I am lucky to have a house on Cape Cod. I acquired the land pretty cheaply fifty years ago when a house could be built for thirty-five thousand dollars. Hard to believe. Although it seems like not much money now, I need to rent it during the summer to pay for basic expenses. Without the income, I could not afford to keep it. 

This year, I had an early rental – ten days in June – a rarity. Typically, I don’t get a chance to check out the house until the end of the season when I would discover the objects tenants left behind or that an item had been damaged. These are never big things; a faded t-shirt or a newly cracked coffee cup that I had purchased at a yard sale decades ago. 

When I began the reconnoiter this year after occupants had left and as I was wiping down the vinyl tablecloth, I found something that I hadn’t noticed because it melded so thoroughly into the beige background – a tiny jigsaw puzzle piece. It was about one inch by three-quarters of an inch with several rounded jut-outs and indentations. Its design made it look even smaller. Because of its smallness, I assumed it came from a large puzzle.

In my storage area, I have dozens of second-hand jigsaw puzzles acquired at the aforementioned yard sales. Thousands and thousands of pieces. To which of these sets did this lone segment belong? Or any of them? It felt daunting. Will this one ever find its home?

To put this in context, I like to try to keep entities together and maintain wholeness. I guess it helps me believe that I have some control over my life. If I can’t find a missing sock after doing a load of laundry, I will keep the remaining singleton because, after long experience, I know that the mate will turn up sooner or later –stuck to a sweatshirt or a towel. Disconnected socks are unified quickly, but I never abandon the goal to re-join other items. I have several reusable nylon shopping bags with their own little pouches. There is one pouch that has been missing its mate for years. I keep it in the firm belief that these two items will be re-connected sometime in the future. Accepting the idea that I could have discarded the bag and given up hope of reunification doesn’t fit with my perception of myself and my fantasy about how I would like life to be; whole and all parts working in sync.  

Another component is the satisfaction of solving a mystery. That gratification is short-lived in the case of socks, but not finding the nylon bag means I have an intriguing challenge still to be dealt with. This has certain allure because, for me, it is always good to have new and ongoing quests, even modest ones. 

The real estate agent suggested that I put the fragment in a prominent place and ask future renters to find where it belonged. I realized there had to be a simpler way and, besides, I didn’t want to cede the delight of solving to anyone else. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which life-view I take, I found the puzzle piece’s true origin pretty fast, albeit with help. The agent asked the tenant and she made the identification. It was from  a round, five-hundred-piece puzzle of the sixteenth century painting Winter Landscape with Ice-skaters and Bird-trap by Pieter Brueghel, the Elder.

I was glad to put the bit back into the scruffy container (with its strip of masking tape that says “$1.00”), but felt the loss of a potentially long-term, albeit, non-momentous mission to carry forward. Thankfully, my work is not finished. I still have the little shopping bag to search for.