Jigsaw Falling Into Place

It isn't just taking life piece by piece that's important but paying attention to the moments in between


At 91 years old, my grandmother still lives alone, but with her mobility decreasing, her at-home activities consist mostly of watching old Westerns on the TV, along with whatever Boston sports team is in season.

When her 83-year-old sister introduced her to puzzles, Gram politely said she would try them, but confided in me that she really had no interest. I had to wonder was she in denial about the changes related to aging, like giving up her car? Here's a woman who has spent her life with a full social calendar and now her family was urging her to sit down and put together a 500-piece puzzle?

I could relate.

Board games have always excited me. I terrorized my parents and older brother growing up with the incessant teasing of Monopoly marathons. The wordsmith in me loved Scrabble and my overactive imagination thrived at coming up with Scattegories answers that no other player would write down.

This carried over into my adult life. I remember living on Saipan and then Hawaii in my early 20 and upon meeting people, sure, I'd tell them I was from Maine and liked long walks on the beach, but not too far into our conversations I'd have to ask them, "Do you play Cribbage?"

But good old-fashioned jigsaw puzzles? I was in agreement with my grandmother: bor-ing.

Still, I recall evenings with Gram at "camp" (a cabin on a lake for you non-Mainers) as a kid and having her teach me strategies of Chinese Checkers and how to play Solitaire and then Double Solitaire. Knowing games had been a large part of her adult life, I was interested to see what would become of the stacks of puzzles from her younger sister.

The next time I visited her, disposable aluminum baking tins surrounded her puzzle, taking up more space on her antique folding table than the actual jigsaw itself.

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"Gram, please don't bake the puzzle pieces. Just tell Jeannie you don't enjoy it and she'll come get them," I teased her.

It turns out, she was color-coordinating the pieces, strategizing like she did with the games we used to play together.

"Jeannie made the suggestion of this sorting idea," Gram said nodding, her tone hinting at a changed perspective, but her body language was still shooing away the idea of being an old puzzle lady. "But, I mostly stare at the thing and get one or two each time I sit with it."

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My daughter, whose middle name is Elaine after my puzzle-deflecting Grandma, delighted in the challenge of helping her Great string together the fluffy cats or birds on a feeder.

"Oh good, Lexi," Gram would encourage her. "When you're done, I have some of those adult coloring books Jeannie got me. Next time she comes, I can show her how I've finished a puzzle AND whipped through those ... busy flower pages."

Gram rose from her comfy blue velvet chair and adjusted her walker before turning to me.

"I know I just had surgery to fix my vision, but how am I supposed to color in those tiny spaces?"

I delighted in her ever-present sense of humor.

My grandmother was given her first puzzle two years ago. Now, she could complete one quicker than nine innings of a Sox double-header on a Sunday afternoon. But rather, she takes time getting to know the landscape of her latest challenge.

Recently, I opened Gram's storage closet and asked if I could borrow a couple puzzles to see if maybe Lexi would be interested in a new hobby. If Gram garnered a taste for this pasttime, perhaps Lexi would also develop an appreciation.

The puzzles sat on our dining table for several days after only a few attempts to tear my 9-year-old away from her version of Gram's Westerns (Netflix). Finally, my own curiosity led me to take a seat at the table, where I opened the box and started turning the pieces right-side-up (sans aluminum baking tins).

Before long, Lexi joined me. Her initial response was nearly identical to her great grandmother's. Lexi had always been an enthusiastic and social kid, arms open wide to all new experiences and people and activities. But when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes last year, I saw, from time to time, a dip in her spirit. This chronic, autoimmune disease with no prevention and no cure, had forced Lexi to grow up quicker than anyone planned. Poking needles into her own body multiple times a day in order to live is something she (and her family) are still processing.

In no way did I believe putting together an underwater mermaid scene would jumpstart her spunk, but perhaps there was something else?

As Lexi and I worked side by side on our first 300-piece puzzle, she was frustrated that she couldn't immediately find neighboring shapes whose grooves slid together just so. In my mind, I also wondered what I'd gotten us into, but stuck with it, using my "edges first" approach. I found that Lexi liked working on the guts of the puzzle. When I thought about it, these strategies suited our individual personalities. I'm careful and want to build a wall of comfort around the inner workings of my life; while Lexi goes straight to the heart of things. We talked about sorting the colors as my Gram did, but found the method didn't work for us.

Our three differing approaches intrigued me.

I think part of the reason my enjoyment for puzzles grew is because there isn't much logical thought involved. In fact, not only do you not have to strategize to "win" but the search of the right piece keeps you very present. Zen-like. And after a while, you almost develop an eye for where the pieces fit and maybe more importantly, a knack for letting go of how the pieces of reality may or may not fit. When puzzling, my grandmother didn't have to worry about her declining memory or wonder if she'd feel up to going to church on Sunday. Lexi didn't have to think about checking her blood sugar or administering insulin.

We live in a time where we want everything in place right now—instant gratification. But there are some lessons that we cannot grasp in 1.2 seconds.

Most days, I want to know how I'm going to keep Lexi feeling like her childhood is "normal." How am I going to keep her spirits up if she's having a tough diabetes day? This ever-present concern sometimes took away my presence. I was there with her physically, but my mind wandered to elements of life I could not change. Ironically, I was really proficient in telling others not to worry and they believed me.

In the beginning, I hoped my daughter would learn something from the journey of completing a puzzle like her Great-Gram, but I was the one who realized that it isn't just taking life piece by piece that is important but paying attention to the moments in between.

Solving something quickly may feel rewarding for a short time, but stepping back and letting the "unknown" become a welcomed feeling within you provides a stillness that is much more powerful in the long run. In the end, just like a puzzle, all paths lead to the big picture.