I bought a jigsaw puzzle at the grocery store today. The box features an ornate cathedral with red roses and blossoming foliage. The cathedral is in Germany. The puzzle cost two bucks.
My mother and I used to do jigsaw puzzles. Big puzzles. We did them together. I was no good at jigsaws, but she was an expert.
Long ago, puzzles cost seventy-five cents, and provided hours of distraction. We needed distractions back then. We welcomed anything that took our minds off my father’s untimely death, and the gloom that came thereafter.
My mother looked for distractions that made us laugh, things that made us smile, games, puzzles, crafts, or road trips.
Once, she took us to Branson. She took me to see a Dolly Parton impersonator. The show was spectacular. After the performance, the woman in the blonde wig hugged me so tight she nearly suffocated me with her enormous attributes.
When my mother saw me locked with the buxom woman, she shrieked and started praying in tongues. She yanked me by my earlobe and drug me away. And I have been a lifelong Dolly Parton fan ever since.
Anyway, my mother loved doing things with her hands. She made large quilts from old T-shirts, she gardened, she did puzzle books, anagrams, crosswords, cryptograms, she knitted, crocheted, and painted.
She played cards with me, sometimes checkers, and she was a Scrabble fanatic. But jigsaw puzzles. Those were our thing.
My mother started each puzzle by saying the same thing:
“We gotta find the corners first, that’s how you do it.”
The idea was that once you found the corners, the rest of the puzzle would come together. Thus, we would sift through twenty-five hundred pieces, looking for four corners. Once we found them, we’d dig for the edges.
We’d place pieces into piles, then link them together. Piece by piece. Section by section. Mama and I could spend a full week on a good puzzle. Sometimes longer.
And we would talk. After all, that’s what puzzle-people do. They talk. My mother would talk about ancestors, tales of childhood, about her mother, about the Bible. And while we concentrated, she would explain life to me.
I remember one day, working on a puzzle. She stopped working. She looked at me. Her eyes were glassy. And there was obviously something she wanted to say. Something important.
She said, “You know, you’re gonna grow up one day, and you’re gonna soar.”
It was a bizarre thing to say. And it was followed by strange silence. I quit searching for pieces. So did she. Her words hung in the air like the smell of bread. She took my hand.
She went on, “One day you’ll forget all the horrible things your daddy put us through, and you’re just gonna soar. Hear me? Soar.”
It was all she said. She removed her glasses and wiped her face. And we went back to searching for puzzle pieces.
I did not think I would do anything with my life. I dropped out of school before eighth grade, I worked pathetic jobs. I once scooped ice cream for a living. That was my actual job. Ice cream.
I threw the newspaper, laid tile, hung sheetrock, pulled electrical wire, drove a commercial mower, and played piano for church choir.
But none of this has ever mattered to my mother. To her, I was flying. She was proud of me no matter what I was, or what I wasn’t. Whether I dug drainage ditches with a serving spoon, or graduated from community college with honors, I was her son.
Today, I dumped a five-hundred-piece puzzle on my kitchen table. I found the corners first. And I thought about the way our lives went.
The day my father took his life, my mother was angry at him. She was angry at the universe for letting it happen. And I was angry with God for letting that happen to her. I wasn’t fuming mad, mind you, but I was sour inside.
But I think I see things more clearly now. Our lives have been one giant puzzle. And maybe that’s how everyone’s life is. The pieces don’t make sense when they aren’t together, but you don’t give up looking. Not ever.
My mother helped me find the corners first. My wife, my family, and my friends helped me find the edges. And so, the twenty-five-hundred-piece puzzle gets put together by an Unseen Hand. And even though it resembles a big cardboard mess before it’s done, it’s no mess. It’s perfect.
I don’t have much to write today. Nothing except to say: sometimes I feel like I am soaring.
I love you, Mama.
Allen PhDude - November 13, 2020 6:28 am
This is why I used your work to teach the creative non-fiction essay, brother. Pitch perfect. Thank you for putting things in perspective.
Joan Benson - November 13, 2020 6:55 am
Thank you for sharing this. It was just what I needed to hear.
Christina - November 13, 2020 7:03 am
Your mama is right. You have soared despite being dragged down by life’s stormy winds. She is an exceptional woman for sure.
Naomi Storey - November 13, 2020 10:28 am
Sean, my husband and I, who were empty-nesters, put jigsaw puzzles together for many years and then we had them framed. Most of the pictures in our house are jigsaw puzzles. For some reason, we always lost one piece. Most of the puzzles are pictures of places we have been when we were traveling. One of them is of a dog that looked exactly like our West Highland terrier that we had at the time. After she died, we hung her collar and tags on the framed jigsaw puzzle. Doing jigsaw puzzles really takes your mind off of whatever is going on in your life at the time.
stephenpe - November 13, 2020 10:35 am
You (and momma) hit that one out of the park. Im guessing you have read a lot of Lewis Grizzard and Bragg.
Betsy Brown - November 13, 2020 10:51 am
One of your best and most insightful. It spoke to me.
Deborah Johnson Jones - November 13, 2020 10:53 am
Sean, my day would not be the same if I didn’t start it with one of your writings. You have, indeed soared. As tragic as it was to lose your dad, esp. the way you did, i am thankful you still have your mom. Such a wise woman. I wish I still had mine.
Scott - November 13, 2020 11:00 am
Jim Valvano once said that if you laugh, and you think, and you cry, that is a heck of a day. As is so often true when I read your daily post, today has been a heck of a day.
Lucretia - November 13, 2020 11:40 am
Thank you , Sean. I am grateful for the experiences that are putting your life together which help me to put my life together. Thank you.
Heidi - November 13, 2020 11:44 am
Your Momma is an amazing woman and raised a son with such gifts. For humankind. Thank you for soaring and brightening our days….especially these dark ones.
leslie - November 13, 2020 12:00 pm
Your mama was a wise woman for so many reasons. Most importantly because she affirmed without a doubt who you were and who you would become. If we all had that kind of support and encouragement early on, that discouraging voice in our head might not be quite as loud. She was right about you, and for that we all see you soar every morning through your writing. Thank you.
Robert M Brenner - November 13, 2020 12:04 pm
Your mom was right about you, you’ve also helped others to soar 🦅! Thanks, Bob
P.S Nothing better than doing a 🧩 puzzle with your children.
Cynthia Lyon - November 13, 2020 12:20 pm
Thank you for reminding us of those who bless us with their unconditional love. You said a lot today.
Patricia Hair - November 13, 2020 12:29 pm
Your Mama’s prediction comes true every time my eyes tear up from your message of the day. When I see you on your new TV ads, I know you are soaring. Not many folks get to be the spokesman for a major insurance company or become a regional representative of the good in our lives. I know you are soaring! Congratulations!
lfry1220 - November 13, 2020 1:20 pm
I’m a puzzle person – never attempted 2500. But the one and ony 1000 piece puzzle nearly drove me over the edge. After that I stick with 500 piece puzzles. My hat is off to you! Love your columns.
rhonda - November 13, 2020 1:26 pm
Love you too Sean. Mama’s dining room table was always covered in puzzle pieces. She would stay up late in the night arranging little cardboard pieces. I never realized she was working through a whole lot more than that puzzle on the table. If you are feeling lost or discombobulated spend a little quiet time with some handwork. God will whisper in your ear and his conversation will begin to take place in your mind. Some times you have to quit looking for that certain piece and let it come to you.
Judy Mercer - November 13, 2020 1:30 pm
Wonderful analogy, Sean. So many pieces that are all needed for a puzzle to make sense of it all…just as in our lives. Thank you for today’s column!!!
Peggy Thompson - November 13, 2020 1:31 pm
Loved this….thanks 😊
Jan - November 13, 2020 1:38 pm
Beautiful tribute with a message we can all benefit from. Life sometimes requires time and patience until we can see the big picture. Meanwhile you just have to look for the pieces that fit together … like a mother’s love guiding your thoughts and actions until you see the big picture.
Brenda - November 13, 2020 1:42 pm
Blessings to your dear Moma with loving wings of a dove encouraging you to soar like an eagle. Beautiful writing. Our country needs a jigsaw puzzle healing.
Margaret - November 13, 2020 1:47 pm
One of your best, Sean. Thank you!
Jo Ann - November 13, 2020 1:49 pm
Your mother is a blessing, Sean. She could have given up when things were so tough, but she didn’t. She encouraged you & shared a lot of wisdom along with puzzle-solving of all kinds. So do you, thanks.
Steve - November 13, 2020 1:50 pm
Each of us are that missing piece until we allow God to use us in His puzzle ( life)…..
Marcia MacLean - November 13, 2020 1:55 pm
One of my all-time favorites! Love how you give credit to God, family and friends.
Lois Boyd - November 13, 2020 2:12 pm
You write with such clarity. I easily envision your people, places and things of the South.
I especially love this one.
Dave Wilson - November 13, 2020 2:20 pm
Great analogy and best ending!
Patsy Boshears - November 13, 2020 2:36 pm
suespeir - November 13, 2020 2:53 pm
I read you every morning. This one made me cry. You are definitely soaring.
Steve - November 13, 2020 3:32 pm
How good is that. Help people find their corners. That is so so good.
Jannie Bryant - November 13, 2020 3:37 pm
Your column is always a beautiful escape from reality for a few moments. Thank you.
Tammy S. - November 13, 2020 3:53 pm
Joy Rogers - November 13, 2020 4:05 pm
You are soaring! You may not realize how much I and others look forward to your daily writings!! I think you help me and others to have a better day. Thank you Sean!
Pat L - November 13, 2020 4:22 pm
Jerilyn Blom - November 13, 2020 5:04 pm
As I am doing a 1000 pc puzzle, I enjoyed reading your puzzle piecing story. My Grandpa did a 300 pc puzzle every day and got me involved, and loving it. I loved your ending!
MAM - November 13, 2020 5:32 pm
Your writing always soars, even when you think you have nothing to say! Thank you, Sean, for a great one every day of the week! Your mama said it right! You soar!
Linda Moon - November 13, 2020 5:56 pm
Noble distractions like jigsaw puzzles are always welcome. Your mother was a wise woman to provide nobility for you and give soaring wings, too. Thank you, Mrs. Dietrich, for sharing your son with many other people. What a good job you did! Our “Mrs. Dietrich” put pieces of life’s puzzle together for her young sons, too. Sean and our guys are soaring! Thanks be to God and Mamas.
Susie, as well - November 13, 2020 6:13 pm
Loved this, as usual. I also wanted you to know I just finished your book, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and I really loved it as well, so much so that I already preordered your next book from Amazon, “The Incredible Winston Browne” due out in March of 21. I can hardly wait! Really enjoy your column everyday.
Terri - November 13, 2020 6:15 pm
Sean, I loved doing jigsaw puzzles with my Mama. When her mind got so clouded by the treatments of cancer that she couldn’t read (her favorite escape) she did puzzles. We always picked out the straight edge pieces first, got that outline together. Love you much Sean.
Linda Stanberry - November 13, 2020 7:23 pm
Thank you for this story. I believe this is one of my favorites. It resonated. My 1st husband was an alcoholic. He eventually walked out on us and brought so much hurt and pain to our family. I watched my children endure so much. But we banded together and made it through those hard times. They have certainly had their own ups and downs, but by the grace of God I have lived to see both of them soar! Thank you for sharing your heart, for writing about real life and finding the sun in the middle of all the clouds these days. I look forward to reading your stories each day. A breath of fresh air.
Linda Broyles - November 14, 2020 2:48 am
Loved this, thank you so much.
Theresa Overcast - November 14, 2020 3:23 am
Sometimes Sean, your words make me cry. Lots of times I find myself grinning. You are one talented fella, I think, because you have the ability to evoke emotion with your words. What a blessing you are, to carry us all with you as you soar! Thank you!
Christie McRae - November 14, 2020 5:00 am
So glad to be back reading your writings. This one was perfect and you ARE soaring just like your Mama said you would. I simply loved the puzzle analogy and it’s really true. God bless you & your wife & of course your dog!
Shari Drexler - November 14, 2020 9:39 am
Beautiful. Only God has all the pieces of our puzzle and knows what it looks like when it complete But we can soar while waiting to see.
Lydia - November 14, 2020 12:48 pm
What a wonderful way to think of our lives!
Suzanne Moore - November 15, 2020 4:36 pm
This is so touching and so really, Sean. Every time I read one of your posts, I feel that my life has been enriched. I wish that I were sitting on the porch with you, listening to you speak those words. I am hard to impress, being an old English teacher. Even so, you amaze me– every single time. God bless you, Sean.
Robert Chiles - November 16, 2020 3:25 pm
I love jigsaw puzzles, especially a round one of the rose window at the national cathedral, but once someone gave me a 1000 piece puzzle that was solid yellow, on BOTH sides. All I ever found was the four corners. Great story today, Sean.
Dru Brown - November 19, 2020 4:48 am
You took my breath away, literally. How happy you have made your mother! And does she ever deserve to be!
David Bell - July 28, 2021 3:35 am
Thank you, Sean. My mother passed away today and this is exactly what I needed.