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A tale of 14 puzzles

Almost immediately after the WHO called the pandemic in March, we began self-isolation as best we could. It was March Break, and we hadn’t made any plans to travel. My husband, considered a frontline worker as a children’s mental health manager, continued to go into work for another two weeks, until the agency had everything in place to allow their staff to work from home.

Our kids, now 16 and 13, seemed to have slid right into the rhythm of self-isolation. There really isn’t much of a choice for them – will it be a Chromebook or iPad screen, a phone screen or a TV screen? Hours on end, day after day, spent not on homework and catching up on lost assignments, but on video games, social media accounts and YouTube videos.

We do have a device that monitors and controls access to the internet for each device and each user, so my daughter has about 3.5 hours of screentime available to her, and my son, 16, has unlimited screentime between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. There is a very long story about why this is allowed to happen in our house, one that I don’t have the energy for right now, but know that it’s not bad parenting that allows it. This is the result of a very slow, painful process of letting go. A story for another time.

One highlight that has kept our days from sinking into oblivion has been the puzzles I’ve been working on with the kids. Mostly my daughter and I put them together, and my son – who is spatially gifted and can put puzzles together with ease – would casually insert a few pieces before or after meals. We are so good at puzzles that we never do any below 1,000 pieces, and it takes a maximum of a week to put one together. Sometimes only a couple of days, depending on the image, and once, less than 24 hours. That one was too easy.

We had two puzzles in our cupboard that we attempted but gave up on. One was a Where’s Waldo puzzle; now, I like Where’s Waldo books, but the jigsaws stink. Too many identical pieces that are hard to place, and if you don’t have dedicated helpers, well, suffice it to say I acknowledged our first defeat. The second defeat came at the hands of a 3-D Yoda; each puzzle piece had its own series of images within it, so you couldn’t really group by colour or pattern, because these were irrelevant to the overall image. We needed a magnifying glass to make sense of it, and we had none. That came later. Yoda, we gave up on. We passed it off to my sister-in-law, who is a champion at jigsaws. She completed it in four days!

Every time we finished a puzzle, I posted a picture on Instagram, numbered and tagged, and felt sufficiently accomplished. I discovered others were doing puzzles, too, and some had done every puzzle in their house (like us) and needed more. I did a physically distanced trade with friends – the kids and I walked the five kilometres to their house with three of our old puzzles, spent a bit of time chatting with them, and then walked home with three of their puzzles in our backpack. We finished them in quick order, returned them, and turned to our next loaners, from a friend who lived a few blocks away. My daughter and I went out for a walk, and picked them up from the prearranged spot on her second-floor porch. Once we’d finished these ones, we ordered two new puzzles online from a local store. Within 12 hours of placing the order, three puzzles from two different people mysteriously showed up on our porch, one with a lovely note from our friends about how they’d been following my puzzle posts and wanted to contribute to the effort.

I realize now, my numbered puzzles on Instagram missed one puzzle. Here’s the real list:

  1. A Tail of the Talking Mask: a retro Batman comic strip image;

  2. An Irish Cupboard: an old puzzle we’d been given years ago but had never put together;

  3. A Countryside Market, one of the trades offered by a friend;

  4. Vintage Kellog ads, the second trade;

  5. Vintage Canadian Pacific Railway ads, the third trade from the same friend;

  6. 100 Frogs and a Fly: a fun image by Ceaco;

  7. A stylized early Americana puzzle of a series of fun egg production methods;

  8. A Springbok mystery puzzle, complete with a story;

  9. Vintage travel labels, a 2,000-piece puzzle we still completed in a week;

  10. A cat sleeping on a bed, circa 1990s flowered sheets and frills;

  11. Yoga Cats Get in Touch With Your Inner Kitty;

  12. Baskets of yarn;

  13. Japanese rice paper umbrellas, one we’d ordered, and such fun to put together, it took no time at all.

  14. Classic Life Magazine photographs (children’s portraits) by Eurographics.

This last one took the longest time. Know why? The image on the box, the puzzle we thought we had purchased, was not the same as the actual puzzle pieces! Imagine trying to put a puzzle together without a full image to guide you. I lost the kids right away. No more help from them. Thankfully, there was a very small image of the puzzle on the back of the box, and I struggled to see the pictures (of course, a collage of very small portraits of children that had appeared in the magazine over the years) until my husband bought me a magnifying glass.

I’ve designated that brain-burner as the last puzzle for now. The weather is nice, and frankly, I’d rather be sitting on the porch or the deck reading a book now. I’ve just finished a big editing project, at least the first round, and I’m taking a breather, until the weekend, when the next project arrives. I’m going to put the puzzle in its box, fold up the card table and put it away, and take back the corner of the living room for the furniture that usually fits there.

The jigsaws have been comforting for me over the past three months of isolation. Each piece has its place, and if you persevere, you end up with the full picture. Each one in its place.

While the world sifts through its pieces of medical and health advice . . .

While we learn what it means to truly pause our lives . . .

While the segments of governments issue their orders and phases and bits of information that are either too much or not enough . . .

While we process numbers of cases, confirmed and resolved, and deaths and why and where . . .

The jigsaws have taken us out of the moments of the pandemic, only briefly. And at the same time, they have fitted these months together to become part of our pandemic story. We persevere in putting our pictures together, the smaller pictures that are just small enough to help us cope and thrive and survive in our households, if we’re lucky. And the bigger picture that helps us see how the world is so interconnected that not one of us can survive without another. And shouldn’t.

Our stories weave together to make a much bigger picture. And when all the pieces fit together, where they should, the world is a better place.

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