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Picture Perfect?

Photograph by Evelyn BenceFor as long any of my siblings can remember, a glass-covered painting reminiscent of Leonardo’s Last Supper hung in the parsonage living room. From the far side of the banquet table, our blessed Lord looked out over our piano lessons, our coloring book or homework sessions, and our card table occasionally set up to support a puzzle: (we always kept the pieces in the box, shaking it and rummaging through to maximize the challenge of ordering the chaos.

By adolescence I could hold my own “doing” puzzles with my older siblings and Mom, who taught us her method: the best big clue is color, and, second, shape. But first, we pulled out and hooked together all the edge pieces. The frame complete, we then had fewer pieces to sort through and something to go to bed feeling good about.

The next day, section by section, we filled in. Sky. Green water. Rippled water. Grass. Red barn boards. Stone wall. Tree trunk. Maple leaves. Willow leaves. Dog. Boy. This is the “thousand piece interlocking jig saw puzzle” I claimed from the family collection twenty-five years ago.

Every five years or so, I get the puzzling urge, so I slip the box off the closet shelf and transform the jumble into the idyllic pictured scene: a horse-drawn buggy approaching a covered bridge spanning a wide creek, a boy fishing from the bank. I resist the temptation, thinking my time too valuable and the end result too pointless. But the desire persists. I want to feel the satisfaction that comes with finding a perfectly prescribed order. It’s so much easier than facing a blank page and writing a paragraph or sketching a flower. Even easier than envisioning a Crayola scheme: “Choosing colors is too stressful,” says a friend who prefers puzzles over coloring books. And who knows what surprise might await the person who uses leisure time to sort through a back closet or attic? Like my friend Sherri, she might find her white First Communion dress alongside a squirrel’s skeleton. Like me, she might unearth a decades-old letter received in college, signed “Yours in Christ, Daddy,” revealing a complicated filial relationship. 

Seeking a predictable end, I dump the box and turn all the pieces right side up, spread one layer thin. From there on, I modify Mother’s rules. I don’t segregate the border pieces. I build the bridge’s stone foundation and then align the red wood, connecting barn board to barn board. I tackle the easy parts—the fisher boy, the dog, the horse and wagon. When each disparate ragged-edged element is complete, I feel I’ve found the treasure buried in a field. I’ve found the coin I’ve searched the house for. 

But the “got it” is temporary. Another knob needs a grip.  

Gradually, the picture takes shape. When the puzzle is two-thirds complete, I pick the edge pieces out of the remaining scramble and connect them in a straight row. Within the rectangle frame, the rest of the jagged squares find their rightful fit. “Part of the allure of puzzles,” notes a caption writer, “is the sense of closure” (see “In a Chaotic World, Puzzling Makes Perfect Sense,” Washington Post, July 7, 2003). A place for every piece, and every piece in its place.

Well, almost. Four pieces are missing. One from the sky. One from the bridge. One from the tree. One from the grass. 

know this puzzle has holes in it, yet I never throw it out. I like its scene, the kind of place you might escape to in a novel. I enjoy the safe and secure process. But I also value the reminder that our planet is marred, that this desire for a stress-free ordering of a perfect and predictable picture has its place as an amusement or diversion but is not part and parcel of this world, already redeemed but paradoxically not yet.

After my parents died and we siblings were dismantling their household, I’m not sure why I let the framed dark print of Leonardo’s Last Supper remain on the living room wall. It’s the only item I regret being left for the flea-market man. Neither am I sure why I salvaged from the dumpster a brightly colored 14-by-28-inch paint-by-number rendition of the thirteen-figured banquet table. None of us knew who had painstakingly but poorly painted this faux canvas found leaning against a closet wall. (Maybe Mom’s mother?) Jesus’s toes are misshapen. Thaddeus’s mouth looks mangled. Does Judas have three hands? Segment upon segment, stroke upon stroke, it was someone’s imperfect attempt at recreating the great feast: behold the Lamb. I have tried to count the discrete sections in this number-coded picture. I lose track, but it’s close to a thousand—maybe 996, like the remaining pieces in the jigsaw puzzle I’ve boxed up.

As a child, to win some prize, I memorized 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter” written by the apostle Paul. Though I could not articulate it then, I sensed—felt more than understood—a complicated message: its prologue poured contempt on all my family’s pious endeavors. Its center section, quoted at weddings, laid out a utopian prescription for living—whether at home, at school, at play. The next transition was loaded with sobering “buts.” We “know in part.” We see “through a glass, darkly.” In short, we’re not yet there. 

* * *

Needing a change of scenery, I spent a few days at my sister’s. Settling in, the first night, I could hardly believe what I saw in her guest room closet. A battered puzzle box: “The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. Over 1,000 triple-thick pieces.”  

I pulled it off the shelf and went looking for my sister. “Was this ours?” I asked. Though now divided among us, the family property still calls forth first-person descriptives. 

“I don’t know. I’ve had it for years.” 

Had I pieced it together before, maybe with Mother? Not sure. “Can I borrow it?” Sure.

Hoping, hoping that every piece was present, I brought the puzzle home, set up the card table, and dumped out the box. The task looked daunting. The box’s “interlocking” claim was exaggerated (as was its Leonardo byline). Yes, the frame and an adjoining inner row were enjoinable, but otherwise on two or three sides the pieces only nuzzled, fault lines shifting at the slightest nudge. 

Once the perimeter outlined the picture, I did not strategize my moves. I simply matched up whatever two pieces I could, guided by color and shape. What first caught my attention in the chaos? Jesus’s yellow halo and bright pink robe, connected to a blue cloak. With Jesus set and centered, I looked for the carpet’s muted colors. Then, one bright pigment at a time, I pieced together the disciples. Andrew amazed. Peter pointing. I know these characters, I thought. This had been “our” puzzle—difficult to figure, the piece-shapes deceptive, the completed sections shifting. 

I couldn’t find one colorful piece, but I held out hope as I turned to the wood paneling and the banquet tablecloth: a section of brown until I was stumped, a section of white until a kink in my neck pulled my attention back to the dull wall. 

I put in the last piece—just above the outstretched arm of James the Younger—and sighed. On my knees, to no avail, I searched the carpet. Alas, two of the 1,026 pieces were missing. One from under the feet of James the Elder, my dad’s namesake. One from the blue through yonder window—abutting Jesus’s halo—just above the upstretched index finger of said James’s open right hand.

We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled. . . . For right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. . . . Give yourselves to the gifts God gives you. (1 Corinthians 13:9–10, 13; 14:1, The Message)

Evelyn Bence is author most recently of Room at My Table, 52 anecdotal meditations that gently, humorously invite readers to welcome mealtime guests (Upper Room Books). She is an ongoing contributor to Daily Guideposts, and her personal essays have appeared in publications including Washingtonian, Washington Post, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and US Catholic.

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Reader Comments (3)

Evelyn, Thanks so much for a lovely read! I get into the puzzle-making mood when visiting my 95 year old mom-in-law which is often this time of year. I find it almost a contemplative habit - it stimulates and relaxes simultaneously.

December 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen Gillmann

Evelyn Bence's pieces are always provocative, and seem to come to an end without realizing I've read more than a few paragraphs. I find myself pausing to read her work when it comes across my desk, as she pulls meaning from mundane scenarios.

December 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJerry Pattengale

"Picture Perfect?" brought refreshed memories of my family doing puzzles as I grew up and even this evening, one puzzle was finished and the edge pieces were brought out on to the table as I started another.
The Scripture chosen from The Message by Evelyn, highlighted its importance as we close out 2016 tonight and look forward to the new year tomorrow: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. What better New Year's Resolution can there be!!!

December 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNBG

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