BY CHRISTINA DUKE
LAGO MAR – It wasn’t long after his first day working at Lago Mar Pizza, my family’s restaurant, that I learned that James Duke had the same appreciation that I did for the daily crossword puzzle.
We spent our mid-afternoon breaks hovering over the newspaper, coffee in hand. He didn’t know it, but I looked forward to our much-needed breaks every day I worked with him. They helped develop a friendship that blossomed into a romantic relationship. Now, a couple of years later, we’re happily married with a beautiful one-year-old son.
My affinity for the crossword goes back long before I met James. For years, I sat across from my father, Tony Cabral, in a small booth in our pizzeria, while he did the crossword. I tried as hard as I could to contribute.
It was hard for two reasons. Often, I didn’t understand what kind of answers those tricky crossword puzzles were looking for. And it’s pretty hard to read upside-down.
My father always worked on the crossword with the paper facing him. It became obvious that he wasn’t going to share it with me unless I proved to him that I could actually help. When I had a couple dozen puzzles under my belt, it was time to win his approval.
I remember vividly that I knew I had when he turned the paper so we could read it together. It was finally not just his puzzle, but our puzzle. Within years, it turned into a friendly competition, a race to see who could get to paper first and complete it. The winner would often be determined by who got to the shop first and could hide the puzzle from the other person.
It became a fun and silly game between the two of us. After a while, we figured the fair thing to do was to just fill in half and leave the rest for the other person to complete. Those are some of my fondest memories of my father.
In 2012, he was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. It blindsided my family. We suddenly had no time for puzzles together or any fun, for that matter. I spent most of my time running our restaurant while he went through months of grueling chemotherapy.
It was during this time that James and I became so close. I realize now that being able to do those puzzles again with someone really helped get me through the more difficult days. Six months after the diagnosis, my father was gone.
In a final gesture of gratitude to the man who taught me so much, I brought the crossword from that day to my father’s funeral. I placed it right next to him. It was half complete.
But our family tradition continues, and I look forward to the day that James and I can share it with our son.
Ed. note — Christina and James Duke will contribute occasional original crossword puzzles to the print edition of The Independent News. This column accompanied the first puzzle in print, which is available in the June 5 edition of the paper that is available for free at dozens of locations in southern Virginia Beach.