Aiden may only be four years old, but when it comes to geography, he could probably qualify as a contestant on Jeopardy!

by Elise Seyfried

It’s a game they played back in January. Every night my son Evan left a voicemail message, telling his nephew Aiden where he had stopped for the night. Aiden then went downstairs to the big U.S. map on the wall, found the destination (with a little help) and put a push pin there. His “Shushu” (Chinese for “uncle”; Aiden has a Taiwanese mom) covered a lot of territory during his week of traveling west.

Evan needed to be in California to start his new job as finance director for a congressional campaign, a move which involved many, many miles on the road. Evan’s luck held, and he did not run into terrible winter driving conditions. (He deliberately plotted a more southerly course.) Aiden believed Evan would make it to Orange County on time, and he did.

Aiden has always loved maps of all kinds. He is also crazy about Evan Shushu. That combination has been a winner because Evan has traveled quite a bit during Aiden’s four years, and my grandson loves to trace his adventures. Sometimes the journeys have been American, such as Ev’s cross-country drive helping a friend resettle on the West Coast. Other times, Aiden has needed to switch over to the world map on the other side of the room, where even at a very young age he could point out Barcelona (where Evan went to graduate school) and other spots Evan hit in Europe and Asia.

Last year, his intrepid uncle went with another buddy to Argentina for five weeks of trekking that included time in Patagonia. This location particularly fascinated Aiden for some unknown reason. Several times daily, Aiden would put on his small backpack and head for the front door. “I’m goin’ to see Shushu in Argentina!!” he would call out. We would solemnly wish him safe travels. Three minutes later he would zip back into the room, journey completed.

What, I wonder, does Aiden think of all these places, depicted in so many different colors and shapes on his maps? He can locate many of them and knows some personal connections attached to them too: Indiana, where Steve (my husband) was born; New York City, where I was born; Thailand, where Rose Gugu (“aunt”) spent a year. Aiden himself has been to Taiwan three times and can easily zero in on Taipei, where mom Ya-Jhu’s family lives.

When I was a little girl, I pictured the world as incredibly diverse and exciting. I, too, pored over multicolored maps, imagining myself on safari in Tanzania, at a beach on Maui, climbing the Eiffel Tower. Then I grew up. I spent time in many different US cities and was sadly struck by the sameness of so much that I saw — identical fast food restaurants, malls, hotel chains. Endless stretches of interstate, with green and white signs that only differed in the names of the exits. It was so disappointing! Had the world become like a giant theme park, with everything predictable and replicable?

In recent years, however, looking past the surface and especially meeting a great many people, I am heartened to realize that little me was right; every place IS special and unique. Though McDonald’s is certainly ubiquitous, and American entertainment (for better and worse) has reached around the globe, there are sharp distinctions between the gulf coast of Alabama and the mountains of West Virginia, different topography and accents and attitudes. Our greatest challenge — coming to understand each other and appreciate what we each have to offer — can also be our greatest strength.

I am so grateful that my loved ones and I have been able to travel, and I look forward to Aiden experiencing the wide world as much more than push pins in a map. Putting on a big backpack someday, walking out of the house, and really meeting his beloved Shushu in the amazing Argentina of his dreams.

Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. She can be contacted through www.eliseseyfried.com.

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