Real imagination

FROM the time my grandson was 3, he and I have spent many an afternoon acting out stories, sometimes adventures as scary and fantastic as Grimms' fairy tales. Once when he was about 4, he recounted to his dad a particularly wild adventure, and his father ventured to say, ``But you know, James, that was just imagination.'' To which, James replied, ``But it was real 'magination, Dad.'' And so that eloquent term entered the family lexicon. James and I happily continued acting out our adventures of real 'magination. Sometimes he was a wild tiger at the zoo, while I played a mother and child approaching the cage - the mother fearful, the child eager to take the tiger home, and James making wonderfully convincing roars. Usually the tiger did go home with the child, conveniently becoming invisible when a next-door neighbor appeared.

It was during vacation that summer in New Hampshire, however, that James reached the full potential of his imaginative powers. On hikes through the woods we fled from erupting volcanoes, were threatened by sinister trees that reached down to grab us, or giant worms that came out of the ground and wound around our ankles; and we braved the land of the good and bad dwarfs. Fortunately James saved us from all of these dangers with his Magic Stick (picked up at random in the woods) with which he ``zapped'' the menace. Only lava failed to respond to the instant liberation provided by his Magic Stick; from that we had to run for our lives, arriving home breathless and exhilarated.

In the fall, when we were back in New York City, Central Park became the setting for perhaps our finest achievement of Real 'Magination. One afternoon, on a bright and tangy day in October, James was busy chasing and ener-getically zapping fearsome monsters when I timidly suggested that perhaps there just might be a friendly monster out there. I wondered if this might seem an excessively Pollyanna-ish approach; but James, the great improviser, immediately switched tactics. We were descending a splendid outcrop of rock, and what should he spy but a family of monsters fleeing an erupting volcano!

``Look, Non,'' he called, ``the baby monster is getting left behind! Hurry! We've got to save him!'' In a flash, with a deft swing of his (imaginary) lariat, he lassoed the small monster; arms out-stretched as he hung onto the rope, he called urgently, ``Come on, Non, you've got to help.''

I grabbed the rope, too, and between us we hauled him to safety. And guess what? It was a Friendly Monster we had caught. This was no flash-in-the-pan, one-day adventure, for the Friendly Monster was with us for a long while.

One morning after he and James had spent the night, I asked if the Friendly Monster was going to go to school with him.

``Oh, yes,'' James solemnly assured me, ``but he's too big to get into the bus, Non, so he'll just fly along.''

Off we went to catch the M10 down Central Park West. We squeezed onto a bus packed mostly with mothers with small children wearing small backpacks or clutching small bright lunch boxes; and a few businessmen with copies of the Wall Street Journal and briefcases. James actually found a seat, and I hung onto a strap.

No sooner had we lurched off than James pulled out his (imaginary) walkie-talkie and intoned in his best control-tower voice, ``Calling Friendly Monster. Do you read me? Over and out.''

At this point James gave me a poke, an unmistakable cue that I was to respond. So in my best (and I hoped not too audible) Friendly Monster voice, I replied, ``Friendly Monster to James. I read you loud and clear. A-OK. Nice view. Over and out.''

``Good,'' James replied. ``Just stick with us and when we get off the bus, follow. Over and out.''

``Will do,'' the Friendly Monster responded. ``Over and out.''

A straphanger intent on his newspaper shot an apprehensive look in my direction, baffled that a fairly respectable-looking grandmother should clearly be a bit - well - weird. But James and I were used to puzzled glances and smiled at each other with conspiratorial satisfaction. When we got off the bus, there was the Friendly Monster, happily sailing above us down 74th Street to James's school.

I don't recall exactly when the Friendly Monster disappeared from our lives, but he was a staunch companion for several months, and James and I still speak of him with affection.

Now 7, James is very much a part of his technological generation, at home with VCRs, computer games, and Transformers, which he miraculously turns from robots to cars, planes, or space stations with incredible speed and dexterity. But we still act out our adventures; and in an age when childhood is being telescoped almost to extinction, I am grateful to be sharing with my grandson adventures that depend on nothing more than an ordinary stick and Real 'Magination to create a little magic.

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