Putting a jigsaw puzzle together with pieces that look like they should fit together but don’t takes patience, tons of it. And it takes careful noticing. Does the piece I need have two knobs and two holes (also called keys & locks or tabs & pockets)? Or three knobs and one hole? Are the knobs on opposite sides of the piece or next to one another? What colors am I looking for? Are the pieces skinny, fat, large or small? Does my sought after piece have unique curves or weird indentations? Good lighting is crucial, as is enough space – to spread out all those pieces and divide the colors and designs of the puzzle. But PATIENCE is what I need most of.
Some people are drawn to puzzles. These COVID Days can feel long, boring, repetitive, and uncertain because the future ain’t nothing but a fat, shaky, stuck-up question mark! During these pandemic months, jigsaw puzzles have soared in popularity. Perhaps people stuck inside enjoy the challenge and the distraction of complicated puzzles. However, in my speck of space, I have a complicated relationship with jigsaw puzzles – I loathe them but can’t seem to avoid them.
During the second week of 2021 our good friend Sandra gave Gary a 1000 piece jigsaw that depicted the Dracula movie poster from 1931. This gift took up over eighteen square feet in our den of 100 square feet in a condo of just over 900 square feet. Both our coffee/dining table and a folding table we had stored in a closet were covered with 1,026 ( the true number of puzzle pieces) stiff paperboard pieces, leaving no room for four tv controllers and our dinner plates. I felt like the puzzle’s Bela Lugosi vampire had his arms raised and his cape spread open, forever looming over me in my home. The poster depicted the caped bloodsucker with outspread arms hovering over the red letters of his name with a huge spider web backdrop. It was almost all black except for Dracula’s red name and a few yellow accents. Over a thousand pieces of frustration!
It took us five weeks to complete that jigsaw, and it would have taken double that time if our son had not stopped by to help us so often. Casey has the gifted puzzler’s keen eye and the stamina that can study the photo on the puzzle box, scan a few hundred same-colored pieces, locate the needed one with the correct holes and nubs and neatly snap it into place before wanting to scream and run from the challenge.
Casey’s skill sometimes inspired me to use my own plodding puzzle strategy: to staring at an empty spot, counting the holes and nubs needed, and then methodically trying every piece of the correct color that has the nubs and holes in the right places. I would try all 211 black pieces with three nubs and one hole as if I were an assembly line worker at the beginning of a shift who fit small round loops into tight square sockets coming down my conveyor belt. I used mechanical movements that made finding the correct puzzle piece catch me off guard. After 87 minutes of looking, I’d break into an idiotic grin when the piece of cardboard connected with its mate. I’d stand up, slap the edge of the table, tap the piece twice with two fingers and exclaim, “Ah ha!” to my dog sleeping under the folding table.
The first night Gary and I turned off the tv distraction, set the radio dial to Sun Radio’s “Blue Monday” program, and gave the puzzle three hours of our lives, Gary had searing lower back pain, and I had a headache that felt like bats was eating my brain. I think we had found a third of the straight edge pieces. And those are supposed to be EASY to find!
Thirty-six days (and nights) later we finished the horrific Dracula puzzle. We left it out on the folding table and ignored people’s suggestion: “You should frame it!” Gary wanted to drive a stake through its heart.
For two full days we let our pride make us feel like we were somehow now productive members of society because we had correctly interlocked 1026 pieces of paperboard into their right spots on a 38X27 picture of an undead creature that sucks the life blood from healthy humans in order to exist. There’s some kind of irony in this nightmare!
Then the next morning after I masked up and got ready to venture out to our HEB grocery store, I told Gary, “Get rid of that damn puzzle before I get back.” I had hopes for returning to a light and airy apartment with more table and floor space and less stress.
Fifty minutes later I returned home to find Dracula gone, but a new pile of over a 1,000 small pieces of cardboard – all white and blue – on the folding and coffee tables in our main living space: Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Wave”!!!!
How could he!?
As I dropped grocery bags on our 4X3 foot kitchen table – the only flat surface in our whole condo with any available space, Gary unbelievably smiled and said, “I found this in my closet – the puzzle Evan gave me for my 70th birthday!”
My melting ice cream delayed me from verbally abusing my husband. I whisper-prayed a Hail Mary through clenched teeth and asked for patience. I unloaded the groceries as Gary separated 126 border pieces from the rest of the nuisances that left superfine puzzle dust behind in the box. I hid my anxiety behind the statement, “Maybe purchasing this 48-roll package of paper towels wasn’t a wise idea.”
He ignored my lame attempt at humor as he hunched over the coffee table and used his index finger to separate 605 pale beige and white pieces from 421 light and dark blue pieces.
Our struggle to locate and connect all the frame pieces would last eight days. Only after Casey gave up half of his Sunday did we have The Wave’s full border. Holding up an amoeba shaped piece with no holes or nubs, Casey said, “This is a true jigsaw! No two pieces are alike.” I picked up a piece with four holes and one part looking like Thor’s hammer hand.
“You’re right,” I said.
Gary added, “That should make this puzzle easier!”
Three weeks later Hokusai’s Wave is about to drown us in despair.
I find myself sitting at the folding table, staring at a spot for two missing pieces of white and blue sea foam in the bottom left corner of the jigsaw. Then 86 minutes later, I’ve forgotten to take the dog on his afternoon walk, the cat is meowing, and my throbbing headache convinces me I may have COVID. And I’ve found neither puzzle piece.
I daily remind Gary, “This is the last damn jigsaw this apartment will ever know! You understand?” And if he pretends to not hear me, I say, “This place is not big enough for two adults, a 60-pound long haired dog, an ancient forever-meowing cat, AND a thousand piece puzzle!”
I believe Casey’s cool spatial recognition skills and his visual stamina will keep me from divorcing his father. And I don’t think I will really accidentally overturn my grandma’s old folding table while sweeping up dog hair one morning. That’s the optimist in me.
However, I have begun to regret downsizing from our 1,600 square foot, four bedroom home for this “cozy” condo. The jigsaw frustration and the pandemic uncertainty may be what sends me over the edge of Nietzsche’s abyss.
Katsushika Hokusai said, “It was not until after my 70th year that I produced anything of significance,” but at age 64, I do not feel I have the time or the patience to reconstruct his fantastic wave out of misshapen bits of colored paperboard before I enter a new decade!