Courtesy of Roshni Mohan/MiC.

997 pieces were scattered across the table, whereas the other three had fallen somewhere onto the carpet, either under the table or under our chairs. Although each piece was constructed the same — a layer of light brown cardboard topped with colorful printed designs that are glued and pressed on — they were all so different. The same colorful streak on one piece was placed just a centimeter to the left on another. The curves of the edges were cut a millimeter shorter than an edge on the other. They were so different, like each member of my family, but when placed together, we fit perfectly, creating a beautiful picture.

The first puzzle I can remember doing was when I was either three or four years old and too short to reach the dining room table. My dad, my brother and I would all sit around me and my brother’s old wooden play table that my dad had built for us. It was painted in four different colors: red, yellow, green and blue. This first puzzle was a picture of Mickey Mouse standing tall as he wore a long red robe with a wizard hat and held a wand in front of a midnight blue, star-filled background. We would spend our free time organizing each piece into little sections. Edges would go to the top left pile and corners would go to the top right. Blue pieces at the top and black pieces to the bottom. Robe pieces in the bottom left and face pieces to the bottom right. The other pieces that didn’t fit into any of the piles would simply sit in the box until we needed them. And each day, we came back home from school and routinely picked the pieces from the box and fit them into the puzzle, adding to the picture. 

This puzzle took us weeks to finish. My brother and I would get bored easily and want to take breaks, while my dad would sit by the puzzle not wanting to continue without us, eagerly waiting for us to come back. I never thought much of it. I always assumed it was just a hobby of his to take up in his free time outside of work. To me, it was only a puzzle. It was cardboard, paper and printer ink. But my dad loved it and loved sitting at that table next to us, even when I complained that I was bored, even when I would lose the pieces and even when I would go and mess up all of our hard work.  

On that one afternoon, when we finally finished the puzzle, bittersweetness filled the room. My brother and I were ecstatic that we’d finished. We felt accomplished and proud of ourselves, creating a sweet ambiance in the room. My father took hundreds of pictures of us standing by the puzzle. Ones from high angles and ones from low. Ones where we were sitting and ones where we were standing. Ones with my mom in the background and ones of the puzzle alone. But my dad’s smile for some reason felt fake, filling the room with melancholy, as if he somehow knew it would be another 14 years until we ever did this again. 

So 14 years later, my dad pulled out another puzzle – the first since I was four. We looked at him, confused as to why he’d thought buying a puzzle would be a good idea. We didn’t do puzzles, and we hadn’t since we’d grown up. My brother had just finished college and was applying to medical schools. I was in my first semester of college. Why would we as college kids be doing a puzzle with our dad?

But regardless of our aversive reactions, we still did it. 

This time it was much different. The designs were much harder, and the colors were all slightly different shades of green. Each piece fit together to form a jungle filled with vines and leaves. My brother would be busy during the day working and talking to his friends online, and playing video games late into the night. I’d wake up at noon, spend most of my time in my room on my phone or be busy attending my class Zoom meetings and doing homework. So there was only about a daily 45-minute window that all three of us would sit together, this time at the dining table, since our play table rested in some junk yard miles and miles away. Only 45 minutes to puzzle together. Throughout the rest of the days, my brother would go work on it for 10 minutes randomly in between his meetings. My dad would sit alone and puzzle for 15 minutes after his lunch. Then I would randomly add to it every few hours until eventually we finished. Again, my dad pulled out the camera and captured every angle of us and the puzzle that he could. Then right as we tried to leave the table, my dad placed another puzzle in front of us. The cycle continued. 

This winter break, he tried again. He pulled out a puzzle, and this time even built another table for us to puzzle on. But this time was also different. I had just returned home from Ann Arbor and my brother came back home from his medical school in Cleveland. We hadn’t seen our friends in a while, so we dedicated much of our free time to seeing them. We found small moments to puzzle together, but not enough to complete it. So the puzzle still sits on the table in the living room half-complete. While I’m at school, my dad will add to it, but with little interest.

Only after coming home and hearing my dad’s voice telling me about how he’d added to it while I was at school did I come to the realization that my dad didn’t care about the puzzle, and he never did. He used it as an excuse to spend time with my brother and me. A time where we would sit next to each other for hours. A time where he’d get to talk to us about anything and everything. A time where we wouldn’t be on our phones or listening to music and instead would be listening to each other. Although we were at different places at different times during the day, those 45 minutes gave us a chance to come together, just like our puzzles.

Throughout high school and college, my brother and I had grown distant from each other and the rest of our family. We didn’t hang out together much, and we didn’t have much interest in doing so. So when my dad brought out that puzzle, he wanted to bring us back to when we were four and eight years old, where we would have time to spend together and would actually want to. It’s why he went and built that new table for us to puzzle on. And, I wished I realized this earlier. I would’ve helped him with that puzzle more instead of being so annoyed and unenthusiastic about it. So this weekend, when I go home, I’ll sit by the table and puzzle with him. And when my brother comes back, he’ll do the same.

While going back and working on the puzzle makes us all feel like we’re kids again, completing the puzzle is just a reminder of how much life has changed, and how we’ve all moved on. We live in different cities, and even states. So while I plan on working on it with my dad, I don’t plan on putting in that last piece. That piece I’ll hide so we spend hours searching for it. That piece I’ll hide so the puzzle stays on the table. That piece I’ll hide so we randomly talk about it at a dinner 15 years from now, speculating about what had really happened to that last piece.

I’ve never realized how much a puzzle can mean, and what it can represent. Each piece is the same but cut and decorated differently, the way people are. We put each piece together, building from a space of emptiness. And the pieces come together, securely. So I’ll hold on to that last piece until our family comes back to be as close as we were the first time we sat around that pile of cardboard on that red-blue-yellow-green table. So when I put in that last puzzle piece, it’ll mean something more than just a piece of cardboard.

MiC Columnist Roshni Mohan can be reached at