David and I, standing in an aisle of a Toys R Us in San Diego, were
desperately -- and I do mean desperately -- searching for a holiday gift for his
father when the 3-D puzzles caught our eyes. I shifted our 9-month-old son,
Noah, onto my hip and pointed, but David's gaze was already fixed on the
largest box, which contained a 718-piece model of the U.S. Capitol building.
"You think?" he said.
"Oh yeah," I agreed.
David's father is notoriously difficult to shop for, as he already has one or
two of pretty much everything gift-worthy. But a 718-piece three-dimensional
puzzle that formed a nearly three-foot-by-two-foot, highly detailed model of
the U.S. Capitol building? We felt pretty confident he didn't have that.
Away to the cash register we hied, squirming boy and large box in our arms,
neither of us suspecting that we had just stumbled upon a gift to ourselves as
well. Or at least, the beginning of a gift.
What happened next was this: We flew to New Jersey, slightly crushing the
puzzle box in our stuffed-to-the-seams suitcase, spent the morning after our
arrival opening a mountain of gifts, watched his father unwrap the slightly
crushed box, turn it over and over reading the copy ("The Fully Dimensional
Puzzle with Sturdy, Foam-Backed Pieces") and finally smile. By that evening
we were helping Mom and Dad separate and spread out all the foam-backed
pieces, and by midnight it was pretty clear that the puzzle was a hit. I
played on the floor with Noah while David helped his parents piece together
the Capitol's roof and windows; when Noah napped, I helped, too. An almost
comically wholesome scene, with just the right ratio of talk to comfortable
silence. We were disappointed that we had to return to our life in
Massachusetts before the U.S. Capitol had taken any sort of discernible shape.
So it was that, two weeks later, when David's birthday rolled around, we found
ourselves back at a Toys R Us, staring at the 3-D puzzles once again.
"Do you think it's kind of pitiful for us to be buying me a puzzle from Toys R
Us on the eve of my 32nd birthday?" David asked, as he examined the box that
held the 3-D puzzle of Notre Dame.
"Yes," I said, "but we're too broke to buy the other gifts you want, and we
know we'll enjoy this, so I think we should set 'pitiful' aside for the
Plus, the assembled Notre Dame was going to look really cool and realistic, a
near-perfect model of the actual cathedral. You had to build it up from the
surrounding pale green stone walkway; it would eventually rise almost 16
inches in the air. It had buttresses and spires and rampant stained glass and
tiny gargoyles and teeny monks or nuns -- viewed from above, hard to say which.
With 952 pieces, it was labeled "Super Challenging," as opposed to the U.S.
Capitol's mere "Challenging" status. We weren't at all sure we could finish
"I won't be able to help you with it very much when Noah's awake," I warned
David. Noah had just learned to crawl around and gently pinch dangerous
objects into his beautiful mouth. My paranoid new-mama eyes saw that what we
were buying was basically a box of 952 choking hazards.
"That's OK," said David. "We'll work on it together when we can."
And that became the rule that made the gift greater than the sum of its parts.
Over the next two weeks we worked on the puzzle together, when we could --
usually after I'd put Noah in his crib for the night. We sat at a table in the
room we call our study and sorted the pieces by color and type: all the roof-looking ones here, all the stained glassy ones there, all the columny ones to
the side. We forgot about the television, our usual refuge at the end of our
long days. As we pieced little bits together, almost embarrassingly excited
when two pieces fit, David told me about his day in the clinic at dental
school, in more detail than I'd usually get over dinner and a couple sitcoms.
He had seen a woman who was so addicted to chewing ice that she bought
five-pound bags of it each day. And he'd treated an older man who was
convinced that David's own teeth were dentures. I told him about how Noah was
learning to dance in place, and how he insisted on holding our dog's leash
during the walk.
Somehow, the puzzle became less a game than a magnet that kept us in the room,
talking. Ever since Noah's birth, I'd lost the ability to concentrate on one
thing at once. If we watched TV together after Noah fell asleep at night, I
would also be folding the laundry or reading the New Yorker or a book on baby
care, attempting to cram into those hours all the productivity I could. While
I was reading or folding and half-watching the tube, I was also worrying about
whether Noah was eating enough, or what I should do about his cold, or whether
I'd be able to pump enough milk for him the next day at work or should I defrost
some of the precious three bottles in the freezer. For a while it looked like
I was going to lose my job, so I'd worry over that, too, and then I did lose
my job and that added to the store of things I had to think over once my mind
was free of Noah's immediate needs. Did I really want to be self-employed? Was
it horrible to keep Noah in day care while I made a go at it, or should I give
up and go on unemployment and let us take out even more massive student loans
until David got out of school? What if we wanted to have another baby? Was
this my last chance to make contacts that would allow me a career at home?
"Hello!" David would sometimes tease. "Over here! It's me -- Dave. Remember?"
But he had been distracted, too, attempting in the months after Noah's birth
to get into a competitive postgraduate program. He was often at school until 8:30 or 9
at night and had given so much of his attention to patients in the student
clinic that, like me, he felt worn to a nub by the time we had a half hour to ourselves in the evening. Even then, there were big topics we had to
discuss. Did we want to stay in Massachusetts or should he apply to programs
elsewhere? Could we afford to fly to San Diego for Christmas? Could he take on
a part-time job, or would that subtract too much from his already scarce time
with Noah? Our life felt a lot, actually, like a 952-piece Super Challenging 3-D puzzle
made of choking hazards, one we weren't at all sure we could put together.
But we did put Notre Dame together. We set the last buttresses against it on
Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when school was closed for David and I could
afford to be away from my desk and we had day-care coverage. We had vowed we
would spend some couple time together that day -- see a movie in a theater for
the first time in more than a year and doze and cuddle in bed for the
remainder of the afternoon if we felt like it. We were both exhausted that
morning, but instead of taking right to the bed or shower, we bent over the
study's table, assembling Notre Dame. We gasped together as large sections fit
into place, laughed when part of the roof caved. We brushed hands and
heads, shifting to get the best vantage point. We kidded each other about who
had gotten to assemble the choicest parts of the puzzle. We forgot all about
It was an hour or so after we stood back and admired the beautiful little
cathedral that I realized what we'd been doing. We'd been playing, just like
old times. It's been almost a week now since we finished the puzzle, and the
feeling of lightness and togetherness hasn't left us yet.
Later that afternoon we carried Noah into the study and held him up to see
Notre Dame. "Hey, Noah," we said, "check out what your mom and dad did! Can
you believe it?"
He stared at the puzzle-building with, understandably, no comprehension of the
wonder and humor of a miniature cathedral sitting on a table in our messy,
drafty house. At the sound of our voices, though, he twisted around in my arms
and smiled his dear four-tooth grin at us, planting a plump hand on my jaw.
"He gets it," we said, knowing he had caught the mood and needed no lessons
on the importance of play. "He always gets it," we said.
I kissed Noah in the fold of his neck to make him laugh. Neither David nor I
can remember what it was like to be that smart.