Joe Butkiewicz: Commentary Assembling the pieces: Life can be big puzzle

June 24th, 2015 11:30 pm

First Posted: 7/26/2013

We are on vacation. A jigsaw puzzle is on the dining room table. The pieces are spread out, 1,000 swirly-whirly shapes that if ever assembled will depict a bird’s-eye view of the place we live.

“If ever” are key words.

Since the kids were in diapers and riding Big Wheels, this has been a tradition. We retreat to the secluded house near the lake. We bring books, swimsuits and enthusiasm. And jigsaw puzzles. Collectively we assemble two or three puzzles on a lake vacation.

This year, however, the puzzle was no simple Manhattan skyline or Neuschwanstein Castle.

A tempting newspaper advertisement lured me to order a custom puzzle of an aerial view of our hometown.

Enter an address and a few days later there’s a box with a square mile, divided into 1,000 pieces.

Easy-peasey, I thought. I know my hometown like nobody else. Except for some time in New York City for college and a few years after living a bachelor and then newlywed life in Wilkes-Barre, I’ve spent most of my 55 years in the municipality I call home.

My family homestead is in Kingston. I went to grade school and high school here. I threw the Wilkes-Barre Record on doorsteps in my neighborhood. We caroused through the neighborhoods as kids on bikes, teens in clusters and as adults on walks. My wife and I have purchased three homes in our hometown. We’re stuck on good.

I know this place. Or I thought I did.

Nevertheless the process began. Hands eagerly sorted the pieces to flip each right side up.

The edge pieces were segregated and a frame quickly came together.

But after connecting a few blobs of color – warehouse rooftops and ball fields – the puzzle was largely undone, 50 or so suburban blocks of home upon home facing sidewalk lined streets, an impressionistic mess that all looked the same. It might as well have been an aerial view of grass.

It’s the street view that is most familiar to me, not the bird’s eye.

“What demented person would get that puzzle,” exclaimed one guest. Family members howled with laughter.

Puzzles can be challenging, but this one was work. It was too much. Sun and rain beckoned. Frankly , it defied vacation.

My family members – the better puzzle builders – had the sense to quit while the vacation was still good. They swam and read and hiked and slept.

Perhaps because I was the demented person who traded hard-earned money for the puzzle, I became the masochist determined to finish it.

I’d estimate 900 pieces were still unconnected. I sat down. I picked up a piece. I considered it.

My wife and son had already guessed the aerial image was taken in springtime – the trees are largely still bare, there are school buses on the street. And it was afternoon, judging by the angle of shadows.

I rotated the piece, aligned the shadow and considered the roof line. “It goes about there,” I thought setting it into an empty space inside the frame

Then another. Align the shadow. Consider the driveway. About there.

Gradually I re-discovered the community I’ve known so well, in a kind of voyeuristic way.

The aerial view and the individual scrutiny of pieces had me peering down driveways, into backyards and beyond fences. I saw home additions I never knew existed from my street level view; I discovered numerous pools, outbuildings and paved areas.

The puzzle takes in about half of the municipality, about 3,000 homes. I detected patterns. The old neighborhood with the big homes, spreading driveways and large lawns. The neighborhoods of long homes with gambrel roofs built in the days of anthracite. The neighborhood with curving streets and homes built in the 1970s and 80s, the tell-tale brown roofs in a sea of gray roofs.

If it was frustrating it was also fascinating to me to rethink what I thought I knew so well.

We never completed the puzzle. Vacation ended and my wife carefully transported the progress back home to try again.

Work hits a pace quickly. But I think of my community — our community — differently with fresh eyes and a new view. Life should be like that. Continuing. Each day, a challenge.

I haven’t put all the pieces together yet. But I will. That’s the challenge.