Years ago, we were all crowded around my grandparent’s dull-gray folding table, working on this puzzle. Maybe not this exact puzzle, of course. This one I found at Second and Charles, a discount store that happens to sell, of all things, used puzzles. God knows why anyone in their right mind would buy a used puzzle, except maybe a masochist that gets their kicks from incomplete puzzles. And…well, me of course.
I remember sitting on grandpas blue leather couch, trying not to let it eat me alive. It was one of those impossible, squishy, slippery, couches that insists on you lounging, not just on it, but almost inside of it. It smelled like my grandpa’s cigars and there were always cookie crumbs in the folds. It was Christmas, and my grandma’s tree was lit, with pink in all the places that traditions insist should be red. Pink poinsettias, pink ornaments, pink garland.
I remember thinking it was a completely lame puzzle that no one would ever want to hang up in their house. My aunts and uncles would slide by, maybe pick up a piece or two and try to make it fit. They’d quickly get bored and move on, but my grandpa and I were relentless when it came to puzzles. We did the border first, and then I started piecing together the horses and the parts with the letters on them. Grandpa told me that was cheating. I laughed and told him that he was just jealous of my puzzling prowess. At that point, bowled over by my fancy use of alliteration and the complete adoration of his grandchildren, I imagine Grandpa conceded and split some peanut brittle with me.
It may have been the only time we actually finished a puzzle on Christmas Day. Our family tradition of present opening was epic in those days. Even when we started drawing names as the family grew bigger, there was still a pile of presents that dwarfed the tree and took all day to open. We’re that family that opens our presents one at a time. Everyone has to watch, and make approving noises before we can move onto the next present, my dad secretly cleaning up the wrapping paper we threw on the floor (per tradition). The present opening sometimes took so long that we had to take a lunch break in between, even though we’d all had breakfast together and had been eating cookies all morning.
But somehow, this Christmas, we finished the puzzle. We were watching “Oklahoma!” on TV, and everyone was complaining but no one was bothered enough to change the channel. My grandma was reminded everyone that I danced to “Surry With the Fringe on Top” in my first recital and then promptly added how embarrassing it was for her when I refused to dance in what should have been my first recital. There were bits of peanut brittle stuck to some of the puzzle pieces, and coffee rings on the table.
It was late when we made it to the end of the puzzle and it was exhausting to discover a piece was missing. It was right near the white door and the flower box on the left of the house. My grandpa decided to march down to Meijer and get a new puzzle to find the missing piece, so we could finish the puzzle. Mayhem ensued, Grandpa looking for his hat that was already on his head while my grandma told him it was an absurd waste of time since we weren’t going to frame the puzzle. As he was leaving she yelled after him not to buy anything sweet. After returning with a whole new puzzle (and a box of doughnuts), we spent the next half hour searching through the pieces until we found the one we needed. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite match up and my Grandpa had to whittle it with his knife to make it fit. It stuck out on the edges and the cardboard was torn from trying to force it into a place it didn’t belong, but we were proud all the same.
In the end, this story isn’t one of those memories that you’ve told and retold so many times your pharmacist knows it. It’s not a particularly good story. There isn’t a punch line or some epic ending. I think in the end we just crumbled it up and put it back in the box like my grandma had predicted. It wasn’t a memory worth retelling. I wouldn’t have thought it was even a memory worth keeping. But the minute I saw the horses, and the white doors with the flower boxes, I knew it was a memory worth repeating.
We’re going to work on this puzzle at Christmas this year.
If there is a missing piece, the doughnuts are on me.