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ENGEL'S ANGLE: The family that puzzles together will always pick up the pieces

Nothing gathers a crowd quite like 5,000 puzzle pieces strewn across a table in the living room on Christmas Day
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Overlooked, underrated, and tucked away on a dusty shelf – the humble jigsaw puzzle deserves better. 

I’m no enthusiast, my two puzzles are as forgotten as they come, rendered incomplete by the mysterious disappearance of a single piece. 

But let me tell you about the magic of piecing together a generic landscape painting, because that single activity has more unification power than Tequila and an ordained Elvis in Vegas. 

The magic has its best beginning when the puzzle is wrapped under the tree. It might work other times of the year, but in my experience, puzzle magic is a Christmas phenomenon. 

Inevitably a wrapped puzzle will be shaken, just slightly, with a head tilt to angle the ear for maximum reception. The sound may be muffled, but the source is clear: many, many crisp cardboard bits jouncing in that straight-edged box. 

There isn’t really anything exciting about it, and the shaking sound may actually bring disappointment, but a tiny spark is lit. It’s a slow burn, but the puzzle is a tractor beam, drawing me in. 

After a few moments of picking the box back up to look at the dog in the Santa hat or the cozy English cottage amidst overgrown but dreamy wildflowers, I make a decision I don’t realize will ripple into the creation of bonding memories that will make it into wedding speeches decades later (for good or bad). I’m going to do a jigsaw puzzle.

Somehow the puzzle compels me to find a table and open the box. It’s this pivotal moment that marks the point of no return. I have entered the vortex, the black hole, and forward is the only option. 

Nothing gathers a crowd quite like 5,000 puzzle pieces strewn across a table in the living room on Christmas Day.

I typically play the role of the starter. I subscribe to “edges first” method and begin with a full sorting.

My beloved will walk by, joining me for a few hushed bars of the ‘bip, bep, bup’ melody as the puzzle pieces are tossed into their assigned box lid. 

After about two corners, the youngest will amble up to the table, leaning on its surface with sticky hands and long sleeves, sending carefully sorted pieces to the floor. 

We pick up the pieces.

When the frame is nearly closed, the brother who was hovering nearby strolls up to the table to immediately pick up a single piece and stick it in the space I’ve been trying to fill for an hour. 

He might be smug about it, but it’s the moment we realize, maybe subconsciously, the puzzle is a team effort. 

Foregoing the hover tactic, the brother pulls up a chair and scans the table, working to understand the progress and challenge so far. 

Another brother and significant others join the table; one brings snacks, another brings drinks. 

Mom leaves the potatoes to boil and snaps a few pieces together. Dad wakes up from a nap and brings chocolate, AKA jet fuel, for puzzle work. The coffee switches to evening libations.

For chunks of time, we chatter on, not looking up from the puzzle, and for moments the whole family is around the table. We have a common goal – we’re turning the chaos into a vision.

It’s all-consuming, this work. But something inside each of us wants to accomplish this mission, wants to make it to the celebration together. 

Production ebbs and flows, and sometimes a turkey dinner interrupts. But the final stretch is exciting, the youngest receives the honour of placing the final piece and the picture is complete. 

And maybe we all learned to make connections, to participate in another’s task, to cheer another’s success, and to struggle together through frustration. 

On the other hand, we might have just done a puzzle together. 

The end is the same, a villainous rush as you destroy the day’s work and shove it back into the box. It joins the rest of the Christmas puzzles in obscurity. 

The family marches forward, inevitably to the next puzzle. May it be as magical as the last.