An orange balloon escaped from the car in front of me. For a second it swirled around and then disappeared from view. Traffic was steady along the scenic highway. I caught the look of shock on the face of the child who lost the balloon. Then he pressed his face against the glass and from the way his eyes rose along an imaginary slope, I knew he was tracing the flight of his balloon. What came next was unexpected. He smiled.
I often see eagles circling and marking their territories above the pines and the oaks along this stretch of the road on my way to work. I wondered if the child saw his balloon soaring toward them. And I wondered if that’s what brought the smile to his face. Perhaps the balloon, like birds, turned instantly into a symbol of freedom for him, free from rules and laws, only the open sky its guiding light. Could it be that such thoughts come unbidden to children on wings of mystery but are as real to them as the balloon and the car and mom and dad?
Some years ago I saw a classic called “The Red Balloon” with my 4-year old. He was so taken by Albert Lamorisse’s tale that we watched it almost every weekend during our private “balloon time.” It ends sadly for the balloon and the boy but I suspect it is this loss and pathos after so much loyalty and happiness that enchanted my son. At the end of a viewing I would ask, “How come you love this movie so much?” He would laugh and re-enact for me all the fun the boy had with his beloved balloon in the streets of Paris, becoming less voluble as he neared the finale. But that would quickly pass as he flung himself yet again into recreating the magic of the sentient balloon, not so much for me as for himself, concluding with “Let’s see it again. Please!”
The car in front changed lanes a few miles down the highway. The last glimpse I had of the child was of his face still pressed against the glass, his gaze fixed heavenward, and smiling the kind of smile as only a child could.