In the summer of 2022, our daughter Katy moved back home full-time from South Dakota to help me and Wendy out here in Wheaton. As Wendy struggles with memory loss, much that was once second nature to her, like driving, has become fraught with difficulty. So, after eight years (summers excluded) at St. Joseph's Indian School in Chamberlain, SD, Katy was able to find a job at a small public school for special-needs kids, not ten minutes away from our house. Shortly after she settled in, she had the inspiration to take Wendy to Half-Price Books and shop for jigsaw puzzles. Wendy had done puzzles with our kids when they were growing up, and with kids she cared for over the years—also with older people she spent time with in one capacity or another (above all, in friendship). At Half-Price, Wendy and Katy found a couple of used puzzles in very good condition plus several news ones that had been marked down. Wendy took them up with gusto.
I had never done puzzles, not even when I was a kid. The part of the brain associated with shapes (unless in the shape of persons) is deficient in my case, extremely so, more than you can imagine. As a boy, and long thereafter, I loved games, but puzzles were collaborative rather than competitive. Still, I found myself, for the first time, working on puzzles with Wendy.
We started with 1,000-piece puzzles, some of them gorgeously made and literature-themed: there was a series (“The World of . . .”) that included Shakespeare and Dickens and Austen (that one a gift from my brother, Rick) and, yes, Ian Rankin (whose books I admire; Mark Noll is also a fan). But Wendy began to find those puzzles a bit daunting, and partway through “The World of the Brontës” we decided we’d better shift to 500-piece puzzles. Though now and then we take on a 1,000-piece one, as we just did with our eldest, Anna, here for a visit; she inherited Wendy’s spatial intelligence.
On a visit to the blessed Morton Arboretum several months earlier, Katy and Wendy had stopped at the gift shop. A 500-piece puzzle there, “Butterflies of North America,” from an outfit called Mudpuppy, caught Katy’s eye, and they brought that one home. It was wonderfully colorful, enjoyable to assemble, a nice change of pace. When we sadly had to abandon the Brontës, we decided to try another puzzle from Mudpuppy.
Since then, Wendy and I have done a whole series of them, as well as puzzles from other outfits. Many of these are “family puzzles,” pitched to a range of users, young kids very much included. Many of them, unlike the butterfly one we started with, are humorous (people allergic to “cuteness” wouldn’t like them). Others show serene landscapes; others still feature layouts in which postage stamps or travel ads (“Come to Italy!”) from around the globe are artfully and wittily juxtaposed in delightful profusion. Each puzzle has its own personality, its own color-scheme and method of organization (some puzzles are divided into a grid of distinct blocks, for instance, while others are not).
When a new puzzle arrives, Wendy is always delighted at the prospect, though often, once we start, she worries that we won’t be able to finish: the prospect of “putting it together” seems daunting rather than inviting. We follow a ritual, opening the plastic bag containing the pieces, dumping them on the folding card-table that has become our puzzle-place, and beginning to sort; Wendy presides over this process, and I help out. She has an uncanny eye for the four corner-pieces each puzzle possesses; she almost always locates one of these within a few seconds of opening the bag. In addition to the picture on the box, there is a small color reproduction of the puzzle inside, which we can remove and use for reference (indispensable).
After we have separated the border pieces from the rest and done a bit of sorting (the non-border pieces are arrayed on our dining table, next to the card-table), we begin to place pieces. It’s here, so soon after the high spirits of the opening, that Wendy often expresses a sense that somehow, the puzzle “won’t work”: “this is very bad,” she might say, or “this is terrible!” And that is my cue to say that we have just started, that she’s sorted out the vital framing pieces splendidly, and so on. It has become very ritualized, but that doesn’t mean our exchanges aren’t sincerely meant, on both sides. And so we go on, up and down, back and forth, until the exultation that always accompanies the placing of the last pieces.
Even two years ago, I couldn’t have foreseen this ritual—not at all. I have no idea what’s coming two years hence. But I treasure one recurring experience of assembling these puzzles (to be rapidly disassembled and put back in the box once we’re done). There are moments in every puzzle, even in the modest 500-piece affairs, where you feel stuck. You’ve looked everywhere for a stubbornly missing piece, and you can’t find it. But then you remind yourself that the piece you are seeking must be here on the table somewhere. In that faith we proceed, and we rejoice when it is rewarded. Out of the jumble, order is revealed.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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