“Do you want to watch a Disney movie with me?”
“No! Don’t ask again.” She asks again.
“Do you want to do a puzzle with me?
“No! Don’t ask again.” She asks again.

I have never been a fan of animation or understood the futility of puzzles, spending so
much time putting together a picture only to take it apart again, piece by piece. An activity
perfectly suited for Sisyphus. It is day 30 of the quarantine and my daughter, Emma, who is
working from home, assumes that we are somehow on the buddy system.

“What should we have for lunch?”
“Should we walk today? “

I have also been working from home, having been given projects by various departments
at work, things I don’t usually do in my normal workday. But as long as I’m busy, I will get paid.
The mornings begin by logging onto my computer and toggling between two databases, aligning
prospective donors. It is a mindless task, and to stay awake, I simultaneously watch television or
listen to a podcast. Although the task is mindless, I do have to remember to follow the logic of
what I’m doing, not lose my place, and make sure important information aligns with the correct
donors. The television or podcast has to be somewhat mindless as well, a balance between
enough of a distraction but not too much of one.

I watch CNN for a while and listen to updates about the coronavirus. I eventually turn it
off when I realize that there aren’t any definitive answers to my questions, and the information is
starting to repeat itself. I scroll through the channels, become impatient, then plug in my
earphones to listen to a podcast. I find one that sounds interesting. The motivational speaker
gives suggestions that require writing things down. I can’t type and write at the same time. I’ve
just learned how to open multiple documents on my screen and if I reach for a pen, I might
accidentally hit a key and send everything flying back to god knows where, only to have to find it
all again, as I did earlier this morning when reaching for my cup of coffee.

The more interesting podcasts look like they might require too much of my attention. I
see one titled “Dirty John” and I go for it. I remember reading the original story in the Los
Angeles Times. It was about a guy who assumed false identities and met women online to marry,
scam, and steal their money. The podcast was more detailed than the story I read, the attempted
murder more gruesome. During the description of Dirty John getting stabbed in the eye, I realize
that I have accidentally attached detailed information for a potential wealthy donor to someone’s
deceased grandparent. I turn off “Dirty John.”

My daughter eventually relegates half of our dining room table to a 1000-piece puzzle.
Again, she asks, “Do you want to do this puzzle with me?” I continue to resist her repeated
invitations, but before I know it, worn down by the quarantine and my limited homebound
options, we are working together on puzzle number four.

We always begin a new puzzle in the evening after dinner. Emma is methodical. She
splits the pieces between us, half in the upper and half in the lower box. There is only one way to
start, “Find the flat sides and corners first,” she demands. With our heads bent over our boxes, we
sift through each piece until we have them all. The edges are a patternless blur of color. We
began to assemble the frame, but I’m at a loss, and with mounting frustration, excuse myself to
go upstairs and relax with something on Netflix.

Every morning it is the same, as if puzzle elves had taken over during the night. I grab a
cup of coffee and study the progress while Emma sleeps in. The whole frame is complete, as well
as a stone bridge I see on the puzzle box picture. She has separated all the other pieces into
color-coded piles. Some of the pieces are only one color. How did she connect them? I have an
hour before logging on, so I pick up the puzzle box and study the picture.

There are three houses covered by a light snow and you have to cross a small stone
bridge to get to them. The big house, also made of stone, is the closest, and among the fir trees in
the distance are two smaller stone homes. It is early evening and they look inviting, lights on in
all the windows. On one side of the bridge is a young boy in a red jacket and a black knit cap. A
large golden retriever sits on this wooden sled as he pulls it through the snow. He is headed for
the bridge and the warm interior of the big house. I decide to build the boy and his dog during
the free hour I have. I hold a puzzle piece in one hand and the picture in the other, trying to
match them. My method is slower than Emma’s and I don’t experience much success. Frustrated
and out of time, I leave the puzzle and log on.

After dinner, we go back to the puzzle. Our puzzle ritual begins to shape our days. But
now everything has started to annoy me during the quarantine. My husband is furloughed one
week a month and this is his week home. I become irritable after hours of computer time. I am
constantly interrupted and have to remind everyone that I am actually working. No one is picking
up after themselves. I respond curtly to their questions.

“Are the dishes in the dishwasher dirty or clean?”
“Whose clothes are in the dryer?”
“Has anyone seen my keys?”
“What is today’s date?”

Emma’s puzzle success has started to irritate me as well. While working on the puzzle
together, she leans half of her body over it, blocking my view. It’s unintentional; she is fixated.
She has a way of holding herself with her wrists pulled in at her waist, her elbows out. A posture
that has something to do with being double-jointed. Here at the puzzle table, it works to her
advantage; not only is her body blocking my view, but now both arms on either side of her also
work against me. I tell her, “I can’t see what I’m doing.” She apologizes and pulls herself back on
her chair revealing a pile of pieces that have been hidden between her waist and the puzzle edge.

“What are those?” I ask suspiciously.
“Just a pile of pieces.”

“Can you put them where we all can see them?” I ask as if we were working with an
entire puzzle team. She moves them next to the more visible piles. This puzzle has more of a
sheen on it than the others, and at times in order to see the puzzle picture, I bend over at the waist
until my face is inches away from the puzzle, then rotate my head to the side. My son comes
downstairs, sees me, and with concern in his voice asks, “What’s the matter?” I straighten and
don’t answer.

I am still trying to complete the boy and his dog. I want to be the one who puts them
together and sends him on his way over the bridge and home to a warm fire and hot meal. There
are hundreds of black pieces and I can’t find his hat. I go back to the picture on the box and am
surprised to see a small snowman next to the big house. I decide that I might have better luck
with the snowman. There are eyes, a mouth, and a red scarf. It should be easy. I comb through the
pieces and announce to Emma that I am going to build the snowman now. She isn’t paying
attention to me; she is in her own world, hunched over, working on a section, quickly trying to fit
a group of pieces one by one at lightning speed. She looks like the fastest employee on an
assembly line. I can’t find the hat or the snowman. I mention it to Emma, and without stopping or
saying anything, she points to the little snowman who is already there. I’m confused and bend
over at the waist again, rotate my head to the side and see him. She tells me he’s been there all
along and laughs. Puzzle-shamed, I head upstairs to bed.

I fall asleep but wake up two hours later and go downstairs for a glass of water. The
puzzle pulls me in. I have it all to myself. I sit down in Emma’s seat and lift the box to look at the
picture. I see patterns that I hadn’t noticed on the sled and surrounding snow and begin my
search. I take my time, free to swing from one pile of pieces to the next, and before I know it, I
have finished the boy and his dog. I also find all the pieces for the big house and complete them.
Now the boy can go home.

I know we will finish the puzzle soon and then dismantle it. But it is 2 o’clock in the
morning and for the first time since the quarantine, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I
found the missing pieces and made them fit. I look at the picture again and imagine the boy, all
alone, safely pulling his dog across the bridge at dusk towards his house, and in the dark
shadows of the trees, nothing lurking, no virus.


A mother adjusting to life at home with her family early in the pandemic.

About the Artist

Carol Allison,  Philadelphia County
Published:  August 4, 2021