Given that we’re geographically scattered all over the place, my family doesn’t have a lot of traditions. But the one thing we can rely on year after year is our Christmas jigsaw puzzle.
For the past three years, I’ve been the one to choose it since my family has come to Kentucky, and I admit to having quite a good time browsing through the options on Amazon. One year, we did a scene from Old Montreal. Last year involved a horse-drawn carriage. And this year was a wintery scene at twilight with a church, a Christmas tree, a few bridges and lots of sky and snow.
But when we opened it up and started turning the pieces over, we realized all of these mini scenes were actually made up of slightly varying shades of purple: lilac, lavender, amethyst, plum, the works. Not only that, we quickly realized the puzzle pieces themselves were shockingly unique, making it very difficult to anticipate what piece would go where. Often, we’d find two pieces would fit into a space where we’d only expected one, and some of the pieces had flat sides, almost as though they belonged on the puzzle edge.
But we got to work, the kitchen table soon taken over by seven bowed heads.
When we “puzz,” as my little brother Matthew calls it, each of us has a job. My puzzle nickname, which I get strange satisfaction from, is The Masher. I generally take over the hardest part — the sky or snow — gather all of the like-colored pieces and start piecing them together. It’s slow work, but for some reason it relaxes me and I like that I’m doing a part no one else is interested in so I’m left on my own.
Matthew is The Thinker of the group. He looks for one piece at a time, analyzing for color and shape, and then plucks it from the pile and inserts it perfectly into its spot. William is The Celebrator. His technique is identical to Matthew’s except when he does insert his piece, his move is accompanied with a comment that calls attention to the progress he’s made. Generally, this translates into a “Boo-ya” or “Yeah! Beat that!” combined with a victorious fist pump.
Gabrielle is the Chatty Cathy of the group and, quickly, is becoming better at puzz-ing than the rest of us. I can’t say she has a technique yet, just seems to be good at it all, but her moves are escorted by nearly constant chatter until Matthew lovingly puts his hand over her mouth and she giggles.
We’ll call Matthew’s wife Jennie The Boxer — the person who reaches for the box to match up the piece she has in her hand with where it goes in the picture. My mom and Peter, well, they’re a little hopeless at puzzles and generally just keep us company.
Last Christmas, we were in a hurry to finish the puzzle since everyone’s planes were delayed, and we only had a few days in Kentucky before our planes to Florida were also delayed. We pulled together, though, and made it in the nick of time.
This year, we had five solid days to work on it and, given the difficulty of this year’s creation, needed every last hour. And when we finally did get to the end, we discovered there was one missing piece, something that has never happened to us before.
For my part, I laughed cynically at the gap, thinking it the perfect capping off of a perfectly terrible year. Jennie got on her hands and knees under the table searching for it and came up empty-handed. Finally, Matthew just opened up a bottle of champagne, and we toasted to the puzzle and each other, wondering when we’d next get to be together again.
In the morning, William, undaunted, decided he wouldn’t give up. Telling Gabrielle he relied on Sherlock Holmes’ motto, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” he headed down to the basement and opened up the Central Vac canister.
And there the missing piece sat, right on top, waiting for 2014.