I did something the other day I haven’t done in a long, long time. It’s something my parents were aces at, and a lot of my extended family, too. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it supplies a great feeling of accomplishment when you’re done. Why, even children do it.
I’m talking about putting a jigsaw puzzle together. You know, that homey, cozy pastime families used to settle into when they got together over the summer at the lake, or in front of a crackling fire after Thanksgiving dinner. My parents were so good, they started buying round puzzles. Me, I helped out when I could, but found it challenging enough to find the blue mitten that lay in the snow right in front of the dark green bush. Very satisfying, though, to snap that piece decisively into its intended slot.
My husband, Bob, and I were visiting friends when an intriguing box called out to me from their living-room bookcase. Noticing our interest in the all-wood jigsaw made in the U.S.A. (Boulder, Colorado, not far from my one-time home in Brighton), they pointed out that some of the pieces were cut into shapes you’ve never seen in a puzzle, unless you’ve tackled one of these special Liberty puzzles before. In this box lurked a piece in the shape of a crab. A camel. A pig. An eagle with wings outstretched. Somehow, these fit into the picture, their odd shapes disappearing as they became part of the whole.
I was intrigued, and gladly took it home when our friends urged us to take it and have fun.
We took it. I’m not sure I would call our experience with the puzzle “fun,” but it was engaging. Addicting, even.
It’s not like we’re neophytes. Each of us has put puzzles, lots of puzzles, together before. A thousand pieces? No problem! How about 2500? A puzzle of a snow-covered mountain towering majestically above a snow-covered valley, dotted with cottages whose thatched roofs are all blanketed in, you guessed it, more snow? Been there, done that, although my family looked in awe upon the round, all-white puzzle my Uncle Bob and Aunt Louise assembled. Whoa.
This small, lovely scene of a many-colored prairie below a blue sky was a baby compared with those. With only 255 pieces, taking up just 12.75 by 8.5 inches of table space, how hard could it be? We would surely toss it together in a snap.
As anyone who has put a jigsaw puzzle together knows, the easy part is the beginning. Dump out the pieces, turn them right-side up, and separate the wheat from the chaff – the straight border edges from the many-sided ones destined for the center.
I have to tell you, even when we finally had the border almost done – and this was the next night, not the first – there were pieces missing. But our friends – our dear, close friends – had assured us we were playing with a full deck. Since when, for example, is it fair to include a border piece no wider than a fingernail?
Then there were the animal-shaped pieces. The open-clawed crab. The otter standing upright with her long, skinny tail behind. The wolf, his mouth gaping mid-howl. Have I mentioned the lobster, with its two sharp claws? Surely it would be a piece of cake to find something to fit into those little open spaces. It might be a piece of cake, but locating the matching pieces was a bit less sweet. Not only that, but we knew – we just knew – that not many of those animal-shaped pieces would slide into their places standing upright. Oh, no. The camel’s hump had to be upside down; the wolf howled not at the moon but at a small bush to its left. And the prairie dog was twice as bit as the moose.
Since we started this fun, wholesome pastime on a Friday night, and it was an otherwise slow weekend, we found ourselves passing the puzzle more often than we would have otherwise. “I’m just going to sit here for five minutes,” I would promise Bob. An hour later, he joined me, claiming, “I’ll have my coffee here until I find one more piece.”
You learn a lot about a person if you play a game with him (or her), especially if that game, that all-American entertainment, begins to turn more difficult than anticipated. Did I say “difficult”? No, that’s not it. What I mean to say is addictive, confounding, infuriating, seductive, impossible to complete and, most of all, insanely hard to give up on. Even when it began to feel like the Forced Fun Death March, we kept at it.
What I found out about Bob wasn’t really surprising; he was just as calm noodling with the puzzle from hell – sorry, I meant Colorado – as he is most all of the time. What he found out about me was, no doubt, nothing he didn’t already know. I’m anxious. I’m excitable. My hands tremble when I am either irrationally angry, or unreasonably joyful, and especially both at once. Every time I felt sure I had a piece that would fit into that ridiculous little space, I would declare, “No, this can’t be it. Just look at it. No way.” And every time that stupid little piece turned out to fit, I gasped. Loudly. Nearly jumped up and down doing a touchdown-dance.
So, yeah. We stuck with it. Even when the almost-finished rectangle didn’t hold together well – wood puzzles are lovely, but slippery little devils – we mastered it. Now if we can just get ourselves to scatter the pieces back into their box. I’m considering glue, or lacquer. Our friends – our generous, joy-strewing friends – may have to pry it off the table themselves if they really want it back.