The magic of the cottage puzzle

Puzzle pieces scattered on table Photo by Notofoto Studio/Shutterstock

In the second episode of season two, we’ll listen to an essay about everyone’s favourite cottage pastime: the puzzle. Listen here or visit for access to all of the episodes.

They sit tucked away for years in their worn old boxes, on a shelf in a back room, vying for attention alongside sparkier entertainment choices like Clue, Monopoly, Scrabble, and Sorry! Sooner or later, Colonel Mustard and his lead pipe pall; the allure of being trounced by a 10-year-old in pursuit of Park Place fades. You haul one out in desperation on the third overcast day in a row, dump the pieces on the big dining table, gloom deepening as rain begins a slowly accelerating beat on the roof.

Your initial interest in assembling a decades-old landscape pictorial of Peggys Cove or Autumn Splendour or Down on the Farm is desultory at best. A fuzzy memory tells you some pieces are missing, while others bear the marks of age and handling, their image fragments peeling away from cardboard gone woolly around the edges. But some­how, your first small interlocking successes hook you in, maybe even draw an initially reluctant crowd. Soon, hands big and small, eyes sharp or bifocaled are getting a piece of the action.

Character and style are revealed: there are your sky assemblers and edge obsessors, your colour coders and system devisors, your easily frustrated and your maniacally focussed, your sweetly incompetent and your brutishly competitive, your slow-and-steady-wins-the-racers and your frantic victory shouters. But hey, get a grip! It’s only a puzzle! 

Suddenly, hours have gone by, half a lighthouse has emerged, as well as a good chunk of sky and oceanside rock, though the ocean itself is still mostly a forbidding heap of fiendishly unfittable pieces in a scattered arc around your proudly finished work to date. Someone lights a fire, as it’s gotten a bit chilly. Someone else drifts off to read a murder mystery. Still others opt for a defiant plod through the rain. But some hang in, lost in the task of discerning subtle gradations of hue in the patches of sky and sea into which they’ve fallen. 

Collective hunger suggests a meal should be served, but no way can the puzzle be moved now; buffet it is, though perhaps a bit of table space can be made by a careful shifting of pieces, courtesy of the protective arm of the most committed and meticulous puzzler. 

Maybe you finish, maybe not. Maybe you put it away when you leave, or maybe you save it for next time, a tantalizing “to-be-continued” that lodges nicely in memory. That, after all, is the quaint beauty of the cottage puzzle, whether still in its box, halfway done or resplendently finished; you may have to go places, but it, like the beloved cottage itself, never does.

This story originally appeared in Cottage Life November/December 2000.

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