For many years I’ve enjoyed puzzles as a way to spend time with my family and friends, as well as a quiet way to think things through and chill. It started more than fifteen years ago, always in summer. I’d put a big puzzle out on our dining room table, knowing the kids were home and we’d have hours to fill, and that there were no big holidays, so we wouldn’t need the larger table. Anyone who visited, or was here, could join in.
It’s a surprisingly great way to connect with people. Puzzles require that you sit (or stand) in one general place and concentrate, yet it’s easy to talk and as you search for pieces, as well. People tend to chat more with each other, and really listen, without outside distractions; with a puzzle, there’s no TV or screen to get lost in. It’s also a nice way to just sit with someone and be quiet. People can sink into their own thoughts, while working side by side with others. When my kids were teenagers, they didn’t particularly like doing puzzles, but occasionally I could lure them in. It often was a pathway into their world, when I most wanted and needed to connect with them. We’d sit quietly looking for missing pieces, and if I was patient and listened, I’d get to hear about their lives and what was happening in them.
I’ve generally invested in large puzzles (one was 5,000 pieces! A one-time thing; don’t try it at home!) which tended to last all summer, and sometimes into the holiday season. I never choose a puzzle that’s less than 1,000 pieces. Sometimes the whole family picked out our next project; other times I picked up a new puzzle on my own. Over time, I bought a few large pieces of Styrofoam to build them on. Styrofoam keeps pieces from moving around too much, and you can lift a puzzle and move it, if needed. In those rare years when summer puzzles became Thanksgiving puzzles, this solution was perfect.
Forever an ocean person, many of the original puzzles I picked were underwater scenes, almost always by Ravensberger. Over time, however, I’ve branched out and chosen planets and galaxy, world maps, and now subjects vary completely. People know I enjoy them, so over the nearly eight weeks that I’ve been sick and healing, folks have delivered puzzles as get well gifts, and general items of torture. There’s a stack of puzzles waiting for me, including one that my nephew and his girlfriend nefariously sent for Christmas. He researched “hardest puzzles in the world,” and thought that would make my foggy-meningitis-brain feel better. Or, he was getting back at me for some horrible thing I must have done when he was little. Hardest puzzles in the world, really? I put it aside until I feel better, and then got blindsided by a seemingly sweet puzzle–– with the image of Harlequin dancers–– delivered by a friend, right after I got out of the hospital.
This is what puzzle hell looks like. Each time I think I’ve figured something out, a piece goes somewhere else. Puzzle. Hell.
I’ve never spent so long on one puzzle, but this one is hell; I’ve been working on it since just before Christmas! Individual pieces work in more than one place, much of it is a dark blackish-blue color, and depending on the light, it’s hard to see the variations in tones–– but those shades and tones matter. I’ve never had a puzzle before, where the edge is one of the hardest parts to do. Though I finally thought I’d worked out the edge (after completing large “easier” sections), we’re convinced that much of at least one side, is all wrong. Serious mind-fuck. I can only wonder about the friend who gave it to me and her real intentions; she knows who she is.
Over the years so many people have joined me for puzzle time. My kids have joined in; my husband drops by intermittently–– usually to drop in pieces that I’ve carefully collected, and am waiting to connect. My three exchange student-kids (China, Denmark, and Germany) all joined in, for the year each of them was living here. At times they and my son, Man-Cub, would spend hours laughing, teasing, and arguing about life at school, things at home, and their own private issues. Some of my happiest times were listening to them debate issues over a puzzle in the other room. Friends and family visiting for summer vacations, sat at the table on rainy days, or over weekends. They all joined us in our dining room to do puzzles. Today, at Hospice House, where I regularly volunteer, puzzles are left out on a table in the “family room.” We have learned that families who are grieving find peaceful distraction in puzzles. They are able to step away from feeling overwhelmed, and quietly work on a puzzle, or process feelings and thoughts. All of those tiny pieces can provide peace.
People tend to find one area of the puzzle that resonates with them, and they work to solve that section. Side by side, you can work and visit. I started asking summer guests to sign a part of a puzzle, so I could remember who shared in the fun. I got it in my head that I’d glue the finished puzzles, have them framed and hang them in our game room; they’d be reminders of fun times, as well as decorative art for bare walls. Over time, however, that became a misadventure. Large puzzles don’t stay glued very well; frames that work for puzzles are hard to find, and over time, finished-mostly-glued puzzles began to pile up under beds and sofas, collecting dust and adding to my list of long-delayed projects.
Puzzles from the past
The collection of dusty puzzles hidden under spaces, collectively forced me to accept that I’d probably never get them framed or hung. They became silent reminders of so many undone things, and I felt guilty about not following through in one more area of my life. Then recently, I pulled one out and found myself running my fingers over the uniquely finished-puzzle surface that I love so much. I traced the names of people I love, people who have shared special time with me and my family, and realized I’m not ready to give up entirely on this project. There are several that have no signatures, and no real meaning–– other than the hours spent on them. Those can go back into their boxes, and on to other homes. But the ones with with love and memories, evident by the names written in corners and on sea turtles and jellyfish, still matter to me. They are a time capsule of happy times; they can be dusted and rescued.
These three are next in line
The kids are gone; our house is generally very quiet now. I’ve spent nearly eight weeks in this quiet house getting my strength back, processing hard things, thinking about goals and the next phase of my life, and doing puzzles. I do them on our kitchen table now; we only need two seats, so there’s lots of extra space. This time has been challenging; it’s been hopeful, sad, scary, and peaceful, depending on the day. And as I come out of this phase, and my healing is finally progressing in ways that allow me to jump back into my life, I find that I’m grateful to puzzles. I needed to focus, as well as spend time quiet and distracted. I needed to spend time to let go of things that don’t fill me anymore, and to grab on to new things. These have been hard weeks, and they’ve been weeks of deeper meaning. This time has been sacred. I’m coming into a new place in my life, and while I can’t wait for the next puzzle, I’m no longer puzzled.
Sweet puzzle memories remain
Are puzzles your thing, or do they make you crazy? Or, do you figure they’re something only grandparents do? (Well, I got that one covered too). Leave a comment and share your thoughts!
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