This essay first appeared in the Montrose Mirror in 2013. I’ve been addicted now for almost four years, and I still can’t wait to start the next one.
Jigsaw puzzles, I’ve heard, are good exercise for your brain. I hadn’t had much experience with them since I was a child, when I could get absorbed in them for hours at a time on vacation at Virginia Beach or in the Blue Ridge Mountains; in my adult life I haven’t considered them worth the time. But on a recent trip across the country they popped up everywhere. Admittedly, after the first two, they did not appear spontaneously; I sought them.
The night after I arrived at a friend’s house in Ajo, Arizona, she pulled out a dollar store jigsaw puzzle. Diagonally striped fields of many colored tulips converged at a windmill against a blue sky.
“If we finish this in…let’s say, two hours, we get a million dollars,” she announced to her sweetie and me. This was, for me, a new approach to solving a puzzle. I played along. It was something they liked to do for their own reasons, among them that this was her family tradition.
At first I wasn’t comfortable with it. I felt rushed, and distracted by my sense of incompetence, as she fitted sections together one after another and I sat there dazed by her alacrity. I couldn’t see as fast as she did, or I couldn’t discern the specific relationships among colors and shapes as quickly. Eventually, I let go of that resistance and settled into my own pace. After all, what did it matter? The two million was imaginary anyway. I was pretty sure I’d get another cocktail whether we made it in time or not.
The next day we agreed to start another puzzle on the condition that there be no deadline; we’d leave it up and drop in together or alone to work on it at our leisure. This was the tradition I grew up with. I ran out to Dollar General and spent seven dollars on five more puzzles to choose from. I told my aunt on the phone about my renewed interest in puzzles, and my bargain purchase.
“Mary Pat loaned me a puzzle that cost a hundred dollars,” she said. I was incredulous. “We can do it when you come.”
That evening in Ajo, we ceremoniously disassembled the Netherlands landscape. Before we took it apart, each of us said a few words of appreciation about the puzzle, and what it meant to us.
“I’m grateful to this puzzle…” began my friend, and as she continued with heartfelt sentiments we began to giggle, then to chuckle. Our improvised tributes built one upon the other until, by the time the three of us had each had our say, we couldn’t stop laughing. We rocked in our chairs and doubled over, gasped and squeaked, tried to catch our breath and laughed again, practically wet our pants, in one of those exhilarating, exhausting fits of uncontrollable mirth that only happen when you’re completely at ease with your companions, or sometimes when you watch America’s Funniest Home Videos.
We cast secret votes to choose which puzzle to start next. I confess to voter fraud— I cast an extra ballot—I couldn’t choose between the peppers and the jellybeans. Both were 1000 pieces and looked devilishly challenging. The peppers won.
Three days later it was time for me to hit the road, and we weren’t halfway done. But we were having fun with it, and I could feel my brain getting in shape. I asked for photo updates as I drove across the continent to Virginia to visit my aunt.
The day after I arrived at Auntie’s, she produced the hundred dollar puzzle, a “Classic Wooden Jigsaw” from Liberty Puzzles, 506 pieces, and just over 12×18 inches. The image was appealing enough, an antique print of an American Express Train smoking through an imaginative landscape, but I couldn’t see the point of paying all that cash for a puzzle that small just because it was made of wood and came in a nice box with tissue paper.
As we started unpacking pieces and sorting out edges, I became enchanted. The pieces felt good, in the first place. Then, instead of the standard innie and outie pieces in a few basic shapes, we found intricate representations of couples dancing, cowboys on horseback, ballerinas, mermaids, shooting stars, bison, birds, pinwheels, horse-drawn carriages and more, and connecting pieces of complex curves and squiggles; every piece was unique.
A whole new aesthetic world had just opened its door. I looked on Amazon, just out of curiosity, to see what wooden puzzles I could find. I never intended to buy one. But when I found a print of hummingbirds (actual, astonishing, and some extinct) by Ernst Haeckel, the nineteenth century polymath who coined the phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” I succumbed despite the price tag. I know this puzzle will be assembled many times by many friends, and more than pay for itself in entertainment value.
The big day arrived! We saved the puzzle til happy hour, then sorted the edges. There weren’t enough edges! Amazingly, there weren’t even any corner pieces. We had advanced to another level of challenge. Auntie held up the box top, with its small image, and said, “Take a good look.” Then she whisked it away. What! This was the tradition of her friend
Seymour, who let you have one long look at the box top then took it away for good. I put my foot down.
With this puzzle, my brain really kicked in. We had it close to complete before we could even finish the edge; many edge pieces simply came to a point between two others. We reveled in the assembly every spare minute for three and a half days. We were building art. The last night we worked til we were falling over sleepy. We didn’t want to finish, yet we couldn’t stop. As you get close to the end of any jigsaw puzzle, pieces find their places faster, the tempo picks up; we forced ourselves to quit til morning. Then, sleepy-headed in pajamas, we dove back in and finished. The satisfaction of completion only slightly outweighed the longing for another wooden puzzle.
I looked up Liberty Puzzles online, and found a small business in Boulder, Colorado, that offers hundreds of wooden puzzles, with hand-drawn whimsy pieces and puzzle-cut patterns. For a little more money, you can get your own image turned into a custom puzzle. (Uh-oh.) From their website:
“Before the advent of cardboard puzzles, almost all jigsaw puzzles were made of real wood and cut by hand. The United States has seen two prolonged jigsaw puzzle crazes, one in the early 1900s, and the next in the late 1920s and early 30s during the Great Depression. Jigsaw puzzle collectors prize old wooden jigsaw puzzles for their intricacy, craftsmanship, and the “heft” of the pieces. For the serious jigsaw puzzler, there is nothing quite as satisfying as plunking a wooden piece into place.”
And it’s true. Searching the table for a particular color and shape, then finding one that doesn’t look anything like you expected, and dropping it into the perfect spot, does feel pretty great.
Also from the website: “Traditionally, jigsaw puzzles came without a picture of the puzzle image on the box. Most simply had a title to tease the puzzler about what the image could possibly be.” I guess Seymour was on to something. Liberty offers customers the option of no image on the box.
Of all the adventures I anticipated in crossing the continent, developing a jigsaw puzzle obsession was not one of them. Yet it has been one of the more gratifying results of this journey. I’ve broadened my horizons, learning different styles of puzzles and puzzle doing; I’ve resurrected the pleasure of conversing and laughing over a puzzle with dear friends and family. Collaborating on puzzles has not only sharpened my brain, it’s also helped me to cultivate generosity and patience. I can’t wait to start the next one.