We bought the first puzzle near the beginning of the pandemic. We have never been a game-playing family; we’ve been cordially busy with our own individual interests. Then we bought a jigsaw puzzle. We waited weeks to receive the first one because of a COVID puzzle shortage. Of course.

When my husband announced his decision to retire early, I felt a pang of fear. I had carved out a chunk of time that was all mine and that coincided with his work schedule. I determined to enjoy what was left of that time before his retirement. 

Then I got sick, really sick, while he was still working. He worked from home as much as he could, taking care of me, until he finally quit his job even earlier than he had planned in order to care for me full time. As I recovered and our dynamic changed, we floundered. By that time, the pandemic was in full swing. Public activities, travel, even dining out were off the table. So we bought that jigsaw puzzle. 

I will disclose now that the only “D” I ever received in school was in geometry. I have what I can only describe as a shape-and-form dyslexia. I am even partially face blind. If I have met you once, chances are good I won’t recognize you the next time I see you. 

The first couple of puzzles we bought were a disappointment because they contained features like a vast river or identical buildings next to one another. My grandchildren were assembling puzzles way more complex than the ones I couldn’t do. And worse, I saw the pity in my husband’s and son’s faces when I worked to insert a puzzle piece upside-down or sideways until I just gave up.

My husband’s brain and my brain are complementary. He has the brain of an engineer; mine is full of words. I love words. So he kindly began buying puzzles with plenty of words planted therein—collages of movie posters, candy wrappers, novel covers—you get the idea. After many years of marriage, we had stumbled on a recreational activity we could do together.

And we do it like it’s our job. We have had so many years of constant, efficient performance—he with his employment, I with raising and educating four boys, keeping the house fairly clean, and making lots of food—that we can barely slow down to enjoy a simple recreation. 

This is our system: We dump the puzzle pieces from the bag into the box (not directly onto the table—too much “puzzle dust”), and we begin to sort the border from the rest of the pieces. There are always a few border pieces that inadvertently get mixed in with the inside pieces. Guess who does that? 

With our puzzle sorted, my husband gets to work on the border while I begin my work on the inside, words first. We have finally found an activity we can do together, separately. 

As we began our puzzle work, we also began to process our lives.

Fitting the pieces together doesn’t occupy a whole brain, his type or mine. So we talked. My discontent, my loss of that chunk of time I had carved out, came bubbling up. 

In a few months we will celebrate our 40th anniversary. We are children of the 1960s, raised on TV dinners and sitcoms. Sitcom wives cleaned, cooked, and cared for children. Husbands worked all day and rested all evening in their easy chairs. Women were dependent. Men were strong, wise, and more important. 

The 1960s also birthed feminism, which my own mother embraced. She considered the task of mothering beneath her, so she left me to parent myself, along with my sitcom moms. My childhood goal was to “fix” my loss by bearing children whom I would nurture. Unknowingly, I would become that sitcom mother—self-effacing, uncomplaining, “less than.” I was invisible.

Oddly, I met my husband on a job interview, and I hired him. Clearly there was a war inside of me. Was I competent and intelligent or the “little woman?” Those sitcom families who raised us won that battle. 

Years ago, during a time of crisis, we took apart the puzzle of our marriage. That time, though, we did not separate all the pieces, put them back in the box, shake it, and spill them out again. We left the border intact along with big chunks of the inner picture. This time, without the pressure of employment or needy children, we found ourselves deconstructing not only our 40-year-old marriage, but our very identities. As we looked down at the pictures we were forming, we talked. I expressed years-old dissatisfactions, pain, diminishment. And he began to understand and empathize. We talked calmly, heatedly, tearfully. At times we stopped working and prayed. 

More than a year in, we have completed at least thirty puzzles. We continue to construct as we deconstruct. We continue to process our past, our present, and hopefully, our future.

Some puzzles have pieces that are so similar they can be placed comfortably in the wrong places. It’s not until the puzzle is almost complete, the picture looks wrong, and the remaining pieces don’t fit, that the misplacement becomes obvious. The only thing to do is to pull out the offending pieces and start over. Just when you think you’re almost done, you realize there’s much more to do. 

Marcia Thomas lives in a suburb of Chicago with her husband of 39 years. She has raised four handsome, self-actualizing sons. She has found healing in exploring her story in the presence of others and treasures the opportunities she has to be that presence for others. She is surprised and pleased to find that the glad work of healing does not have a retirement age.