"Oh, it's exactly what I wanted!"

The rest of the festive paper fell away from the box, revealing a picture of the world's great philosophers swapping theories in Raphael's "The School of Athens."

"A puzzle? I didn't know you wanted a puzzle."

"I'd forgotten that I wanted one," I told the other children. "But I did."

"And I remembered," said the eldest daughter, university student of philosophy, retainer of facts and balm to her mother's heart.

It was a beautiful Christmas Day. The fire was crackling in the hearth, and the wrapping paper was crunching underfoot. Everyone was in excellent spirits, even Billy the Wonder Dog, who had been banished on account of eating ornaments. Fortunately, Santa Claus had brought him a bacon-flavored simula-bone, so he didn't even seem to notice that he'd been exiled.

I couldn't wait to get going on that puzzle. Happily, neither could anyone else wait to get going on their own diversions once the presents were all opened and breakfast was finished. My husband could, for instance, put on his new cuff links. That was fun! My mother could wrap around her neck a lovely new scarf. Done! And the children and I could fall to our separate entertainments of introducing the new boy Barbie to the mermaid Barbie, for instance, and tuning the strings of a new guitar.

"I foresee a satisfying afternoon," I informed everyone, as I cleared Christmas books off the living room table and removed the plastic wrapping from my boxed philosophers.

"Yes, indeed," I went on, "how relaxing to spend a few hours doing something entirely different with one's brain than normal SEmD solving a puzzle and regarding a beautiful painting all at once."

"It looks a lot easier than that one you tried on vacation last summer. That was all sea and sky."

"And ugly, too, with that dumb lighthouse."

"Ha ha, yes," I chuckled, not realizing that, in the comfort of my own home, I had become the very incarnation of the phrase "pride goeth before a fall."

Pride in this case suddenly discovered that the innocent-looking box contained a thousand miniature dark pieces, each virtually indistinguishable from the next. As I ran my hands through the mass of tiny shapes, here and there a small detail flashed out: the gold braid of a man's tunic, a hand on a staff, the beard of Aristotle. But these were only glimmers of order in a box of chaos. Pride's heart sank.

"Want some help?" asked the eldest.

"No, no!" I said bravely. "The more daunting the challenge, the greater the satisfaction of meeting it, I always say."

She grinned slantways. "You never say that."

"Well I do now, darn it."

An hour later, I had pecked out all the edge pieces. Two hours later, having assembled most of the edge, I discovered that I was still missing half a dozen edge pieces. An hour after that, I had managed to put together a few tiny islands of meaning in a great bobbing sea of apparently unrelated puzzle pieces. The rest of the family ebbed and flowed around my tableau of concentration and suffering. Now and then, someone would throw a log on the fire behind me or put a slice of Christmas cake in front of me.

"Aaaargh!" I wailed, four or five hours later.

The eldest daughter came over, studied the disaster and laughed. "It looks like Art History just threw up all over your table."

"Darling," I said, defeated, "I need your help."

That night, we worked late into the evening, cursing and sweating and laughing over the colossal impossibility of making the wretched puzzle pieces fit together.

By midnight, everyone else had gone to bed, and we were singing mad little frustrated ditties, eg: "Oh ... I need a little blue sky ... and the top of a bald man's head ... !"

And midsong, midlaugh even, I remembered that my daughter would be leaving in a matter of hours. It had been a lovely Christmas, and now it was over. There would be a drive to the airport, and a lot of waving, and I'd come home to finish the puzzle for good. Alas, a far more important jigsaw piece would be missing.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.