It was the perfect gift. I’m not sure Joan knew just how perfect at the time, but I knew it the moment I unwrapped it, and that fact was confirmed Sunday as I placed Dick Clark’s forehead and eyes into place.
It was a jigsaw puzzle; one Joan had given me on Valentine’s Day. We're long past the days of chocolates, roses and candlelit dinners (though looking back, I don’t know that we’ve ever had a candlelit dinner, not intentionally anyway, though I do recall eating something together during a power outage before we were married). Instead, Joan and I usually follow one of two tacks when it comes to gifts: buying something “together” (i.e., the kayaks we bought ourselves for Christmas 2020), or finding “tokens” or small items that have meaning or practical use but won’t clutter up the house.
After all, as children of the 1970s (you can do the math on where that puts us age-wise), we’re at a point where we’re trying to “get rid of” rather than “accumulate.” That said, gift-giving for us – whether the big days like Christmas or birthdays, or smaller ones like Valentine’s Day – carries weight to it, the pressure to find something that has meaning but won’t take up floor space, add to “drawer clutter” or cause frustration every time one of us trips over it in the basement as we try to get to something else. (“It’s the thought that counts,” and all that jazz.)
This puzzle checked that box for me, but it did so much more. Because I’ve loved jigsaw puzzles ever since the first of many times I sat down to work one with my mom at the dining room table as a child, the value and significance of that item only grew in my mind. Then, add the fact that the puzzle was a tapestry of 1970s history and pop culture, and you have the perfect storm.
When Joan gave it to me, I couldn’t wait to get started, but life in the intriguing, fast-paced world jigsaw puzzles is rarely that easy. You see, at the time I was knee-deep in a puzzle titled House Movers, based on a series of simplistic, painted scenes of “Americana,” a term we – I included -- often throw around without really knowing what it means, but we know it when we see it, right? (Has something to do with American history and culture, and if I just made that up, it sounds right, so let’s go with it.)
Over the next few days, I feverishly worked to complete the current puzzle, a scene from the late 1800s as this new, shiny modern piece of “Americana” waited in the shadows, its subjects watching me, waiting for me: the Bee Gees, Richard Nixon, Farah Fawcett (as both a pinup model and part of Charlie’s Angels), Dorothy Hamill, Mark Spitz and all the rest.
With every passing moment, as I completed the spoked wheel of a wooden oxcart or snapped the light-blue bonnet on the head of a young mother walking on a dirt path with her children, it was there, not six feet way in a box on a nearby table displaying the completed image of what was inside. Occasionally, I’d look at it to see Patty Hearst pointing her gun in my direction, Muhammad Ali brandishing his gloved fists, and Archie Bunker pointing his cigar directly at me as if to say, “Well, Meathead, are you ever gonna finish that thing and get to us?”
Finally, in late February, I finished House Movers, allowing me (after the appropriate 12-hour staging period required to display a completed puzzle; that’s my rule, anyway) to start on The 1970s, my second trip through the decade of my youth.
Over the next two weeks (usually in 10- to 20-minute spurts), I’d revel in finding Roberto Clemente’s right hand, a chunk of Burt Reynolds’ cowboy hat (from Smokey and the Bandit), Fonzie’s thumb, and the ominous, ski-masked image of the terrorists that attacked the 1972 Olympics. I looked for – and found -- disco balls, John and Yoko’s faces, a corner of a Pong screen, and the front bumper of a yellow Ford Pinto.
I assembled a Pet Rock and recreated the Mideast Peace Accord Jimmy Carter brokered at Camp David in 1978. I did all that and so much more.
For the most part, though, I reminisced, remembering where I was when I heard about or experienced all the things, people, places and events this puzzle featured. It was, at the risk of sounding corny, a snapshot of my childhood, encased in one of the greatest memories I have, sitting at the dining room table with my mom, working on a puzzle together.
This puzzle means so many things to me. It’s memories, rekindled both in the images on it and those that the puzzle itself brings to the surface. But it also shows how much our gifts – whether tangible or in spirit – mean to others. I don’t know what Joan was thinking when she picked out this particular puzzle, and while I don’t want to speculate, I’m guessing she thought it was cool, campy, appropriate and something I’d enjoy.
She was right on all accounts. But I don’t think she knows just how perfect that puzzle is to me because of all the things that it represents. Sunday morning, I finished it with Dick Clark’s forehead, and now, it sits in the basement, a completed work waiting to be disassembled until the next person decides to explore the 1970s -- the decade of my youth – one jagged, amorphous piece at a time.
And I already know who that person will be. It will be the one who started me on my jigsaw puzzle journey in the days of Secretariat and Donna Summer, Billy Beer and Jaws. The person who knows what it all means to both of us. The person who can and will appreciate as much as I do.
© 2021 David R. Haznaw