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This past Christmas was like a jigsaw puzzle.  As with a puzzle, there are a multitude of unique and colorful pieces that make up our celebration each year–some darker and others especially light and bright.  When put together in just the right combinations and in the company of friends and family, they accumulate to make a memorable treasure that is more valuable than the sum of the parts.

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This is part of our favorite Christmas Lights Display at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Christmas and puzzles both illustrate to me the saying that there’s more joy in the journey than in the destination. As with every Christmas, a puzzle is most enjoyable before it’s finished–before you have to decide whether to preserve and frame it, or pack it all away in the box again.  This year I struggled to begin the process of packing our Christmas decorations up until next–to concede that it was finished.

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Here’s more of the display at Temple Square.

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Celebrating Christmas Day with all the extended family at the Bowl was a memorable treat.

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The cold is always more bearable with cousins and Christmas lights.

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We rode the Trax train into Salt Lake City to see the Christmas Lights right after Thanksgiving every year. 

This is the first year that my dad wasn’t with us to add to our Christmas memories, so, during the weeks prior to Christmas and up until the New Year, I made a conscious decision to hold fast to some of our favorite traditions and re-establish others in his honor–including a few surrounding the jigsaw puzzle table.

IMG_1845Dad was content with simple things. Finding a unique gift that would surprise and delight him was a challenge. Good Kids–obedient, honest, helpful–that’s what he really wanted,  but maybe for our sake we wanted him to have something under the tree to unwrap, too.

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We watched impatiently as he opened his gifts. He’d slowly turn them over in his hands, shake them gently, and comment how he hated to ruin such lovely wrapping. He’d wonder out loud, teasing our patience and savoring the moment. He would carefully peel the tape from the wrapping paper, folding and smoothing it.

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He was able to see well enough to do crossword puzzles after he couldn’t do jigsaw puzzles anymore. Even then, there came a point where he needed a magnifying glass.

His expressions of gratitude were worth the wait, though I realized as I grew older that his surprise was often feigned.  He pretty much expected a book, a new Sunday shirt, a package of socks.  He would know it when he shook it,  but a jigsaw puzzle was always good for a surprise when the paper came off. He’d run his fingers over the flowers, mountain valleys, meadows, or architecture featured in our selection as he admired its beauty and appraised the difficulty presented by the contrast of colors in it.

Once the gifts were all opened and kids were settled in concentrating on new toys, Dad always set up the card table and, with his car keys, sliced the seal on the puzzle box.  He never had a shortage of help to turn the pieces face up, sort them into colors, or locate the ones with straight edges for him.  I used to love to take a few pieces out of the middle just to experience the elation–the feel and sound (almost a “crunch”)–of finding the perfect fit again. Until Macular Degeneration pretty much claimed his sight a few years ago, Dad always spent quiet hours in the week following Christmas finishing his puzzle.

My husband doesn’t get into them like I do, but I thought my kids might remember Grandpa’s puzzles, and decided to get one this year for old times’ sake.  For me. For them.  For the sake of sitting around the table without apps or earphones or digital distractions, and for completing something that we could work together to accomplish. . . for the sake of conversation.  For Dad.

I didn’t know if my teenagers would even attempt such an old fashioned pastime. But when Santa brought us a puzzle from Eric Dowdle’s collection featuring Chicago in 500 interlocking pieces they were agreeable to spend a few hours on it. I was pleasantly surprised when my son insisted that his sister wait to open the box when he could be there.  We sorted and searched in semi-quiet concentration with occasional bursts of random thoughts, songs, or cooperative conversation.  “Pass me all the pieces with wheels.” or “Anyone see the rest of this fountain?”  Time flew and we finished it in a few hours.  It became a centerpiece for our kitchen table for a day or two and then we broke it down again and boxed it up. It all happened so fast I didn’t even think to get a picture.  I was delighted at the suggestion that we should do another one.

I found another 500 piece Americana styled picture of a dog-walking park in the after Christmas sales.  Two hours after we emptied the box, we were racing to place the final pieces. Like the first, it only played the part of centerpiece for a short while before we craved another.

The New Year was still days away.  The next puzzle had to be more challenging, and I knew just the one to do.  My mom had shown me a puzzle that she intended to give to anyone in the family who thought they were up to it.  I visited her and asked if it had been claimed. She disappeared into Dad’s office and emerged with a 1000 piecer in a painting called  Wherever He Leads Me by the Christian artist Greg Olsen, along with three less challenging ones.  There was no question which we would attempt first.

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This one was unlike the others we had done. No single piece had any recognizable features.  Our original sort only included four categories:  straight edge pieces, “darks”, “lights”, and anything we couldn’t definitively place in the previously mentioned categories.

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The colors were so subtle and similar that we couldn’t be sure of which area of the puzzle any particular piece belonged to. We began to distinguish the subtle variations of color (pale creamy yellows and dark brownish greens) and nuances of the textures. We soon found ourselves naming the various shapes of the pieces we were in need of.  “Anyone see a  light ‘buttered popcorn jelly bean’ yellow one with a diagonal line across the bobble?”  “I’m looking for a darkest reddish brown one with at least three adjacent knobbies, one fat bobble, and an obtus-ish angle.”  “Almost, but it has to be squattier.”  Some were just easier to think of in terms of body parts. “It’s about this shape, but the shoulders are narrower” or “it has one large poky knee and a smallish tilted head.” Sometimes it was almost impossible to tell if we had a true match, even after we had checked the seam from the back.  More than once, I had to remove a piece that had previously passed the test after I had discovered its neighbor.  It was intense.  The kids needed breaks after just so long. I knew it couldn’t stay forever on the kitchen table, so I invested most of two days to complete it.  IMG_1652

In the end, our cooperative effort was rewarded in under three days. This one is going to be framed. After all, the really good memories were never meant to be packed away in a box. I guess I’m justified in wanting to surround myself with Christmas all year long.

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