The game closet, yesterday. I was rummaging through it, looking for something, when I found a small piece of a jigsaw puzzle in a corner. Stem green with a purple edge, one side a ninety-degree angle, the rest of it like fingers flung out. A cornered amoeba.
I do not like jigsaw puzzles. They crop up everywhere in my life, as if the universe continues to send me not what I want, but what it thinks I need to see … until I see it. I suppose, then, the universe will be sending me jigsaw puzzles forever. Because I won’t do them.
Take, for example, the jigsaw puzzles for the beach house. Prior to our family trek to the Outer Banks each summer, all puzzles are dragged out of the game closet, unpacked, spread out, picked over, dismissed or chosen, repacked carefully, talked about in the car for 500 miles, removed from the car first, set up on a card table, and fussed over. The year we forgot the card table, we used the dining room table for the puzzles and ate on our laps. Ketchup was difficult.
“Coming down to the beach?” I say to four family members. It’s 10:00 – beach time – and I’m at the door, greased up, hat on head, beach bag packed with the day’s supply of books, pens, and notebooks. Four heads bend over a puzzle.
“Looking for this piece,” one of them says to another, pointing to a hole.
“Try this one.” Murmurs.
“No, I need a ninety-degree angle. Green. With a little purple showing.”
“Y’all coming?” I say.
“Found a different one!” my husband shouts, and applause breaks out. He looks at me as if to say I’m not a team player. I know this.
I go down to the beach alone, schlepping my chair, umbrella, bag of books, and frustration.
Now, take the jigsaw puzzles at The Heritage, my mother’s retirement community. Rummaging through closets in the club room, the Puzzle Queen of South Carolina discovered 179 boxes of puzzles, dragged them out, shouted “Come on, y’all” to everyone in her building, and thus founded The Heritage Jigsaw Puzzle Club, going strong for three years now. Puzzles are fussed over and discussed as if they are intractable children. She has told me three times that The Puzzle Club has completed 53 puzzles. This is not from short-term memory loss.
“Let’s walk down to the club room and see what’s happening with the puzzle,” my mother says to me. I’m visiting her for two weeks, and we’ve just finished three loads of laundry and a chocolate treat.
“I’m not into puzzles,” I say. “You go.”
“But I want us to do stuff together while you’re here.”
I’d rather read Pam Houston’s latest book. “OK, OK,” I say.
I sit down at the card table in the club room. Three other elders are there, intent on the puzzle of the week. Hot air balloons. The workers murmur, eye one another, poke through puzzle pieces, try one, then another, ease pieces into right places, and snap them into place to a chorus of exclamation. I look down at the tiny pieces, all similar in shape, size, and my interest in them.
“Why don’t you like jigsaw puzzles?” my mother says.
“Puzzles keep you young. They work your brain.” She’s ninety-six.
“My brain’s just fine.”
“Epiphany happens outside language,” we are told.
“They help you understand how the small things fit so you can figure out the big picture,” she says. “You know. Puzzles are like life.”
“Mama, you know I don’t believe that.”
Opinions on the subject rip across the faces of my mother’s friends, but no one offers support for either side.
“You should think about it.” Heads nod. She finds a piece that fits, lets out a whoop, and applause breaks out around the table.
My brother sits with Mama and me in her living room. I’m go back to reading reading Pam Houston. She spreads dissimilar fragments of her life around with her pen, sees some odd relationship among the pieces, some quirky theme; the pieces don’t fit together and she doesn’t force them and she doesn’t tell us every little thing. But I know somebody is present. We are left to infer. “Epiphany happens outside language,” we are told. My yellow highlighter and ballpoint are poised over the page – How does she do this?
My brother and I are sitting with Mama in her apartment. I am reading. They are working a crossword puzzle, another family activity I’m not good at. Or don’t have the patience for.
“Can’t get this last word,” my brother says. “Eight letters — begins with M — means ‘Vacancy on the top floor’?” His pencil is tapping, his leg is pumping, he’s leaning toward Mama whose brow is furrowed over the coverless Webster’s she uses for her crossword puzzles. It’s almost as old as she is.
“Mindless,” I say without looking up.
They jump as if they’ve been shot from off-planet. My mother says it fits, my brother says it’s perfect, and the Sunday crossword is completed.
Words I can do. Words are not a game. I remember what Mark Twain said about words. “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and a lightning strike.”
It’s 11:00 by the time my husband arrives on the beach with his chair and his own books. I hold his red beach cup of tea with lemon, no sugar while he sets up for the day.
“I don’t feel deprived because I don’t like jigsaw puzzles,” I say. “And I’d rather write.”
“The puzzle’s missing one piece,” he tells me, frustrated.
I backed out of the game closet, pulled the dust bunnies off the green and purple puzzle piece, and took it downstairs. I put it where he’d see it. When he came home, he said something like, “Finally we’ll see the big picture!”