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Sunday, April 4, 2010

(I first thought of calling this “Let Me Tell You About My Grandchildren,” but figured everyone would simply turn and run like hell.)

I’ve just returned to cyberspace from a) a trip to the great sprawl of Atlanta where my kids and grandkids live and b) a major computer crash. Both experiences are somewhat out of the norm for this screen-and-home bound senior. I treasure my visits south, getting to see the changes that have occurred up close and personal. My oldest son is always engaged in his workshop/basement, tearing old computers apart, studying academic papers posted on arcane post doc websites and building new software. He’s the 45 year old version of the little boy I caught sticking a hair pin into an electrical socket, because “I knew there was electricity in there, and I HAD to get it out.” His one and only child is just finishing her second year in college, so there are no little feet pattering in this house. When our son was small, it was the days of “Mork from Ork” and we sometimes imagined our gifted boy was from another planet. (Would he start seeing through walls or something?) Neither of his parents are as intelligent as grounded or focused as he has grown to be.

In the home of my younger son, things are far less geek-monastic. There are two daughters, one eleven and one nine, and lots of colors, clothes, dolls and a Wii, and all the other trappings of modern childhood. The youngest girl in this house also lives on another planet, but her other-worldliness is a prison. She is autistic, and appears to be pretty firmly stuck there, although, when she was small, we were given the hope that she’d be one of the lucky ones and “come out of it” because sometimes girls on the spectrum do. So little is understood about this modern epidemic of disabled children. Like every autistic child, PJ is a unique world unto herself. It’s tough to have a grandchild who does not appear to know who you are, and who does not meet your eyes. In short, unless PJ needs you to perform a task for her–make supper or get milk from the locked fridge–you might as well be invisible. This apparent lack of empathy, of the warm social bond normal between people, makes life hard for both her parents and for her big sister.

If PJ appears to love anything, it’s the computer–her Daddy has set up one for her, with appropriate links, so she can obsess on whatever kid’s show she currently enjoys. While I was there, she was interested in running the television, because she’s deep in Ponyo, an entirely hand-drawn, fabulously beautiful piece of animation from the Japanese master, Miyazaki. PJ drives the remote like a champ, finding the scenes she likes best and repeating them without difficulty. She can replay for hours, so grandmother simply sat down and watched her watching. Ponyo is a mermaid story. The fish daughter of an undersea magician wants to become human because of her love for the little boy who rescued her. Sitting there, watching, I thought the appropriate age group for the film was probably rather young, as the protagonists are very young–perhaps about 5 or 6.

PJ’s favorite scene concerns Ponyo’s accidental release of her father’s potent magic, which sets off a chain reaction of wild creation. Enormous schools of fish leap from the sea, almost drowning ships; a tsunami roars in upon the land. Ponyo, riding the leaping fish, grows feet, hands, a belly button, hair and teeth. Hurled upon the land by a great wave, she becomes a “real girl.” This climactic scene, with triumphant Wagnerian music–she’s a connoisseur of music–was PJ’s favorite. Sitting on the couch in the dim room, I experienced the rush of transformation in the visuals and in the grand and celebratory music.

It wasn’t until later, back home, that it occurred to me that this latest “obsession” was an expression of hope, a prayer from a child so locked inside herself, so unable to reach out to others, to belong to family or make friends. For a few minutes, PJ saw herself as Ponyo, riding the giant fish, leaping upward toward the sun, surfing a wave onto the land, growing the feet and hands–and the all important ability to speak–of a “real girl.”