The National Catholic Review
Valerie Schultz

Spring break, in our mountainous part of the country, does not always coincide with spring. The chill of winter often lingers past the vernal equinox. Today, for example, it is snowing on our poor, tentative tulip shoots. The wind is at war with forward progress, and the ice on the road has kept us all home. Yet in the spirit of the Easter season, we know it will pass. We patiently await our late spring.

We are no longer in the mood for mittens and snowmen, but the fireplace crackles—warm and inviting as ever. Which is lucky, since we’re without electricity. Despite all this, however, there is still cause for celebration. Schools are closed. My husband-teacher and my four children-students get to stay at home, safe and snug. Even our normally adventurous dog sticks close to the wood stove on this day of unexpected togetherness.

But wait! No lights; no T.V.; no stereo—no action! Then I remember: we have, in its still-wrapped virgin box, a new jigsaw puzzle. One thousand pieces. A lush rain forest scene, with exotic foliage and lizards. Oh, boy; will all those shades of green make it tough! We can hardly wait to dive in.

But there is jigsaw protocol to follow.

First, the picture has to be one we can all stand to look at. This one is excellent, chosen unanimously at the zoo gift shop last summer. We were thinking ahead. We can’t work a puzzle that is nauseating (playful kitties with ribbons) or boring (lobster boats). We also don’t want one that is insurmountable: all white, say, or five thousand pieces. We must satisfy a wide range of ages.

This lovely puzzle says everything in French as well as English. “Casse-tête,” it says, under the words “Jigsaw Puzzle,” which my college French roughly translates as “Head-Breaker.” We can’t wait to break our heads, poetically speaking.

The second important point is to be sure to start the puzzle on a big-enough board (there is some math involved), one that can be moved around the house. If we start one on the kitchen table and don’t finish it by dinnertime, the day’s effort has to be stuffed heartbreakingly back into the box before dinner can be served. The board can go from table to floor to couch, with care, allowing different people to participate in the same puzzle until its completion.

Dinner brings up the third rule: on puzzle days, always make soup. Minimum-attention soup. Throw all the roots and vegetables you’ve got in a pot, trust in God and simmer. (Thank God we have a gas stove.) Add some of the spices that usually stay in the back of the cabinet, just for aroma. Stir whenever your legs are stiff from puzzling too long. Serve with all the odd crackers you’ve accumulated: a jigsaw dinner.

The last, most essential rule: let everyone work the puzzle however they want. My younger children like to rummage in the box for all the flat edges, which are easily identifiable. Then they can help achieve the frame of the picture in a short time, before they lose interest.

They move on to other diversions, leaving a trail of Legos, dolls and paintings. But they monitor the puzzle’s progress even after the process has become tedious. My older children like to pick one flamboyant part to put together themselves—the red bird, or the patch of poppies, or the eyes. Fitting the last piece into a section gives a good, finished feeling. It is like finally remembering your second-grade teacher’s name, or jogging your two miles without walking once.

The therapy of the jigsaw day is this: puzzles bring families together. While it might be simplistic to encourage counselors to send every family home with a jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle is the perfect indoor family activity. It requires your brains and your fingers, but not the kind of concentration that precludes socializing. You can talk while you puzzle, and sometimes the lack of eye contact coupled with the closeness of faces can encourage surprisingly frank communication. But you can’t eat while you puzzle. Greasy smears or wet dribbles on the pieces are forbidden. A puzzle will never go right to your hips, because you are otherwise engaged.

But don’t be like me: don’t become puzzle-obsessed. Long after the rest of the family have quenched their thirst for challenge and companionship, I am still trying to fit like pieces with like, shape to shape, color to color. I can’t stop. It becomes a mission. While others relax with the puzzle, I must break my head clean in half. I am often the one who finishes the puzzle, in a darkened, silent house, late at night, surrounded by the slivery jigsaw dust from the bottom of the box. When the children wake up in the morning, they think the puzzle fairy has visited while they slept.

Putting in the last piece of the puzzle brings with it a warm flood of satisfaction. A younger member of the family, allowed to fit in the last piece, basks in the honor like a mayor cutting her first red ribbon at a supermarket grand opening. Sometimes, though, someone’s darker side emerges, and she hides a piece to be assured of fitting it in as the last. This behavior is to be discouraged, as it is unkind to watch someone search repeatedly for a certain bizarrely shaped piece, knowing all the while it is safely tucked in one’s sock drawer. There is also the danger inherent in garage-sale puzzles, or hand-me-down puzzles, that the last piece is not there. It is forever lost: why else were these puzzles deemed disposable? These puzzles leave an aura of puzzlus interruptus, an unsatiated disquiet. Beware.

But the next time you are blessed with a chilly, wet day, rejoice! Let the weather be, let the fragrant soup permeate the house, let the candles be lit. Take out the jigsaw puzzle of the Sound of Music meadow that a co-worker gave you long ago and crack it open. Gather your loved ones, shoulder to shoulder and head to head. Begin to puzzle. You are not wasting time; you are communing. Be grateful for jigsaw therapy, for days like these.

Valerie Schultz writes from Tehachapi, Calif.

Recently in Columns