Inquisitive young mind a priceless gift

Published December 20, 2007

What do an inquisitive 3-year-old, an aging grandmother and the rings of Saturn have in common?

Not a trick question, but a simple explanation of life seen not only by the very young but also by one who thought she had seen just about everything.

On a warm summer evening back in June, my soon-to-be 3-year-old grandson sat comfortably on his Poppy's lap and watched as the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off from Cape Canaveral on one of its extended missions to the space station and the outer reaches of our universe.

I saw, as we three witnessed this magical send-off, the beginning of a spark that has continued to flare brightly in my grandchild's ever-developing mind. Somehow our limited and generic explanations of what was transpiring onboard Atlantis and what those astronauts anticipated on their travels grabbed hold of his imagination and has never let go.

In the months since, he has developed a persistent, continuous and somewhat badgering relationship with planets, constellations, galaxies and asteroids. He has devoured simple children's picture books explaining our solar system, learning the names of the planets, their positions and their relationship to their solar neighbors, their descriptive landscapes as well as their moons, their volcanos and their size. The books' dog-eared appearance attest to their continual use.

These books are never far from his reach, even while sleeping. His limited vocabulary has grown by leaps and bounds. He is willing to be tested by those of us who are willing to play along, asking him questions that would baffle most adults but usually produce the right answer from him.

Terms like "black holes," "nebulas" and "Jupiter's Great Red Spot" are as familiar to him as Little Einstein, Barney and the Big Blue Bear. Callisto and Ganymede, two of Jupiter's 16 moons, roll off his tongue quite easily, despite having three syllables.

Once he asked me which planet was my favorite. I thought for a moment, hoping to be inventive and colorful at the same time, and replied, "I choose beautiful Saturn because of the brightness of her rings that can be seen by telescope from Earth."

He immediately christened me "Saturn," while calling his tiny baby sister "Pluto" and his mommy appropriately "Mother Earth."

"I am Sun," he firmly suggests. No doubt we revolve around him joyfully.

One recent early morning, just before daybreak, he perused the Texas sky where "the stars at night are big and bright." It was that magical time when daylight is just a red glow on the eastern horizon.

"The moon," he exclaimed. "I see the moon!"

"Yes," we replied, "and how beautiful it is! It's the same moon your daddy sees in Baghdad, the same moon your cousins see in California and New York, and the same moon that will never fail to light up your imagination."

As the Christmas season approaches and the thoughts of gift-giving fill our spirits, I realize that gifts come to us from the innocents whose vision is unclouded by the superficial baggage of everyday life.

How truly lucky we are to partake of and relearn the unblemished lessons of childhood.

Norma McCulliss lives in Palm Harbor. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.