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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Ralph bought me a puzzle. I’ve always liked jigsaw puzzles, long before Covid turned everyone into puzzlers. I have a stack of beautiful puzzles that have been done and done again, that I’ve shared with my mother, that a few brothers have even done.

But Ralph likes to challenge me. He takes something that I like, then finds the most complicated version of it.

A couple of years ago he bought me a set of four wooden puzzles. They were just wood. No color, no photo. Not even that many pieces, I believe there were something like 16 per puzzle.

They were meant to be hard. And the way they achieved that was by making the pieces essentially interchangeable.

Notice I said essentially. That does not mean entirely, because if that was the case you could put them together any way you wanted.

With these pieces you could indeed put them together any way you wanted… until you got to the 14th piece and the remaining two did not fit. And it wasn’t even like some regular cardboard puzzles where you think a piece fits but then on close scrutiny you realize there is a tiny gap where a gap should not be. And while they seem to fit, they are not quite perfectly fitted.

No, these pieces actually fit. Perfectly. Multiple ways. Until you got to the end and realized your perfect configuration left out two or three pieces and you could not complete the puzzle.

It was maddening.

The only way I could finally solve these puzzles was to meticulously analyze the microscopic subtleties of the wood grain and try to match up the pieces that way.

Then he bought them for my mother.

I was there when she received them and started working on them. She spent hours working on her first puzzle. And what I remember so clearly is the absolutely focused look on her face, the intense silence while she concentrated, the furrowed brows when she realized her perfectly matched pieces did not result in a completed puzzle.

And then, after a great deal of effort, of sighing, of shaking of the head, of starting over and turning pieces around and around in search of a clue that this time they’d be right, she was down to one single last piece.

On the threshold of triumph.

And my father, who had up until that point not worked on the puzzle at all, strolled by to see what my mother was doing. He looked over her shoulder, bent down, picked up the last piece, and put it in place.

Puzzle completed. And off he strolled with a casual, “There. Done.”

Poor mother. Her moment of glory stolen. The satisfaction of finally conquering the puzzle lost to the offhanded actions of someone who thought he was just helping.

The rest of us sat with our mouths agape, a tiny bubble of breathless shock in the air. That such a thing could happen!

We still talk about it to this day.

I have a new puzzle now, and while it is not an interchangeable wooden puzzle, it is nothing so simple as a bunch of wine bottles or a flower garden or a truck full of hay bales. It is a 499-piece all white puzzle.

Because one piece is missing.

It’s quite hilarious, actually, I mean if you were going to put together the most aggravating puzzle possible, of course you’d leave a piece out.

On the plus side, the pieces are uniquely shaped enough that you can pick through them and find potential matches while discarding others. You don’t literally have to go piece by piece for every slot.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t.

What do you think the odds are that every time I want to find a piece I’d have to pick up and try 98% of the pieces on the table before finding the one that fits?

The odds, I can tell you with certainty, are very good.

At this point I’m convinced that there are about twelve missing pieces.

Some days I can go a half hour, trying every single piece in a spot, and never find it. You’d be forgiven for thinking that spot could be for the missing piece, but I assure you it is not. Because I then follow that up by trying every single piece in another spot, and nothing fits there, either.

Today I got three pieces. It was practically a miracle.

I did land on a marginally more productive strategy, which involves trying every single piece in multiple spots sequentially. It increases the likelihood of something fitting somewhere, and reduces the frequency with which I need to touch every single piece.

Or so I tell myself.

Oh, and Ralph bought the same puzzle for my mother, too. And my father is actually helping, instead of just thinking he is. So they may complete theirs before I complete mine.

That, and the barrel, should keep me busy for about the rest of the year. Besides the border, I’ve managed about two dozen pieces so far, and that’s only been about two months. Let’s not do the math on that one.

Not sure what Ralph will think of next, but he never disappoints.

Photo: the current state of the puzzle. And the fabulous puzzle board that Ralph also bought for me. And for my mother.