Jigsaw puzzles weren’t a big part of my childhood. Perhaps it was because our family moved about so much that we could never have kept all those little pieces together. We didn’t have many games that came in boxes. With the exception of Scrabble (which my parents would play together tournament-style, in fierce competition, several nights running) and cards (Rummy, Not at Home, Patience), we improvised our games, mostly outdoors. It was not until much later that I was introduced to jigsaw puzzles, through Andrew and his family.
My dear in-laws are eminently rational and scientific. They love games of all kinds, from Tiddlywinks to Scrabble, and are sticklers for adhering to the rules (although they often make their own). They’re also committed to cooperative game-playing, and therefore regularly adapt games designed for individuals to compete against each other. For instance, they’ve developed a unique way of playing Tiddlywinks, their family favorite, along these lines, and keep score through the years with a series of graphs depicting their progress. Approaching jigsaw puzzles in the same methodical manner, they first assemble the edge pieces into the frame and then sort the rest by color and shape (“innies” and “outies”). Every New Year’s Eve my father-in-law begins the same 500-piece puzzle—a nighttime scene of his beloved New York’s Times Square—and works on it steadily through the countdown to midnight, aiming to put the finishing touches on it as the ball drops in the real Times Square.
I don’t have the same orderly mind as my in-laws do. And as much as I like people, I have the tendency to withdraw into a book, even in the midst of a crowd—rather like my own father. Still, their love of jigsaw-puzzling has rubbed off on me.
A couple of years ago our adventurous son was in Italy, writing poetry and harvesting olives in Cortona, Tuscany. Not to be outdone, we ventured out too, to a church bazaar, where we found a vintage Tuco puzzle of the kind made in the 1930s, during the Depression, when jigsaw puzzles first became big in the States. Lo and behold, it depicted a bucolic scene in Tuscany which we assembled with a sense of becoming one not only with that exotic environment but with our distant son. At the last, we discovered that the puzzle had one missing piece, not something that disturbs me, but Andrew wasn’t going to stop until the picture was complete. He glued a sheet of paper to a thick piece of cardboard, painstakingly cut it to the right shape, and shaded in the missing part of the picture with colored pencils. Only then could he look upon our handiwork with a sigh of satisfaction.
Reviewers of Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws (2009) confess their guilty pleasure in doing jigsaw puzzles and express relief at the knowledge that an eminent novelist indulges in an activity which even its fans feel is a waster—more, a killer, of time. According to reviewer Michael Cunningham, finishing a jigsaw puzzle involves, not a battle of wits, but laboring for hours to restore something that was ugly and useless to begin with. Apparently, in this fragmented and meandering narrative part-memoir, part social history, the author (who reads from the book here) amply defends the pastime and at the same time explores not just the history, but the pedagogy, the psychology, the zen of jigsaw-puzzling.
For as you work quietly together on a jigsaw puzzle, words, even images, can fall away, until you are just looking at shapes or subtle gradations of color. You move from systematic sorting into a kind of companionable flow state. Conversation gives way to concentration, punctuated only by the occasional murmur of appreciation or fresh cup of tea. Time stands still, or at least holds its breath. All of life’s challenges and frustrations are replaced by the entirely doable task of reassembling this one picture, piece by piece, until the whole shines forth, complete, completed. For now, anyway; only to be broken up and put away until the next time.