Oh, what a state I'm in as I put away toys

Of all the toys my preschool daughters strew daily - tiny barrel-shaped plastic people, building blocks, tea sets in three different patterns - the one I never mind picking up is our puzzle map of the United States. I'm fond of my country's map, even with oversimplified borders that would make a cartographer reel. The US map is an old friend, one I've studied formally in school and of necessity on travels. So when that particular puzzle is spread across the playroom carpet, I settle all the way down, scrape the states toward me, and begin to put them into the backboard.

A miniaturized Alaska and supersized Hawaii go in first, each in its own rectangle superimposed atop Mexico. (How surprised our neighbors south of the border would be to find those states there, especially if the flora and fauna were to scale. Alaskan polar bears as tiny as voles. ??iquest??Que pasa?)

I put in our peninsulas, Michigan and Florida, tight fits in the cardboard frame.

My husband and I have been in 45 states apiece. Between us, we've been in all but two of them. We used to be competitive about it, tallying our personal totals on long driving trips when the atlas was our main reading material. He could flaunt his flight layover in Hawaii when he immigrated as a boy, but I had my own ace up my sleeve: a trip with my mother up the Inside Passage on the Alaska Marine Highway System. My spouse and I can vouch for the toy map's symbols for regional products: salt for Utah, corn for Iowa, peaches for Georgia.

In go the corner states and several big easy ones: Maine, Washington, California, Texas. With California in place, I nestle Nevada into the bent elbow of its eastern border.

Our map also lists the capitals, which takes me back to my Michigan schooling. One teacher invariably called on me to name our state's capital. I always said, "East Lansing," which is where my grandparents lived. The teacher blithely overlooked the "East" and glommed on to the "Lansing" part. No other student seemed to have a clue - until we reached fifth grade.

In go Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana - a great swath of the friendliest border in the world.

In fifth grade, we had to memorize all 50 state capitals. Week after week we were quizzed. What wretched mnemonic devices we invented to help with the tough ones! "Louisiana is in the sunny south, so people there look as though they have on ROUGE." (Baton Rouge.) "Colorado has long winters, and if you were a bear, you might hibernate in a DEN where your FUR would keep you warm." (Denver.) Awful. But they helped.

In go Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming. I like putting in those big square-cornered states west of the Mississippi. Does everyone do a US puzzle west to east?

In seventh-grade choir, we learned a song titled "Fifty Nifty United States." It had a bouncy tune with the centerpiece being a list of all the states in alphabetical order. Sometimes the list tripped along glibly, and sometimes the songwriter (who was Ray Charles, by the way) put in tricky rhythms for variety. In the Ns was a crescendoing chanted part where the piano accompaniment imitated a tomahawk drumbeat. "NEW Hampshire, NEW Jersey, NEW Mexico (rest, rest), New YORK. NORTH Carolina, NORTH Dakota, (rest) O-hiiii-YEO!" That list has stood me in good stead for those occasions when an alphabetical list of states was needed without a reference handy. All right, the one occasion. But my listeners were impressed.

In go Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky. Now the puzzle pieces are getting smaller, their shapes dictated more by waterways than surveyors.

Also while in seventh grade, I had my only formal instruction in geography. The teacher, an ex-military man, liked to dwell on certain vowels in long words, and he wielded the rubber-tipped map pointer in a way that commanded respect. He was much imitated. "Today we'll talk about the top-AHH-graphy of Indon-EEE-sia." He took it upon himself to finish what had begun in fifth grade: drilled-in memorization of the state capitals. Kids had to stay after school until they knew them.

The puzzle is almost done. The little cardboard states are so small now, their names hang off into the Atlantic Ocean, surely creating hazards for unsuspecting watercraft.

For all of my regrettably limited instruction in geography, it was seeing the country that truly familiarized me with our map. One does not forget Nebraska when one has traversed it lengthwise in August in a car with no air conditioning. My husband and I also know the glee of driving through many states in a forenoon in New England. It seemed like cheating, as our personal state tallies soared that morning. Nowadays, putting together our children's puzzle is a nostalgia trip to all the places we drove before car seats and their occupants showed up in our rearview mirror.

In go Vermont and New Hampshire, a rectangular yin and yang. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, all three on one piece. Their founders would have rolled their eyes to see them thus.

There! I stand up, completed puzzle in hand. I'm no Abraham Lincoln, but I do like to see the States united.

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