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The Puzzle




“…the last of life for which the first was made…youth shows but half…”[i]


The jigsaw puzzle gifted to me came in a box with the lid covered up and with these instructions: You are to put this puzzle together without the benefit of seeing the picture ahead of time.

Hard enough! But it became even harder—in the box were two different puzzles. The pieces were double-sided. I had to figure out which puzzle was which as I went along—not to mention the nature of each picture.

I’ve always loved jigsaw puzzles. As our children grew and then left home, it became a family tradition to set a thousand-piece puzzle out on the table at Christmastime when we all gathered. “But I don’t want it still here by Easter!” was my repeated caution. Sometimes, alas, it was. I became adept at carefully covering the still-in-progress puzzle with a cloth so we could use the table for its (otherwise) intended use.

It was my young adult son who divulged his trick of picking up a puzzle piece and putting it in at the right spot, seemingly without agonizing searching. He would study it, find it on the lid and—voila! He knew exactly where it went. I began using his method.

But—what if there is no picture to study?

We have been celebrating—and grieving—the “last of life,” to use Robert Browning’s phrase. My mother-in-law recently passed away at the long and well-lived age of ninety-five. She and my father-in-law married at sixteen. For such young people, a life “well-lived” was not a foregone conclusion. Her mother forbade the union. Other relatives tried to talk them out of it. Dire predictions were made that it “would never last.”

But those two teenagers sat down together the night before their wedding and courageously planned out how they would conduct their marriage. They would not go to bed mad. They would tell each other “I love you” every day. There were certain aspects of their parents’ training they hoped to do differently if they had their own children.

Theirs was a marriage of romance and commitment enviable and rare. They kept those early vows for sixty-four years, stopping just days short of sixty-five due only to his passing, leaving her a widow.

But there was no picture on the puzzle box lid to show them where all the pieces fit.

Their “pieces” consisted of his early draft into the Marines and being sent overseas, leaving her to care for their baby son alone; of raising two boys in a dusty west-Texas town; of moves to and around California and another son coming along; of sending one son to Viet Nam and another one overseas for the foreseeable—and long—future. There was illness. There was uncertainty. At times, the pieces in the box got shaken up for a while. Then some were put in place, only to be rearranged for yet another move.

Marriage—and indeed all of life—comes without the finished picture to go by.

But the pieces don’t have to be chosen randomly.

My parents-in-law had something going for them. They had, in their families and others around them, role models of faithfulness and role models of unfaithfulness. At their early age, they knew what they wanted: faithfulness. They knew what they did not want: unfaithfulness. It was a deliberate choice that would see them through the separations of war and through the temptations that would come as their personal character and leadership skills propelled them to prominence wherever they went. More profound, however, was their commitment to their faith in God and in his leading, even when it seemed, at first glance, unreasonable. It was their faith that helped them put the pieces in place, to make the moves that would upset life for a time, to cling together when outward circumstances threatened.

Youth may “show but half” as Browning put it, but youth often sets the trajectory. Which way to go? Whom to follow? Or—strike out independently, obstinately following no one?

When we study “the last of life” and find a life well-lived, it’s not such a mystery to discern how it came to be that way.

To begin a jigsaw puzzle, we look first for the edge pieces and build the frame. That is, in effect, what the young couple who became my husband’s parents did when they made their plans and their commitments. They looked ahead and built the frame around their marriage. The foundation was in place, even if there were plenty of decisions along the way as to where the other pieces fit. At sixteen, there was, naturally, a certain amount of immaturity to begin with, but it is remarkable that there was also the maturity to know that they wanted the “last of life” to find their marriage and their love for each other intact.

It was that trajectory begun in youth—to look ahead and see where the various role models would lead—that helped keep them on track. In the puzzle box with the picture of “faithfulness” on the lid, they saw courage, stamina in spite of hardships, integrity, and a transcendent, stabilizing faith. In the box with “unfaithfulness” as the picture, they saw broken promises and broken lives. There was no doubt: they would pursue faithfulness—with God’s help.

I managed to put together each puzzle without seeing the lid of the box. The process was mystifying and tantalizing: what would it show? But even before the finished product, its nature began to emerge. It was going to reveal a lovely picture in the end, indeed worth the time and effort—but I had to keep going, keep putting pieces in place.

To finish life well, we don’t stop until it’s over. That’s what we celebrated at the funeral of my mother-in-law. Her foundations of faith and faithfulness were still strong. The last piece was put in place, and the picture was complete, indeed worth the time and effort of her ninety-five years.









Photo: Wayne and Helen Hyatt, 1945, two years after their marriage.

[i] Robert Browning, from the poem Rabbi ben Ezra


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