Expectations of a Jigsaw Puzzle

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My husband unboxes a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of New York City on our dining room table and triggers a chain reaction of self-reflection.

I imagine thousands of households pulling out a jigsaw puzzle and hoping it will bring the family together. Just a moment spent searching, finding, and assembling can make even the moodiest of teenagers walk away with a satisfaction that will permeate the house.    

When my husband began excavation on the cardboard landscape of Manhattan, I felt a flutter of excitement. This was an ingenious way to include our son in something besides gaming with very little pressure or competition.

My husband spent the first few hours constructing the boarder and sorting the more obvious areas of water and sky. His approach is systematic and logical which makes me think of the different ways people eat an ice cream cone. Putting together the structure is solitary work I assume. Later we will all gather spontaneously to make clarity out of the chaos. 

My morning rotation of jogging, gardening, and foraging for yeast and flour brings me in and out of the house. Poking my head into the room, I congratulate my husband on nailing the perimeter of the puzzle like a supportive teammate in an individual sport. By afternoon I am surprised by his stamina. I imagined him spending a few minutes here and there between mowing the lawn and biking, not a marathon.  

I take note of my judgment even though it mingles with guilt. It is as if I am spreading tiny airborne particles of superiority just like you know what. Beth put your mask on!

When evening rolls around, our teenager emerges, approaches the puzzle, and says, “cool, can I help?” I contain my hopeful expectation as my husband imparts his strategy, sets boundaries, and shares memories of growing up in a house that regularly had a puzzle going.

There are two kinds of people, those who grew up with a jigsaw puzzle always in progress and those who didn’t. It is so iconic, that the one summer your parent slaved over a puzzle will have you remembering it as a family tradition. We were not a jigsaw family. My mother’s idea of quality time would not be hours methodically doing anything. Leisure activities growing up fell into the aerobic category. So when I see the puzzle taking up half our dining room table, I look at it with temptation and suspicion.

I watch with fascination as my husband studies the image on the box with an actual magnifying glass, not the iPhone App. He works on one specific area at a time, while I would pick up a random piece without referencing the final image, and rely on instinct to find its home. I start to make connections between puzzles and personalities and marriage.

As time goes on, I surmise that even if I want to collaborate on the puzzle, my chaotic nature will interfere with his order and therefore ruin his experience. Perhaps he suspects this too. I find myself resenting his proprietary nature around the puzzle (real or imagined) and for making me feel self-conscious about being messy. 

There is something serious about his demeanor that makes me question the onset of depression. Is he retreating? Has the quarantine finally got to him?

My disdain comes from an ingrained belief that being still and alone shows signs of laziness. It’s a beautiful day, how can he be indoors? There is no sound of joy coming from the room, how can that be healthy? This from a girl who spent most of her childhood depressed and writing ballads at the piano for hours on end, and who found her mother’s weather reports and happiness coaching irrelevant. Maybe that is why I resist that posture and associate it with bad. I’m older now and have learned the art of distraction, which looks different than melancholy.

Now my activities include trips in and out of the house with no agenda, but since I’m not getting anywhere sitting in front of my computer, I hope to return fulfilled. I may be wasting gas and time, but at least my body is in motion, if not the car.

I leave my husband, my rising dough, and web browser search for compost, to walk with a friend six feet apart. We complain about the amount of creative projects splashed all over Instagram.      

My friend says, “Fuck that.” 

I agree, but then admit I’m caught up in the hype and regret my lack of inspiration for anything truly fulfilling. “The only thing I’ve done today was workout, bake zucchini bread and mulch,” I tell her. 

My friend exclaims heartily, “That’s a home run!” 

I love her for this, maybe she has a point. This is where my mom would say, “Hey there’s a good book I think you should read. It’s called WHY DIDN’T I NOTICE HER BEFORE? You may know the author.”

The next morning I assess my situation. The raised bed is built, the vegetables planted (too soon), the online class I usually take is sold out due to the quarantine and it's raining, again. I’d rather lick the dirt off my shoe than attempt baking another bread. 

So when my husband leaves his spot in front of the puzzle I slip in. Just for a moment. I do not intend to oust him, but he doesn't return which confirms all my fears. 

Standing in one place for so long threatens my self-esteem, but I remind myself this is meditative and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Then it clicks and I feel ashamed of my hypocrisy. There is something so analytically satisfying in this very singular experience of puzzling. It mimics productivity, but also offers a space to shut off the mind and I crave both.

After ignoring the magnifying glass, which somehow struck me as somber, I raise it to my eye. It is as though I am stepping into my husband’s shoes in an effort to see his point of view. A road map makes him feel safe, it makes me feel constricted.

It turns out the magnifying glass gives the project gravitas. Once I train it over the Brooklyn Bridge, I feel a mix of dread and excitement. This thing has me in its talons. Leaning over the rubble of puzzle pieces like an archeologist reconstructing an empire, the coffee maker automatically turns off, my mug is replaced with a wine glass and an audiobook comes to a close. To be reasonable, I start listening to courses on MasterClass, the online learning site. Most of Midtown Manhattan is pieced together while Margaret Atwood instructs on lending believability to your story. Central Park is formed while Aaron Sorkin teaches me how to give my script momentum.

Breaks consist of walking down the hall to the library where my son has been gaming for hours. Yelling over the rapid-fire of his semi-automatic weapon I say, “You need to take a break. It’s too much time doing one thing,” and head back to the site. I’m close to discovering the Statue of Liberties torch. 

As I pass my husband who has been binge-watching TV since 9 am it hits me. All three of us are zoning out in a row. We are closed for business. We have decided that internal dialogue and communication are non-essential. We are unaware of time but hope it will lead to happy hour.

What will I feel when I shove that last piece of Manhattan into place? Will it feel anything like accomplishment?

This morning my husband greets me in the kitchen. “Bad news about your puzzle.” He does not know that between building the puzzle, I have been writing about the puzzle, dreaming of the puzzle (in color), and suffering lower back pain from bending over it. It has become my small life.

“What about the puzzle?” I ask. 

“The cat tore it apart.”

- Beth Cramer 

Beth Cramer is an accomplished editor and director of independent films, commercials and music videos. She is the author of WHY DIDN'T I NOTICE HER BEFORE? Irreverent, painfully honest and often hilarious, Why Didn’t I Notice Her Before? is a beautifully observed memoir that finds courage and humor in the face of undefeatable odds. 


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