16: Puzzling Out Our Problems

16: Puzzling Out Our Problems

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home

Puzzling Out Our Problems

To us, family means putting your arms around each other and being there.

~Barbara Bush

It is amazing just how long it can take to lose one’s home. When my family first became unable to pay our mortgage in late 2010, I thought we would have to move right away. I really believed that the sheriff would come to evict us right after we missed our first payment. And believe it or not, that’s what I actually wanted to have happen. For years, my parents and I had tried everything possible to stay afloat in this tough economy and keep the family home. Now that the last of our savings had been exhausted and there was no option but to move, I was oddly relieved. I knew it would be hard, losing the house to foreclosure and moving into a small apartment instead, but it seemed like the best way to make a fresh start. I was ready to go.

Little did I know that missing a mortgage payment was just the first step in a process that could last for months or even years. There were all kinds of bureaucratic hoops that had to be jumped through before the foreclosure process could really begin. And in a way, jumping through these hoops paid off. After almost a year of suspense and a mountain of paperwork, our mortgage company finally agreed to let us put the house up for a short sale instead, a much better option for my parents’ long-term financial health.

Still, this introduced its own set of stresses. The huge jumps in utility costs meant that even without a mortgage payment we couldn’t afford to keep living where we were. But if we moved before we had a firm offer, the bank would consider our home to be abandoned, and all the arrangements for the short sale would be null and void. So we embarked on a long-term waiting game, doing our best to keep the house in show condition while we continued to live in it.

Now, my family has been through a lot together. The very fact that as an adult I was living with my parents at all — in my thirties, I was diagnosed with a chronic pain disorder that made it impossible for me to live on my own — was proof that we generally faced even the most extreme challenges as a team. This time was different, though. The stress of losing our home was so extreme that we started turning on each other, sniping at each other and arguing over the dumbest things. I knew there had to be something I could do to raise everyone’s morale — but figuring out what that was proved to be a challenge. All the fun things we’d once done to bring us together as a family were now way beyond our financial reach. What could we do instead?

The answer turned out to be hiding in our attic.

I’d originally found the old thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle when I was cleaning. Despite the fact that I loved its picture — the puzzle depicted a beautiful stone cabin in Scotland, surrounded by a peaceful Highland loch — I’d put the puzzle into a box of things to be given away. But one evening, when we were all gathered around the TV watching yet another news report about the mortgage crisis, I knew I had to do something to distract myself or go crazy. I brought down the puzzle and emptied its pieces onto the table.

The effect of this was rather startling. Suddenly, the television was forgotten. My parents made their way to the table as if magnetically attracted. My dad instantly sat down beside me and started helping me turn all the pieces right side up. My mom picked up the box and surveyed it with surprise. “We haven’t put together a puzzle as a family since you were in grade school,” she said. “I’d forgotten we even had this.”

“I know. So had I.”

She looked at the box’s picture sadly. “I always wanted to live in a place like this, you know,” she said. “This picture always felt like home.”

“Yes, I know. It always did for me, too.” I gave her a hug. “Maybe we really will live someplace like it someday. After we’ve had some time to get back on our feet.”

My mom looked startled. I think it was the first time she’d thought that there might be a future worth dreaming about at all, and it obviously took her aback a little. “Maybe,” was all she said. But she sat down at the table too.

As we started putting the pieces together, we quickly discovered that each of us had different “puzzling” gifts. My mom had an uncanny ability to find parts of straight lines, easily piecing together horizons and the edges of buildings. My dad was able to see subtle changes in color on pieces that just looked like plain old patches of blue to Mom and me, which let him piece together huge expanses of lake and sky. And when all else failed, I had a knack for seeing the actual shapes of the pieces themselves, for knowing exactly which “outie” matched up with each “innie.” It ended up taking all three of these talents to put our puzzle together. And as we started figuring out which one of us could best work with which section of pieces, an amazing thing started to happen.

We started thinking like a team again.

No more sniping, no more stupid arguments. Now, when the stress of our situation got to be too much, we had something to do. Piecing together our Highland cabin required so much concentration that we could forget our other problems, at least for a little while. And it turned out that doing the puzzle had other benefits, too. Our real estate agent told us that having a jigsaw out on the table gave our house “a real feeling of home” — sort of the visual equivalent of the scent of baking bread. Several times now, we’ve come home to find that a prospective buyer has actually stopped to put a few pieces together, which our real estate agent says is fantastic. It means our visitors are much more likely to remember our house as a fun place to spend time. And thus, much more likely to make an offer.

Maybe someday soon, somebody will. In the meantime, my family has long since finished that first puzzle and moved on to complete three more. We’ve started a “Puzzle Exchange” with a few of our neighbors and friends, so everyone can have new puzzles to solve without having to spend money at the store. But I haven’t traded away that first one. I painted it with puzzle glue so I could keep it forever. Wherever my family ends up, I’m planning to hang it on the wall, to serve as a reminder of the wonderful future we still can build.

And someday, when we’re once again living in the house of our dreams, it will remind us of what we accomplished together.

~Kerrie R. Barney

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