Meet the puzzle posse of Brethren Village | Entertainment

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it seemed like more people were doing puzzles than ever before. And the sales numbers proved it: puzzle brands like Ravensburger and Ceaco reported a whopping 300% increase in sales in March 2020 compared to the previous year.

While some were exploring puzzling or rediscovering their love for the pastime, one group of puzzle enthusiasts had to put their hobby on hold.

Erma Herr, 92, is one of several residents of Brethren Village who enjoy solving puzzles as a group. But, health concerns surrounding the pandemic put a temporary kibosh on her puzzle posse.

“We had to stay in our rooms,” Herr says.

While some solo puzzling went on behind closed doors, it lacked the camaraderie and concentration of working together in the public puzzle room. The group has since reunited — happily.

“We’re always puzzling,” Herr says with a smile.

Herr has been doing puzzles since she moved into Brethren Village 14 years ago. Lillian Ramsay, 88, and Jeanette Manning, 90, who both live on Herr’s floor, are ardent puzzlers and join in. When they place a puzzle piece, it’s tradition to knock on the table. That’s where Judy Wimmer, 81, comes in — she has the important role of “cheerleader and table knocker when a piece gets placed,” Herr says.

Herr says that there are four or five other puzzle tables in her building.

The women keep sharp by doing other types of puzzles on their own, like crosswords, word searches, sudoku and cryptograms. (The latter is a short quote that has been encrypted by swapping out letters and requires linguistic intuition to solve.)

But, they come together at the puzzle table for a couple of hours each day to tackle the latest challenge.

“And every time we pass the table, we have to add a piece,” Manning says.

A group of women at Brethren Village find community in solving puzzles together. 

Health benefits

Studies have shown that puzzling of all persuasions is beneficial to cognitive health.

According to a Baylor College of Medicine blog post, doing jigsaw puzzles can improve cognition and visual-spatial reasoning, while the concentration required improves short-term memory and problem solving.

But, it’s more than that to the women at Brethren Village.

“It’s a good time to visit and communicate with others,” Manning says.

“It’s relaxing!” Ramsay says.

“It creates more of a community feeling, and we help each other,” Wimmer says.

There’s an easy, quiet concentration among the women as they work, punctuated by “Ah, got it,” followed by Wimmer’s enthusiastic table knock. But, some days can be frustrating.

“I like to hunt the odd pieces we can’t find,” noted Manning while scanning the piece sheets for a strangely shaped section of carpet in the puzzle.

Most of their puzzles are 1,000 pieces, due to the size of the table they work at. Some puzzles are easier than others, so it’s hard to say how many they have completed, Herr says. Recently they completed their most difficult puzzle yet: the Golden Lily, a puzzle recreation of a yellow wallpaper design by William Morris.

It took the group nearly two months to finish, Herr says.

Another hard one was an Amish scene with buggies and snow. But, the group was up for the challenge.

“We don’t give up the ship,” Manning says.

Golden Lily

This Golden Lily puzzle, a recreation of a yellow wallpaper design by William Morris, was a challenge for the jigsaw group.

Working together

Their collaborative strategy entails placing a couple dozen pieces of vaguely similar color on manila folder sheets, and they pass them around after gazing back and forth at the pieces and the puzzle for several minutes. It keeps “fresh eyes” on the pieces and helps with forming chunks of the picture.

Herr says that once they complete a puzzle, they leave it on the table for a day or two. They say their hall neighbors, who have been rooting them on and marking their progress, appreciate seeing the finished product. Then, the puzzle is swept back into its box and passed along to someone else.

Occasionally, a puzzle will be completed and there’s still a piece or two missing. The ladies scramble to find the missing piece, checking clothing and the hallway carpeting.

“One time, I found a piece in my shoe,” Ramsay says.

And they even match their puzzles to the seasons, when they can.

“Pussy cats decorated for Christmas is up next,” Herr says.

According to experts, the official term for people who put jigsaw puzzles together is dissectologist. The word harks back to a mapmaker named John Spilsbury who came up with puzzles in the 1760s to help kids with their geography. His early cut up maps, or “dissections” lent the term — and helped kids learn about the world around them.

“We’ll just take ‘puzzler,’ ” chuckled Herr upon hearing the official label.

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