinkle in Time to Story, my five-year-old daughter, and it had been well over 20 years since I revisited the book. My memory of it was based more in feeling than anything else: I recalled the warm, rambling house and the woodsy New England setting. The precociousness of Charles Wallace, and the shimmering and darkness of a tesseract. I remembered that Meg’s father was missing, but the process by which he is found was a bit lost to me. I did not remember Meg’s indignant anger, which reminds me of my daughter’s own fierceness (and stubbornness), and perhaps reminded Granny A of her own young daughter too. I did not remember Calvin telling Meg she had dreamboat eyes—an indelible moment in the book for some friends who read it as young girls.
When I showed Story the name Farrar on the title page and explained her great-great-grandfather’s hand in publishing the book, she had an understandably confused response: “He wrote the book?” She was vaguely intrigued, but mainly she wanted to read.
Later, when my mom recounted the family history to her, Story was less patient: “Yeah, yeah, I heard about that.”
There’s a graveyard near my daughter’s school, and occasionally when we drive past, Story will ask if we can go see Granny A’s grave, or why she isn’t buried right here in Maine—a state I am not sure if she ever visited in her lifetime. (She was cremated, and her ashes aren’t really in any one place.) Her Granny A was the first person that Story knew who is now dead. Sometimes, she’s sad about Granny A not being here anymore, and other times she’s incredibly matter-of-fact, such as when she was counting all of the people in our family and, when she got to Granny A, said, “But she’s dead so she doesn’t count anymore.” Once, when my mom tried to convince her that Granny A was now an angel, Story turned to me and whispered, “I don’t believe in angels.” But occasionally she will still ask if we can call Granny A, insisting that, in death, she is now simply a skeleton with a cell phone.
My grandmother sometimes haunts me in small, modern ways: Her emails from years ago about mundane things—typos in my stories, the comings and goings of family, discussions of movies—pop up when I search my inbox. There are times when I long to be able to talk to her on the phone, as I did during the hour-long commute I had for years in LA. I felt it acutely the morning Story came into our room and woke me up by saying, “I want to read more A Wrinkle in Time.”
I couldn’t call Granny A, of course, but reading the book made me feel as close to her as I have since she passed. In the book, long before Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace and Mr. Wallace tesser back into the twins’ broccoli patch, mere minutes after they left earth, Mrs. Who explains that you can tesser through time as well as space. Crossing the universe IRL may be a tall order, but the deceptively simple act of reading can function like a time tesser, pulling you back to the people who first read a book to you, whom you bonded with over it—even to the person who pulled it out of the slush pile. Just as touching the fore edge of that dictionary was a way for Granny A to touch her mother’s hand decades after her death, reading these words to Story—words that are wrapped up in our family and in our friendship and in the love of books that Granny A influenced when I was young and that we shared when I was grown—feels like a way of wrinkling back through time to be with her again.
As I was reading to Story that morning and found my voice catching, I realized that, like her mom’s dictionary, the book is itself a means of being with Granny A, of pulling two points on the line of time toward each other—one before her death, one after—and creating a wrinkle where they briefly touch one another.
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