Every Christmas we have a tradition to work on a jigsaw puzzle as a family. It is a good tradition, not because it is that much fun or really promotes family togetherness but because it clarifies the reality of our family dynamic with such accuracy that the slightest traces of denial are completely obliterated.
When the puzzle arrives on Christmas morning under the tree the whole family feigns delight. My husband, Greg, smiles as long as there are no unicorns or flowers. The boys look at it and nod even though we all know full well they will last maybe two or three minutes. Anna and Sarah say very little because they know they are the ones who will actually do the most of it and I sit back and watch their reactions, wondering why we do this to ourselves every year.
By early afternoon when the presents are opened and the entire house is strewn with torn bits of wrapping paper, instruction manuals that will inevitably be lost and little pieces of Polly Pockets and Bionicles that will end up causing great pain when they are stepped on, one of the boys opens the puzzle box and dumps the thousand pieces in the middle of the kitchen table, ending any hope of a family dinner for the next two days.
The whole family gets in on sorting through the pile, looking for end pieces and shouting with success at their discovery. This is the fun part. Then they divide those into similar colors and in no time the frame takes shape. At this point, they all feel smart and happy but it won't last.
Next, each family member chooses their item. It could be a building or an animal or the sky. The puzzle was chosen specifically with this in mind. We don't do single color puzzles or huge jars of candy canes, there has to be a variety of colors and large, chunky items so we can each take a separate part. But once the going gets tough, the tough get going- literally. One by one the boys begin to disappear and by dinner the girls and I are working diligently on their corners or finishing their brother's ones and we end up just grabbing sandwiches and eating wherever because the table is off limits.
Then once the big parts are assembled and put in place, the background, which usually makes up half of the pieces, looms in the distance. Here is when the girls wave good-bye and I have a decision to make. If I put it away unfinished then we end Christmas with a failure or I can do it myself. So I start the long boring process of trying to fit pieces that look identical into slots that are infinitesimally different. By the time I head to bed it is in the wee hours of the morning and I plop next to my sleeping husband wondering why I ever thought this was a good thing to do. The next morning I wander downstairs far later than I should and find the boys and girls happily gathered around the kitchen table, slurping cereal and fitting in a new piece here and there. I join them and as soon as I do, they lose interest again. The morning dishes stay undone while I labor away with up to five minutes between finding a new connection. Then some magic radar buzzes through the house when there are only about twenty pieces left. Suddenly from everywhere the little red hen is surrounded by the pig and the dog and the cat but instead of asking whether they can enjoy the fruits of my labor, they begin stuffing in pieces as fast as they can and the winner who puts in the last piece throws his hands in the air screaming, "I did it!"
I sit back and smile grateful I'll have my kitchen table back and that it will be a whole year before I have to face this again.
But that isn't really so. Whether its cleaning the kitchen after a big meal, doing a school project or getting a son through his Eagle Scout project, mothers often work alone late into the night to bring success to their family. Yup, we'll do it again next year- that's our job.