On the day after Christmas, my mom and I trekked to one of the local department stores for the deep discounts on holiday items like wrapping paper and greeting cards. As we maneuvered our cart through the aisles crowded with other bargain hunters, I spotted a selection of boxed jigsaw puzzles, their prices also marked down.
“Look at these puzzles,” I said to my mom, pointing to the boxes with colorful pictures on them. “I think I’m going to get one. I haven’t worked a jigsaw puzzle in years.”
When I was a child, my mom often set up the card table in the living room during the winter and laid out the pieces of a 500-piece or 1,000-piece puzzle for us to work together as a family. Just last year for her birthday, I bought her a puzzle with a picture of Elvis Presley on it. And within days, the card table appeared again. Each time I visited over the course of a couple of months, I saw Elvis emerging from the cardboard pieces.
The selection of puzzles was picked over as other shoppers grabbed their favorites, but soon I settled on a seaside painting stamped on the jig-sawed cardboard. Three dollars would be a cheap way to carry on a family tradition.
A week later, as I was taking down my Christmas tree, I thought of the jigsaw puzzle that had been schlepped away in the closet along with the board games and decks of cards. As I looked around the living room, I saw no obvious place for the card table, so I rearranged the furniture, dragging the couch against the wall, moving the recliner in front of the window, and creating a space next to the television large enough for the folding table and a couple of chairs.
The next weekend, as I was preparing the house for my younger sister, Sky, to move in for three months while she works at an internship, I finally pulled out the card table and opened up the puzzle. After laying all the pieces flat and sorting out the ones with the straight edges, I managed to piece together the border.
Fitting together a jigsaw puzzle, especially one with 750 pieces, doesn’t happen in a day, or even a weekend, for me. My eyes strain from searching for subtle color differences or matching shapes, and my back begins to hurt from leaning over to find the perfect piece. I could sit in the chair, but sometimes I get too eager and find myself hunching again.
Sky found her way to the puzzle, too, drawn in by the possibility, no doubt. She will stay with me until the end of March, not that the puzzle has to be completed by then.
Every few days, I sit down in front of the puzzle, trying to piece together another little part of the picture. At this point, with just a few little sections completed, I can’t even imagine the day when this will be a fully formed picture. Each time I hold a grooved piece in my hand, it seems impossible that I will find a place where it fits. It’s going to take so long, I think.
But working a puzzle requires a strategy, demands a slowing down, and requires a different way of seeing. No longer do I look for clouds or boats. Instead, I look for blues and oranges; I notice the curve of the tabs and blanks. When I sit down, all the pieces look the same. If I linger, I see 750 unique shapes and colors, all connected to each other in a way I intend to discover.
Today, I found all the pieces with bright green on them and recreated the windows on the café. The white and blue pieces are sorted in a pile, waiting to be made into sky, and the multicolored pieces will eventually become flower boxes.
I could sit only about 20 minutes before I felt the familiar ache in my back and tiredness in my eyes. But I am amazed at what I have accomplished in such a short period. I’m smiling to myself as I stand up, push the chair under the table, and walk away.
We will finish the puzzle, I realize, if we just keep showing up. It’s only a matter of time.