Pieces of the Puzzle

Military spouse begins to carve out a space for herself with a puzzle in the margins of military life

Written by Jessica Harbin

In the back of the house, there is a small table buried under piles of children’s school papers, baseball mitts, and art projects. She picked out the table for its straight-lined simplicity, but most of the time it was so “styled” with messes that she lost sight of its design. She lost sight of her own designs for the table too. 

Of course, she imagined a spot for creative endeavors. But she imagined they would have clearly defined completions. She envisioned inspiring the children with handicrafts and history lessons and classic board games. But the table was an always-evolving collection spot for work that was never complete. For toys that didn’t seem to have homes. And always Pokémon cards. So many Pokémon cards.

Similar to a clean white table, the puzzle was part of her plan. She purchased it months ago and placed it in a pretty basket full of other small activities that she thought would catch the attention of her children and inspire them. She naively pictured herself working on the puzzle surrounded by eager little fingers, but it sat untouched for months.

Until today. Today she decides the puzzle and the table can be just for her. Just because it’s something she wants. She begins to carve out a space for herself, collecting crayon bits and returning toys to their proper homes. She throws away scraps of paper and scrapes off playdough dried to the surface. She grabs the last Magic Eraser from the cabinet and wipes away dried glue and pastel smudges. Behind the table, a trail of lead-covered fingerprints leads up the blinds behind the table. She wipes them away, along with pencil marks that had been very deliberately, if not carelessly, scribbled.

The momentum builds with each stray mark erased, and she uses the second side of the sponge to scrub spills on the baseboard behind the trash can. Her mind wanders, and she thinks to herself that this will pay off in nine months when it’s time to move. She thinks maybe she should spend ten minutes wiping baseboards regularly, instead of letting all of the grime build-up for one pre-move master clean. It’s not so bad once you get started. Fortunately, the thing about Magic Erasers is that they lose their magic eventually, and the cleaning spurt concludes. After all, she hadn’t set out to spring clean.

She tosses the sponge into the trash and takes a step back to look at the table. It’s so white and clear of the normal kid-accoutrements. The clean straight lines of the table make her smile.

She dumps the puzzle pieces out on the table and begins to flip them front side up. As she goes, she begins to sort them into groups by color. This doesn’t take much brain power, and again her mind begins to wander to her to-do list.

Why doesn’t she put on music, she wonders? She never thinks to play music, but now seems like a good time. And it’s her time, so she puts on some pre-canned autumn pop playlist. Her mood floats back to years spent walking through city streets, kicking up leaves to a similar soundtrack. She feels so young, now absorbed in this moment, in this puzzle, and this music. Not young like playdough mess young. But young, like independent young. Young with daydreams and not just lists.

An hour later, the artists return home. No one panics about missing toys, but they share in the excitement over the half-finished puzzle. She remembers why she doesn’t often listen to music – it’s too much noise with the children’s chatter. She pauses the music for another time and turns her focus to their questions.

They fall in around her, looking for pieces that fit together. She takes a step back and realizes that the moment has finally arrived. Her children have joined her in a calm activity. The table steadily holds them up, all the puzzle pieces and elbows and tiny hands. All of her designs come together in this spot and at this moment. She sees that this project has an end, and tomorrow the mess will all be boxed back up. But they will have done it together. All she needed was to start, to quietly lead, and to spend some time with herself.

Words by Jessica Harbin

Photography by Annie Louise Wilkins @annielouisewilkins

Author Behind the Legacy Essay 

Jessica Harbin is a writer, mother, and Navy wife. As a third-generation military spouse, Jessica loves stories of strong military families and traditions. She loves planning adventures, slow meals with good company, and reading aloud to her children. When not writing her own story, Jessica works as a strategic communications consultant. 

This piece was originally crafted in The Work of Words writing workshop. Within the course, you'll discover how to string words together with creativity and discernment in a creative non-fiction framework.

The next session takes place this Fall|Winter 2022. To be the first to know of the upcoming workshop and learn more of the details, click here to join our waitlist. 

Turning the Page

"Every time our military family moves, we face the uncomfortable and exciting first few months of transition. It is in this window of time that I grapple with myself. While I always look forward to the adventures that lie ahead, change continues to be a challenge. 

I’ve found the busier I can be, the easier it is to push discomfort away. Busy is easy with a spouse and child to settle in. Busy is easy with a house to unpack. Busy is easy when you need to map your new road routes, find grocery stores, and start the initial first dates of finding new friends. I’m great at procrastinating with busy, but I cannot stay in that limbo forever. 

It is in the quiet of the first full day that I am all alone in the new house that I feel the weight of our move. Busy is finally replaced with the desire to process my own emotions. I have secret weapons for processing -- needle and thread. 

Whether I’m sitting at my machine or my hands are on the needle, I find a rhythmic hum. I come home to myself here, in the rising and falling of the thread." 

To continue reading "Transitional Stitches" click here


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  • So beautiful! Your words are so vivid and powerful. This brought a happy year to my eye. So proud of you!!

    Emily Linn
  • So beautiful! Your words are so vivid. This brought a happy year to my eye. So proud of you!

    Emily Linn
  • So beautiful! You’re amazing with words. This brought a happy tear to my eye. So proud of you!

    Emily Linn

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