The Great Puzzle Puzzle

© Jay Harden


As far as I am concerned, puzzles are a part of America. Jigsaw puzzles in particular, I mean. If we didn’t invent them, surely we perfected their making.

I got my first one on my second birthday. It was a gyp of a gift, a huge, boring landscape, and I could not figure out how to put it together. I cried and hated my friend for giving it to me. But in a few months, my mother bought me a simpler one and I was ready. She was a schoolteacher and knew my maturity.

I have many pleasant, relaxing memories of puzzles over a lifetime, especially with my wife. We took weeks putting them together at our leisure on a card table in a corner of our living room, musing about anything and just being together. The largest I recall was 3,000 pieces – or so I thought for nearly a half century. Until now, that is.

My four-year-old granddaughter is crazy about doing puzzles with me, so much so that they are kept at my house since we live within walking distance of each other. We quickly progressed from 25 pieces to 63 and now have mastered 100. It is great fun watching her intense enthusiasm. We divide the labor as she wishes. I usually work the edges and she likes to do the main character. Our latest project is Curious George (curious indeed, as you read on). I also assist in finding needed pieces whenever her urgency requests. The whole puzzle assembly process is like fluid poetry and I bask in each moment’s magic shared with her. We take turns putting in the very last piece (something my wife often hoarded), and then smooth the whole thing down on my big bendable cutting board for a moment’s admiration.

Next we toss the whole puzzle high into the air and she giggles with delight as it disintegrates over the room. We put the empty box against a wall and scoop the parts into one big pile – she allocating a smaller portion to me – and begin to aim for the box, one piece at a time. We repeat the process with those that missed until all are in. Variations on this theme are still evolving, but the game is over when we replace the cover and put the puzzle away until another time.

Now it so happened that one day – just as she inserted the last piece – my daughter called her home. And so the puzzle stayed on the floor until her older sister, seven, came over later to show me a new drawing, and saw George. I told her we were now up to 100 pieces. She quickly reminded me she could count to one hundred and so I challenged her to demonstrate. She disassembled the puzzle one piece at a time, counting as she put each in the box. I was not completely attentive until she finished at 104. “Grandpa Jay, the box is wrong!” she screamed. Being a retired scientist and understanding the stamping principle of puzzle manufacture, I knew she had to be wrong. To my credit, I thoughtfully suggested we count them again, putting them in rows of ten. To my astonishment – but not hers – four pieces were left over! We unquestionably proved that the puzzle had exactly 104 pieces, not 100 as promised on the cover.

The solution was obvious to my granddaughter. She took a marker and relabeled the box with the correct number. For her, the problem was history.

I, on the other hand, felt quite aggravated. My cherished assumption of the simple truth of jigsaw puzzles for lo these many years was completely crushed! How could the puzzle people lie about this? And why would they? A personal faith in American virtue was starting to waiver. Whatever happened to telling the truth? Is there really corn in my corn flakes, or is it part tofu? Are some of my M&Ms really W&Ws? Should I just report it anonymously to the Internet rumor mill and see what happens? Or maybe I’m just clueless and the last person on earth to discover what everyone has known and accepted. Everybody knows the World Series excludes most of the world’s baseball teams, right?

I suppose discretion is the better part of consumerism, but it really irks me when children are deceived at so early an age, before they even have money to spend. Yes, I know truth is part perception and can be relative, but I prefer my grandchildren discover that through later experience, rather than being force fed falsehood in childhood.

Ah, well, there’s no harm done as far as my granddaughters are concerned and that’s what really counts with me right now. Pretty soon, we’ll be tackling a 300(?)-piece puzzle. And we’ll keep going up until they have learned what they need from the joy of puzzling.

People and puzzles are an honest, concise description of America today, I think. This combination I find reassuring. Someday, if I’m very lucky, I’ll get to do puzzles again with my grandchildren’s children. That hat trick will be a gas! But, I’ve already decided one thing: I’m not going to count any 5,000-piece puzzle by hand, some things being better left to the curiosity and energy of the young. But I might if I was ten-years-old!

O’Fallon, Missouri