Musings on Life, Love and Leftovers

Archive for the tag “Christmas traditions”

Piecing Things Together

Forrest Gump compared life to a box of chocolates. I’m a chocolate lover (especially when it’s covering nougat), but I disagree. I think life is more like a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces—1,000 lopsided segments, odd-shaped bits and unfamiliar parts. Some pieces are smooth and easy to recognize; others are downright jagged and unwieldy. You know it’s going to take awhile to figure out which side is up. Like many moments in life, puzzles start out a jumbled mess, but with consistent effort, piece-by-piece, it all comes together. Fun, frustration and unexpected surprises intertwine as the fuzzy picture comes into focus.

I’ve been a jigsaw puzzle aficionado since I was a teen. You’ll find one–in various stages of completion–atop my dining room table. I keep it corralled on a sheet of foam core board for easy relocation to a coffee table when it’s time to eat. Visitors–family and friends—are familiar with my loosely enforced 10-piece minimum. Before kicking up their feet, getting a snack out of the fridge or changing the TV channel, they’re invited to make a puzzle contribution. After all, we’re in this together.

My three sons grew up with jigsaw puzzles in their midst, but only two share my puzzle passion. The oldest, Shawn, displays remarkable patience as he methodically matches pieces to the correct opening. He likes to work in quadrants. Youngest brother Seth declares his preference to work in silence, not appreciative of the ongoing banter between Shawn and me during the puzzle-resolving process. Middle son, Jake, doesn’t work at all. He’s a puzzle-giver, opting to gift them rather than complete them. Thanks to Jake, hours have been spent reconstructing movie posters, scenes from TV sitcoms, carousel horses and, my favorite, the impossible sea of dice. All were challenging, but not as dangerous as the puzzle my friend, Robin loaned me—a plate of Oreos. Ten days, three empty cookie bags and two pound later, it was complete. When I returned it, traces of black cookie crumbs that had fallen from the corners of my mouth were mixed in with the pieces.

puzzle stretch 4Our family comes from a strong line of mystery solvers and puzzle-doers. When my sons were little, their grandfather, Tom helped them complete their 100-piece pre-school puzzles, insisting they put the frame together first. An engineer by trade, Pop never consulted a dictionary as he solved newspaper crosswords in ink–a feat I’ve never attempted. We still follow Pop’s frame-first jigsaw puzzle tradition. I think he’d forgive us the occasional slip when eager hands finish a section before all the edge pieces have been ferreted out.

Not only are jigsaw puzzles a spontaneous, ongoing way to spend snippets of quality time together, they can aid in untangling some of life’s quandaries: Why does the Internet disconnect when the house phone rings? How can I camouflage the leftover meatloaf? What’s that weird hissing sound in my bathroom? Often, answers don’t come easily. Instead of racking my brain, I work puzzles. In the quiet early morning, under the bright illumination from my skylight, my brain clears while I make sense out of a jumble of pieces. Previously unrelated colors and shapes slowly form a cohesive picture. Remarkably, other life concerns find their solutions as I search for edge pieces or one that resembles a shamrock.

Sprinkled among this season’s holiday cookie baking, present wrapping and tree trimmings, will be Christmas-themed jigsaw puzzle-solving. I can’t wait to open the classics we work each year like the Norman Rockwell holiday montage or Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. With holiday busyness surrounding me, puzzles are a delightful break from the frenzied action. They’re my pause in the midst of competing deadlines.

I’ve learned my lesson, though. This December, when I’m shopping for a new puzzle to add to the collection, I’ll bypass the lids picturing gingerbread men, candy canes and chocolates. I’m sticking with peaceful, joyous, festive images–snowmen, carolers and angels–whose charms won’t compromise my waistline.





Tilting the Tree (and other slanted celebrations)

Christmas season starts at my house when the tip of our just-cut pine tree points to the corner of our living room ceiling. Every year, my three sons and I would stand in amazement as their father once again put up our Christmas tree at an angle. We’re not sure how Nick manages this feat, because the tree always stands perfectly straight when they drill it at the Christmas tree lot. Somehow, during the 10-minute drive to our house, the tree transforms into a diagonal demon.

We fought this laid-back appearance. None of us went along willingly, wanting to accept a leaning tree. Year after year, we denied reality, until finally Seth stated the obvious: “no matter what tree we picked, it leans, a lot like that tower in Italy.”


In Decembers past we’d meet the tilted-tree challenge with renewed vigor, each of us committed to making the tree stand straight. We wanted it pointing skyward, gracefully framed by our picture window — reminiscent of that tower in Paris. The five of us circled the tree, each with our own viewpoint. And not until we each declared that the tree was standing erect would Nick give the go-ahead to the tree lot attendant to drill. Each year this collection of pine needles, branches and sap outsmarted us.

Finally we conceded defeat. “So what if the tree is a bit off center,” Shawn said. “It’s not the tree’s fault. Maybe the living room floor is uneven,” Jake added, handing me a pile of holiday books. “Let’s just prop it up.” The good news is the tree stands straighter, but bad news is that can’t read Polar Express or Olive the Other Reindeer until after January 1.

Tree-tilting isn’t the only Fadden-specific tradition that manages to amaze, confound and delight our holidays. My top five include:

  1. sending Christmas cards to people who don’t send ones to us;
  2. receiving cards from everyone I didn’t send a greeting to;
  3. being one egg short for that last batch of sugar cookies;
  4. a size 10 shoe stepping on my most treasured and breakable ornament
  5. and the never-untangling string of lights.I dread the thought that Nick might put the tree up straight one year. Then I’d be forced to search for a new family favorite — perhaps burning the sugar cookies or hanging advent calendars that don’t have chocolate in them.But it’s the traditions my family embraces without realizing it that mean the most ­– the ones that burrow their way in without any masterminding. Tree-tilting is an annual event we hadn’t planned on, but now it’s as much a part of our holidays as leaving cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer.           

This holiday season as you gather your family to celebrate your traditions, be on the lookout for those hidden moments — the ones that aren’t planned or arranged. Those are the ones supplying the most giggles, hugs and happiness, the stuff of happy childhoods.  

When you hang mistletoe, pour another cup of egg-nog or put the star on the treetop, remember that somewhere in southern California, the annual “tilting of the Christmas tree” is taking place. Maybe this year I’ll use a few back issues of Writer’s Digest to help straighten things out.




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