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A Puzzling Life

I love jigsaw puzzles. A jigsaw puzzle is one of the few things that slows me down, relaxes me, and that keeps my attention for more than a few minutes. Puzzles—good ones, anyway—are challenging, and they offer a sense of accomplishment without requiring gear, planning or formal training. And they don’t take more time than you want to give them. They’re just a good escape, a nice diversion from what goes on in a typical day.

I got my love for puzzles from my mom. When I was growing up, she always had a puzzle working. And I’d bet you a day’s pay she’s got one going as I write this.

Now, it’s important to realize something about my mother and jigsaw puzzles. For her, it’s serious business. To enter the puzzling subculture (a strange, eclectic community, to say the least), you need to have the right stuff. And there are some hard-and- fast rules:

1. A good puzzle is NEVER less than 1,000 pieces (1,500 is preferred).

2. ALL pieces are to be taken out of the box and turned over before ANY are assembled.

3. The border is ALWAYS to be completed before ANY work is done on the “body” (the inside of the puzzle for you novices).

4. DO NOT create “islands,” that is, two or more connected pieces that are not already connected to the puzzle “proper.”

5. NO HOARDING. More importantly, in order to maintain the integrity and spirit of puzzling, it is unacceptable to hold out a piece just so you can have the honor of placing it in the final open space.

6. Elbows and loose clothing are to be KEPT OFF THE TABLE at all times to avoid pieces falling on the floor.

The penalty for breaking any of these rules? No one knew, because no one dared test those waters. My mom would go with the flow in just about anything else in her life, but her puzzles were her turf, and it was known (though never spoken) that you were a guest at the puzzling table.

Now that we’ve set the rules, let’s talk about the playing field. At Mom’s house, puzzles are set up on one half of our dining room table, and a 1,500-piece model fits perfectly in that space. This table is ideal because historically, we’ve only used it for the occasional homework assignment,

Thanksgiving dinner and as a Christmas gift-wrap station.

Otherwise, it’s just a large, under-utilized piece of wood that takes up space. Therefore, it isn’t a problem to have a puzzle in process for extended periods of time, and generally, a puzzle could take from days to more than a week to complete, based on how much time we devoted to it.

Thanksgiving through New Year’s was our “off-season,” allowing us to regroup and rehab any minor injuries before embarking on a new puzzling campaign. In a good year, Mom would receive a puzzle or two for Christmas, and we could hit the ground running in January.

Mom would sit at the head of the table, and I would work from the side. Every now and again, when she was doing something else, like making dinner, grocery shopping or had some other, more important thing in her life to deal with, I’d slide into her chair, but it just wasn’t the same as working with her, and I’d usually move on to some other activity until she returned.

We didn’t talk much when we puzzled, but I do recall having some really nice conversations with her as we worked on different parts of the New York City skyline, the French Riviera or a pastoral scene with a red barn, horses and lots of trees. For some reason, sitting at that table made it OK for a kid to talk to his mom without feeling weird or embarrassed, regardless of my age or the topic at hand.

I was involved in lots of things during my childhood and adolescence—sports, music, drama, part-time jobs, and just “being a kid”—but working a jigsaw puzzle with my mom is still one of my fondest memories, whether it was turning the pieces (I hated that part), working through a challenging section where the colors were so similar it was like looking for a single, specific grain of sand on a mile-long stretch of beach, or putting in the last piece, something Mom would always let me do.

To some, this all might sound hokey, and that’s OK. To me, it was—and remains—something simple but special that my mom and I shared.

I hope everyone has such fond memories.

Fact is, not too long ago, I stopped at Mom’s and she had a nice puzzle working. Reflexively, I sat down and snapped a couple of pieces. It felt good. (By the way, my mom also got me hooked on crossword puzzles, and I still love them to this day. That’s an- other strange subculture with its own rules, but I’ll save that for another time.)

And if you must know, right now, I have a 1,500-piece puzzle set up in the basement. Maybe I’ll spend some time with it today. Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll follow all the unwritten—and unspoken— rules. And by the way, thank you.

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