Jigsaw puzzles are like family

Neva Berry helps work a jigsaw puzzle in July 2014 on the patio of the Norman, Okla., senior living center in which she resides.

"So now it is time to disassemble the parts of the jigsaw puzzle or to piece another one together, for I find that, having come to the end of my story, my life is just beginning."

Conrad Veidt

We sat on the patio at Rivermont, enjoying an unusually cool day — totally unexpected for Norman, Oklahoma, in July.

Three of us — Mom, my sister Maryl and I — sat in a half-circle around the metal patio table, studying shapes and colors, trying to make some sense of the jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces spread across the red napkin we had borrowed from the senior living center's lunchroom.

From the small grove of trees at the center of a short walking trail, a mockingbird sang with an Oklahoma twang. A gentle breeze swirled around our shaded space, shifting the broken umbrella that sagged sadly over our heads.

Mom had gathered up a single piece in her hand, determined it would fit somewhere in the little cluster she had already assembled. She was curious about the picture we were trying to complete… a mother giraffe stretching down to kiss the top of a baby giraffe's head … brown on tan with a smattering of white … in a dirty brown stall.

"I'm not sure what I'm looking at," she said, "Where's the mother's body. Is that a face?" We probably could have picked a puzzle with more contrast, more color. Maryl pulled over the puzzle box and explained what was in the picture.

Reassured, Mom tried her piece here, there … well, maybe here, maybe there … turning it around, exploring the possibilities. Looks right; doesn't fit. Fits okay; but the colors are wrong.

Eventually, with a yip of delight, she plunked her piece down and eased it in place, filling out another part of the baby giraffe's stripes. Then with no more celebration, she scouted the table for another likely candidate.

Nearing her 96th birthday, Mom still loves to work jigsaw puzzles. She always has. When we inventory our memories of family reunions, Christmas get-togethers, week-ends in Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma … somehow popcorn and puzzles always figure in.

Jigsaw puzzles are a lot like family. Some are complicated, intricate, frustrating. Some are comfortable, uncomplicated, predictable. The bright, colorful, busy ones should be easy … but sometimes they hold their own mysteries. The varied hues of fields and forests — when broken apart and spread out on four sides of a card table can be a complicated mess until someone spots a pattern and starts bringing the pieces together into something that makes sense.

Puzzlers have their own systems. Some go right to the heart of the matter, starting with the obvious and easy, putting together the doll's face, the red door to the cabin or the striped fishing lure in the stack of drab green ones. Others want more structure, scouting out the four corners, separating the edges and building a rectangular frame before tackling the murky interior.

Each puzzle piece is unique, with a personality of its own. Some even look like people, with a head, two arms and two legs. Others have four feet, two heads or big feet. Good puzzlers can sit across from a window and, despite the glare that muddles the colors, find pieces simply by their shapes.

Others opt to sort by color or theme, gathering little piles and working small scenes within the larger panorama. They might begin with the lighted cabin in the woods, the red boat at the dock, or the white cat amid the playful calicos. Mom is one who looks for the best fit. She scouts out unusual shapes — four legs, pudgy arms, misshapen heads. She searches for the mirror image of the piece in her hands.

Like family, the fit isn't always perfect. Every piece has its proper place, and forcing it to fit where it doesn't is fruitless. Sometimes it takes a little finesse, easing it a bit this way or that, trying it a few spaces down, turning it around … until it fits.

Occasionally, a piece goes astray, leaving a space that can't be filled. Mom was good at bringing in the strays, finding that missing piece of sky underfoot or the farmer's cap hiding under the edge of the peanut brittle tray.

And if a wandering piece somehow ends up in the wrong box — a wayward desert cactus mixed in with the wet rocks of a mountain stream — it could complicate a puzzler's life for a time. Try as you might, you can't make it fit, can't make it feel at home. And when the picture is complete and all the pieces filled in, there it sits, left over and left out. But you never give up on it; never throw it away. It belongs somewhere.

For a time, that leftover piece must sit and wait outside your puzzle collection… waiting for the day when the right picture comes together, when everyone around the table eases that last piece into place, only to find a vacant space. Mom would know where that piece had been living for the past few years … part of her special stash of misplaced important stuff. With a flourish, out it would come, completing the picture.

Around the patio table, the baby giraffe and its mother were finally coming together. Mom, piece in hand, scanned the assembled edges, trying to find a match. Turning it this way and that, she sought that perfect fit.

"Ooh, ooh," she squealed, snapping her fragment of puzzle into place. But there was no victory dance, just a smile.

Then, game face on again, eyes darting around the table, she delicately snatched up another odd-shaped character and began searching for its home.

Dave Berry is editor of The Tyler Morning Telegraph. His Focal Point column appears every Wednesday in the My Generation section.


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