- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

The clearance price attracts my attention first. Next is the idyllic scene on the cover of the box — two Adirondack chairs angled gracefully on the front porch of a lovely clapboard house; a cat perched on the front stoop; a dogwood tree in full bloom in the yard.

The only thing missing in the photo is me, sitting in one of those worn wooden chairs, sipping iced tea and reading the newest copy of O: The Oprah Magazine or a book of poems by Billy Collins.

I pick up the box and study the photo, deciding I easily could spend a weekend dreaming about a place as quiet and quaint as this. Besides, the pharmacy put the puzzles on deep discount, probably to make room for beach chairs and water wings. At $2.99, reconstructing the thousand pieces in this box is cheap entertainment.

My husband says there are people who do puzzles and people who don’t. He doesn’t. It’s not a question of whether he enjoys the process, it’s that he doesn’t “think spatially.” I’m not surprised when he surveys the cardboard cutouts on the coffee table and decrees, “This is not how people have fun.”

“You’re missing out,” I say cheerfully. He declares the puzzle “impossible” but I’m not deterred. It’s a long weekend, we have no plans, snow is flying outside, and I have a fire roaring at my back — not to mention, the puzzle is not the point.

As soon as I get started, two of my children scurry across the room and stake out spots on the floor beside me. We sort out the edge pieces and begin assembling the frame. Every coupling elicits a victory whisper. Within an hour, the 20-by-24-inch border claims its space in the center of the table, leaving little room for the roughly 930 puzzle pieces remaining.

We find all the red, white and blue pieces that will depict “Old Glory” hanging off the front of a white pillar. Now we realize roughly 600 pieces of this puzzle are white — parts of the six pillars graciously holding up the roof of my imaginary retreat. Intimidated, we move on to the cobblestone steps at the bottom of the frame.

Every so often, there’s a staff change among my puzzle helpers. One quits for a while to rest her eyes, another takes a break for popcorn. Replacements take over (but not my husband) — or sometimes, I just work on the puzzle by myself, offering an unspoken invitation to join me to whoever walks through the room.

Basketball is on TV, then the news, then “Law and Order.” One by one, I kiss and tuck the children away for the night — by the time I turn the lights out on the puzzle, it’s going on 1 in the morning.

Piece by piece, the weekend progresses. Hostas take form in the lower right corner; the dark, blurry pieces we thought were the front door turn out to be a window. The pillars aren’t just white, but varying shades of white. We study the photo on the box, passing it around in hopes it will reveal the key to making the hundreds of remaining puzzle pieces fit together easily, without testing, turning, trying.

What I learn while puzzling is not about the puzzle, but about the puzzlers. Heads nearly touching while we study the rainbow of blacks that eventually will be the screen door, I ask about school or sports or social plans; they share thoughts about teachers and friends.

My son tells me how he’ll miss the boy in his class visiting from South Korea.

My youngest daughter tells me what she loves about the movie “Napoleon Dynamite.”

My eighth-grader talks about enrolling for high school and choosing her classes for next year.

My high schooler tells me about the book she’s reading and why it’s both interesting and disturbing.

Gradually, as the picture on the coffee table reflects more and more the cover of the puzzle box, my family invests itself not only in the shared challenge of an “impossible” task, but also in conversation about a host of topics from the TV show “The Apprentice” to our dinner plans to what we love about summer.

Eventually, even my non-puzzling husband joins us, inspired by my tenacity — or is it my relentless dedication, despite the meaninglessness of its purpose? More likely, it’s starting to look like fun.

His puzzling technique is methodical, if not brooding. He doesn’t pick up pieces and try them — he waits until he sees the exact puzzle piece for a specific place and then confidently drops it in place. It’s slow, but successful.

Two days into the puzzle project, we’re amazed at what we’re accomplishing. My son lobbies to extract a promise from me that he will be the one to insert the final piece. It’s premature to argue over this honor — there are easily 100 pieces left, all indistinguishable shades of olive green. “Whoever has the last piece will put it in the puzzle,” I say.

The six of us hover over the coffee table as we work furiously toward the finish. Just 12 pieces left; now nine; now five. Suddenly, it looks as if we have lost one, which prompts us to scour the floor. Someone suggests maybe the dog ate it.

Silently, my husband takes my hand and slides the missing piece into my palm. I smile at him as I slip it into place, completing a serene picture that was neither impossible nor even very puzzling after all.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to [email protected]

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