Grandmother’s Quiet Addiction

Grandmother’s Quiet Addiction

From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul

Grandmother’s Quiet Addiction

I cannot but remember such things were, that were most precious to me.

William Shakespeare

My grandmother was perfect in most ways. Like other prairie mothers she had worked hard, raised her kids, attended church and crops with equal importance, and sewed and mended umpteen pairs of britches. She baked for bake sales, helped birth babies and calves, and never said a swear word, even when things were really bad. Only one thing kept her from being perfect. Grandmother had a quiet addiction that only we knew about: her relentless obsession with jigsaw puzzles.

There was never a time I can remember that a half-finished tiger or Eiffel tower didn’t grace her kitchen table. Amid canning jars or supper plates laid the quiet addiction. The box with the jumble of pieces was set on top of the icebox when company was over to keep it away from prying fingers that might be dirty or elbows that might launch it. During supper a fresh tea towel would cover and conceal a work in progress. But once the meal was over it would be uncovered, and Grandmother would be at it again.

It was Grandfather’s fault in the beginning. He got her the first one from the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog. He figured it would give them something to do during the cold prairie nights before bedtime. It was either that or shell out dollars for one of those newfangled televisions Grandmother had hinted for but that he could not afford.

So he got one pretty puzzle with flowers on it by some fellow named Van Gogh. Grandmother took to it like a chicken to scratch, forgetting about the silly television and spreading out the pieces like trinkets of gold upon the clean kitchen table. Grandfather never got the hang of it, his thick fingers not able to pry apart the little pieces and his puzzle ability leaving a lot to be desired. So he retired to the den and his paper and she to her jigsaw. They spent many a peaceful evening in separate rooms this way.

But jigsaws soon became an obsession. After a while all her egg money was going to buy newer, harder ones. She became a puzzle expert, knowing the best brands and searching for them at church bazaars and cast-off sales.

Her nighttime habit soon became her morning and afternoon one as well.

One day she lost track of time and heard Grandfather roar home on the tractor. She realized she hadn’t even started supper yet! She dashed to the kitchen and put an onion in a frying pan, giving the aroma of a home-cooked meal on its way to maturity. Grandfather never could figure out what smelled so good when he got in, or how it turned into cold beans and Spam.

We children loved Grandmother’s quiet addiction, especially me. Our days with her always included a jigsaw puzzle, though she called it “learning.” History was taught by completing a puzzle of the Mayflower’s landing, nature by doing one on sunflowers, art appreciation by completing the masters like Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Whistler. Social studies involved completing maps and pictures of foreign countries. Through it all Grandmother would talk. Did I know that the first jigsaws were actually invented by John Spilsbury, who produced a cut-up of an old map in 1762? That Chinese rice was grown in wet paddy fields and Indians used canoes to harvest wild rice? That tigers live alone but lions live in families called prides?

I learned my math: “Twenty pieces left in a thousand-piece puzzle means how much have we done?” Solving abilities. “Always do your frame first, then match colors.” And to never neglect chores: “Nancy! Bring the broom! The cat’s got into the puzzle and we need to find three pieces!”

After years of fighting for elbow room on the kitchen table and missing her company by the fire, Grandfather built Grandmother a puzzle table, just the right size to do her jigsaws in the parlor. He took some ribbing for feeding her “quiet addiction,” but he shrugged his shoulders and said, “T’aint much of a fault in a woman. Besides, I’m the one who started it all.” In later years, he sat beside her, going through her puzzle box for errant pieces when her eyesight started to dim. “Here’s the blue bit you’ve been looking for,” he’d say, and she would smile and press it in its place.

I wonder if Grandmother knows the legacy she left me. Upstairs in my daughter’s room one of those three-dimensional puzzles sits half finished in a protective tray her father built to keep the cats out. Boxes of foxes, lions, sunsets and famous paintings line the upstairs shelves, waiting for a power outage, a cold rainy afternoon or a visit from friends. Tucked away by the dining room table is a puzzle mat rolled up with a half-finished treasure inside it.

I’ll take it out once my husband goes to work and smile. And just in case I get carried away with my own “quiet addiction,” I’ll have an onion close at hand by the frying pan.

Nancy V. Bennett

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