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Puzzles take you home for the holidays

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Puzzles take you home for the holidays

"Putting together the puzzle is like putting together the lives of the people you knew there."
Puzzles take you home for the holidays
The author's family enjoys puzzle time at a recent holiday family gathering.
Photographer: Provided by Bill Buell

Alabama is a long way from Washington County in upstate New York, but whenever Nedra McCaig gets a little homesick, she knows the remedy. Get out a puzzle.

"I still come home once a year, but I think about home a lot, and when I think about that area I get out a puzzle," said McCaig, a former Cambridge resident now living in the northeast section of Alabama, not too far from Huntsville. "Putting together a puzzle that shows upstate New York reminds me of home. Putting together the puzzle is like putting together the lives of the people you knew there."

For McCaig, putting together a puzzle means enjoying the talent of a great artist, such as Washington County's Will Moses, the great-grandson of Grandma Moses.

"I probably have every single puzzle he ever did," McCaig said of Will Moses, who like his great-grandmother is a folk artist. "I start working on one of his puzzles and I think of Grandma Moses, and I think about her growing up in that area. His paintings are beautiful. I've developed this kinship with his paintings. They tug at my mind and my heart."

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In Ticonderoga, Elizabeth Burleigh is another big fan of puzzles, and typically will have a Moses puzzle out on a table when relatives gather for the holidays.

"My grand-kids walk by and maybe put in a piece, but I don't know if I would call it a family activity," said Burleigh. "It takes a lot of patience to work on a 1,000 piece puzzle, and young children are going to lose interest. But I love it, and I have a dear friend who loves to do it, and my husband might walk past and help out for a few minutes."

Burleigh said she started doing puzzles as a young girl with her mother.

"I did a lot of puzzles with her when I was young, and then when she started living with me in her early 70s I got back into it," said Burleigh. "I had four sons I had to take care of so I got away from it for a while. My boys were certainly not addicted to puzzles like I was. They have great small puzzles for little kids, but they didn't have the patience to help me with my 1,000-piece puzzles."

Burleigh said her mother was an elementary school teacher who would use a puzzle to help educate her students. Things didn't always go well.

"It's a very good activity for the classroom but some of the children would cheat," said Burleigh. "They all wanted to be the one to fit in the last piece so they would sneak one into their pocket and keep it there. My nephew, who's now 40, was one of them. He told me he was doing a puzzle once by himself and without thinking he just put a piece into his pocket. Then when he thought he was done he couldn't find the last piece. He finally remembered he had stuck it in his own pocket. Old habits die hard."

While putting together puzzles is a year-round endeavor for McCaig, she does a lot more of them during the winter.

"I'll do a puzzle in the summer, but it may take me months to finish it," she said. "It's an indoor activity, so when you're indoors around the holidays I'll do more. I start doing more as it gets closer to Thanksgiving. It helps me get into feel of the season."

Jigsaw puzzles have been around since the middle of the 18th century when English cartographer John Spilsbury created a map with wooden pieces. The term, jigsaw, started being used in connection to puzzles around 1880, and during the Great Depression they enjoyed a significant burst of popularity because they were a cheap, long-lasting and recyclable form of entertainment.

For Will Moses and his Mt. Nebo Gallery in Eagle Bridge, the sales of puzzles have become as important to his business as commissions, prints and calendars.

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"It's probably not the largest part of my business, but they are a very significant part," said Moses. "I've been doing it for about 20 years now and it was so popular we decided to make them ourselves. We contract out the work of actually making the puzzles, but it's part of our business and I usually come out with one or two new puzzles a year."

Some of Moses's most popular puzzle paintings are "Sugar, Sugar," "Hoosick Falls," "Frost Moon" and "Salem 1692." Many are colorful rural scenes and all are done in the folk art style made so commercially successful soon after World War II by Grandma Moses. Born in Greenwich , Moses spent most of her life in Washington County and died in 1961 at the age of 101

"I try to find a subject that will relate to most of the population," said Will Moses, "and people seem to like them for the holidays. They'll take them out and start one, then a relative walks by with a cup of tea, works on it for a while and then moves along. I try to paint scenes that will have a universal appeal."

While everyone enjoys the finished product, not everyone is into doing the hard work. Moses puts himself into that category.

"I think by the time I get through with the painting I'm exempt from doing the puzzle," he said, laughing. "I understand the attraction, but I have yet to put one of those together myself."

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