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The Last Puzzle Piece

Story ID:7943
Written by:Betty (BJ) Roan (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family History
Location:Toledo Illinois USA
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With nervous fingers, I turned the key in the lock, wondering why her, why now. How could I go on without her? I opened the door a crack, and then closed it again. I turned around, planning to make a run for the car. I wanted to escape the reality of it all and leave this place where fond memories once lived, yet I knew I must face the ghosts inside. Resolutely, I turned around, touching the cold metal of the door knob, twisting and pushing until the door flew open with such force it banged into the living room wall. I half expected her to come out of the kitchen to see who was making “all that racket”, one of her favorite phrases used on noisy children, but the house remained quiet, empty, devoid of all sound. I found myself all alone in a house where her smile and open arms once welcomed me home.

I stood in the doorway surveying the room. It looked the same as it had last Thanksgiving. A large white doily covered the dining room table, bought at an auction, but never used for a meal. It held receipts, mail, and old newspapers, kept to read some other day. Of course that day never arrived, but if it had, an old, yellow lamp sat on the corner of the table, waiting to light up the darkest corner of the room.

To my left was her chair, which faced the television we bought at Wal-Mart a few years back. She loved watching Walker Texas Ranger, probably because the show was filmed in the Dallas/Ft Worth area, where I lived. To my right was the sofa. I remembered the day she found it. I was 13 years old, an eighth grader. We stopped at Short’s Furniture in Neoga the day we picked up my first pair of glasses from the optometrist’s office. I remember admiring my new look in a wall-sized mirror, while Mom listened to the salesman expound on the wonders of the sofa and chair she liked. Other than a slight burn on the arm, from some visitor smoking a cigarette, it looked nearly new. Of course it was covered in the original plastic for several years after delivery.

I walked over to a card table set up beneath one of the windows. A puzzle was partially completed. I picked up the box cover. The picture was Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting titled, Jane Avril Dancing. The puzzle was finished except for the face. I opened the curtain and sat down in the chair where she should have been sitting and finished the last few pieces of the puzzle. I noticed a few tears were threatening to ruin the cardboard pieces, so I dug in my pocket for a tissue. I dried the puzzle, as if it would matter whether or not the pieces were ruined. Mom wouldn’t be saving it to put together some other day. I leaned back in my chair, remembering all those winter nights we spent agonizing over puzzles, playing Monopoly, rummy, and dominoes. Mom was a gamer, sometimes sitting for hours playing solitaire with a deck of well-worn cards. I wiped my eyes and moved on to the kitchen.

Breakfast dishes were still stacked in the dish drainer, waiting for Mom to come home from her doctor’s appointment and put them away. Her old iron skillet rested on the stove, washed and meticulously dried to keep the rust away. I could almost hear the eggs frying and smell the coffee brewing as she prepared her final breakfast. I filled a watering can and proceeded to water the plants in the east window. The jade plant I almost killed, had grown into a monstrous plant under her care, its tentacles nearly reaching the floor. I wandered down the hallway to her bedroom, where more plants would need watering.

I knew it would be hard to walk into her room, but I wasn’t prepared for the barrage of emotions I felt when I saw a doll resting on the pillows of her bed. Tears slid down my cheeks as I remembered our last telephone conversation. She told me she found some beautiful dolls at a craft show. She bought one for me and one for my daughter. She planned to give them to us when we came for our spring visit. The doll dresses were crocheted. The one on the bed had a yellow dress. The other two huddled together next to the mirror on her dressing table, one wore a green dress, the other red. I stared at the bed, imagining her tucking the bedspread beneath the pillows and placing the doll there, her one last act before getting into the car in time to make that last doctor’s appointment. I watered the plants, set the can next to them, and reached out to pick up the doll. I rested my head on her pillow, breathing in her scent, looking for comfort.

After what seemed like hours, I dragged myself up, collected all three dolls, and slowly made my way outside. I stopped myself before locking the door, placed the dolls on the porch swing, and went back inside. I scooped the puzzle pieces back into the box and closed the lid. I would save this puzzle for the granddaughter I hoped to have one day. We would spend hours putting this puzzle and many others together, making memories, good memories, like the ones I held in my heart. I placed the puzzle box and the dolls in the passenger seat before reversing out of the driveway.

The road in front of me blurred. Through the tears I pictured Mom standing in the doorway of my room, holding her newest puzzle find. She would be smiling her most winning smile as she said, “Want to help me?” And then she would bribe me with, “I’m making hot chocolate.” In case that wasn’t enough of a temptation, she would taunt me with, “Bet I find the last piece first.” I smiled through the tears streaming down my face, knowing this time she had let me win. On a card table in the corner of the living room, she had left the last puzzle piece for me.