Ever since I was a child, growing up in New Orleans, I’ve been cuckoo for jigsaw puzzles. As with many of my longtime interests, I have Mom to thank for my puzzle obsession. Over the years, we worked on a variety of puzzles together – from a silly 1000-piece map of the United States, with crazy little characters that kept us giggling all week, to a 550-piece snapshot of chocolate slabs that made us both ravenous every time we assembled it.
No matter where we were living at the time – the house in New Orleans East, the place north of Lake Pontchartrain, the last one in Lakeview – there was always a stack of puzzles in my mother’s closet. When I visited her in the fall of 2004, I rescued my favorite one from the stack – a vibrant drawing of a unicorn in a meadow. Thank Serendipity that I did, for less than a year later, Hurricane Katrina broke the levee between Metairie and Lakeview, and submerged nearly all of my mother’s belongings, including our beloved puzzles. When I finally saw the house again – several months after Katrina had uprooted my mother and forced her to relocate to Baton Rouge – all that was left of our puzzles were a few scattered pieces in the moldy carpet.
But I’ve never forgotten the joy that I felt working on puzzles with Mom – and the sense of accomplishment whenever we finished one. I’ll never forget, too, our ritual – we would work steadily until the very last piece, which we would insert into the puzzle together.
Today, I still work on puzzles – occasionally with my nieces, but more often by myself. I find them at once relaxing and challenging – so much so that I decided to mention them in my first novel, Hollow Souls. Of course, the novel is soon to undergo a major revision, so it’s possible that the puzzle scene will have to go. Whether it stays or not, though, I’d like to share it with you:
After a leisurely dinner with her friends, Caroline followed the Littletons up to the third level. Most Hollowites were so active during the week that they had to reserve specific nights for uninterrupted family time. For the Littletons, three hours every Sunday were theirs to spend however they wanted – no homework, chores, guard shifts, or other appointments – just board games, jigsaw puzzles, art projects, storytelling sessions, moonlit strolls, anything that allowed them to have fun together. Caroline was flattered to be included in such a precious family ritual.
By half-past seven, a dozen individuals sat on the floor of the Littletons’ cozy parlor, trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle that had only been completed once before – when it was first crafted. Earlier in the year, Mariah Singleton, a skilled portrait painter, had invited Anna and Agnes to pose for a joint picture. Two months later, in celebration of her lifelong friends’ thirty-seventh wedding anniversary, she’d created a life-sized depiction of them, portrayed from head to waist. Instead of handing over the painting, however, she’d sliced the thin wooden canvas into a thousand smaller pieces and stored them in a hand-carved box. Though grateful for the gift, the couple had yet to see the actual portrait, so tonight they’d convinced the family to help them complete the puzzle, which they planned to glue, frame, and hang on their bedroom wall.
For four hours, the family discussed everything from schoolwork to Christmas presents, while diligently laboring on different sections of the picture. Margaret, Julia, and Agnes toiled over the rose-colored background while the children struggled with the women’s faces. Although the subjects of the painting were in their very midst, all of them, including Anna and Agnes, found it challenging to complete the puzzle without a comparison image. Eventually, they were compelled to raid their closets for the outfits worn during their studio sitting. With the clothes draped across the sofa, the image emerged more quickly, though it still proved a difficult project for the men, whose patience wore thin after the first hour.
Nevertheless, the family persevered. Caroline proved especially dexterous; she’d assembled many puzzles in her room back in Lexington. Ignoring the children’s normal bedtime, the family managed to achieve their goal, and Caroline was given the honor of securing the last piece – a smidgen of Anna’s brown eye.
When the image was again whole, the family surveyed Mariah’s handiwork. Against the rosy drapery that the artist had hung in the background, Anna and Agnes posed in a comfortable, smiling embrace. Wearing a maize-hued corduroy dress, with her thick black hair pulled into a single braid, Anna stood behind Agnes, her arms encircling her companion’s waist, her brown-skinned fingers interlaced with her partner’s pale, slender hands. Agnes’ curly, grayish-blonde hair was cropped in a customary bob, and her cotton blouse was the shade of sea green. Well into middle age, the women seemed younger in Mariah’s rendition, perhaps because, after nearly four decades, theirs was an embrace of two women still in love.
“I like it,” Jesse said. “You both look really happy. Younger, too.”
“Yeah,” Caroline agreed. “And the colors are all so pretty.”
“You should definitely get it framed,” Joshua added. “Me and Dad could do it for you.”
Anna squeezed her partner’s hand. “I think the kids are right.”
Agnes smiled. “Think it does us justice?”
Margaret laughed. “Ladies, if an artist manages to capture your unique styles, illustrate your love for each other, and make you look younger, the painting’s definitely a keeper.”
“Thanks, everyone, for helping us put it together,” Anna said as she lifted the board.
Agnes picked up the other end, and together they walked toward their bedroom door, balancing the puzzle between them. “Yeah, if we’d had to do it on our own, we wouldn’t have finished ‘til our fortieth anniversary. And we see these faces every day.”
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