Piecing together our shared past

"I have no past," my nephew Jacob announces.

At age 7, he is the youngest relative seated at my dining-room table. We are putting together a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle and reminiscing.

While Jacob helps me hunt for corner pieces, my daughter Sarah talks about how she used to love "Sesame Street" and Little Bear books.

"And those bunny spoons I stirred my chocolate milk with," she says.

My brother Dan croons about the old motorcycle he won in a bread-baking contest and the alternative radio station where he worked as a DJ.

"Paul was a DJ when we got married," my mother says, adding to her pile of brown pieces. "He was late for the wedding.... I thought I'd have to go through with the ceremony by myself."

"I've heard this story before," Jacob says.

I, too, have heard it many times, and I need to hear it again.

I could tell Jacob all the details: how the best man, our uncle, had escaped from Poland just before World War II and had not been able to get his sisters out. How my parents had met in England, when both were serving in the military, and how my father did not ask my mother out then because she outranked him. How my father's brother, the piano player, had been playing since he was 5, taking lessons from the nuns in Colon, Panama.

These are the stories that weave us together in an intricate web.

"I need a red piece with a black smidge on one side," Sarah says. "Remember that red dress I had when I was in third grade?"

Several pieces scatter onto the rug. I try to hook two blues together. Although they appear to fit, they refuse to merge.

"I have no past," Jacob announces again, in a louder, slightly panicked voice.

"You not only have a past, but everyone here remembers it," I tell him.

He looks at us all, squinting suspiciously.

"You remember when I was a baby?" he asks me.

I nod.

"You carried around a stuffed rabbit and a silky blankey," Sarah says. "Once you left them at the movies, and we had to drive for a half hour through a snowstorm to get them."

"You loved Batman toys," Dan says.

"I still have Batman," Jacob says, perking up. "But I like Power Rangers better now."

"You only ate macaroni and cheese and fried chicken," I say.

"I like bacon cheeseburgers now," Jacob says.

As we put together the puzzle border, each of us remembers something about Jacob.

Sarah twists her hair and leans back from the puzzle.

"I took the most expensive taxi ride of my life in honor of you," my father tells her.

"Really?" Sarah says.

He tells her how he impulsively flew to Kansas City and took a cab from the airport, just so he could surprise me and see the newborn Sarah.

Each of us has a story about her: The time she lost her retainer, the time she was the Littlest Angel, the door-to-door business she started, selling acorn art.

My brother and I look at each other. "What about us?" we ask our parents.

The puzzle lags. Jacob and Sarah wander off while my parents talk about Dan and me as children.

My brother and I have memorized our parents' signature stories.

We recite the number of cellars (seven) in our mother's childhood home in Steubenville, Ohio, and talk about the trapdoor in our father's living room in Panama.

We remember how our mother, skinny and shy, fell off her bike in front of a cute boy and how our father, outgoing and popular, was the youngest member of the Stranger's Club orchestra.

Suddenly, Jacob runs in. "Remember when I spilled the grape juice all over the new rug?" he shouts.

"I'm reminded every day," Dan says.

Jacob grins, pleased to have found a piece of his past.

"I'm hungry," Jacob says. "Can I have a soda?"

"Only if you sit at the kitchen table," Dan tells him.

One by one, we leave the puzzle. The barn is only hinted at, the sky is jagged, the fields patchy and open. Although a lot of the middle is missing, the frame is in place.

For right now, that's enough.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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