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People place poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial following the Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2015. (JUSTIN TANG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

People place poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial following the Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2015.

(JUSTIN TANG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The Granny Files

Explaining Remembrance Day to children is a challenge Add to ...

About this time last November, my twin granddaughters were having a sleepover. While I was making them a granny breakfast – soft-boiled eggs – I explained that the strips of toast for dipping into the yolks were always called soldiers when I was a child.

Hearing that, one of the girls looked at me, eyes as wide as saucers. “Did you know that Bella and Foxy both died?” she asked.

“I knew about your grandparents’ dog, but I didn’t know that Auntie Jill’s dog had died, too,” I replied. “That’s very sad.”

A solemn nod. “That’s why we wear poppies,” she explained. “To remember them.”

I was stunned by the inherent convolutions of four-year-old logic. My casual reference to soldiers had triggered two complicated ideas, one formed in the familiar territory of home and the other in the new world of school.

Because she loves her own dog, she could imagine and absorb the sadness of a beloved pet dying. She had no concept of war or of soldiers dying in battle, so she conflated sadness about dogs dying with the two minutes she’d spent in silence at school on Remembrance Day.

How do you move that inchoate concept forward, in order to commemorate the veterans who have died for our country, without traumatizing her and her sister, I wondered, as Remembrance Day approached.

As a journalist, I once went to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in North York, Ont., to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies. The grounds were covered in small maple leaf flags, much like the poppies that grew between the crosses in Flanders Fields a hundred years ago.

I saw a Second World War soldier wearing a blazer, grey flannels and a chest-full of medals sitting in a chair in Warrior’s Hall in the veterans’ wing of the hospital. His middle-aged son, in a blue business suit, was on one side and his grandson with slicked-back hair and a junior-sized blazer was on the other.

When the military band struck up O Canada, the vet struggled to stand by pushing down hard on his cane. His son, with a practised move, shoved an arm under his father’s elbow and hauled him upright so he could stand at attention while the national anthem was played and then salute the flag in what I later learned was an annual ritual observed by the three generations of the same family. “I want my son to appreciate the role his grandfather played on behalf of his country,” the man told me while I tried not to blubber.

There are no veterans from the Great Wars left in our family, so last week my husband and I bought the girls poppies and dug out family photographs of great- and even great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers who had fought overseas or worked in munitions factories. The girls were interested in the pictures – especially of soldiers on horseback – but they had trouble connecting with blurry images from long ago of people they had never met.

So, I phoned elementary teacher Catharine Rutter at Roberta Bondar School in Peel Region. Having taught Grade 1 for some 15 years, Rutter has had a lot of time to develop her lesson plan on Remembrance Day. Some of the children have no idea about war, she told me. Others, especially those in the English as a Second Language stream, are all too familiar with death and fighting.

“You have to start with something simple,” she says, “and work toward a more complex idea.” For Rutter that means asking the children what peace means to them. “That usually brings ideas of friendship, showing kindness, helping others.” Then she asks the opposite question: “How would you feel if somebody wasn’t kind to you?” The next step is to ask who might do that to you, and so she introduces the familiar idea of a bully and expands that to discuss the more abstract idea of somebody who is bullying the entire country.

“That is hard for them to understand,” Rutter admitted. So, as my husband and I had done, she personalizes war and remembrance by introducing simple poems about poppies – not In Flanders Fields because that is too complex – and showing her pupils her own family photographs of soldiers in uniform not only from the two Great Wars, but also a nephew who fought in Afghanistan.

“When we have our moment of silence on Remembrance Day, when we do thinking time,” Rutter tells her pupils, “I think of them, and I say thank you in my heart.” And then she moves from her family to their families, inviting them also to say thank you in their hearts to soldiers who stood up to bullies, even though it may make them sad.

Rutter knows full well that the kids will not comprehend war and remembrance on an intellectual level. What matters to her, as a Grade 1 teacher, is exposing them to the concept of expressing heartfelt thanks to those who have served their country on behalf of the rest of us. And that’s what matters to me too, as a granny – at least for this year.

The Granny Files is a new series about grandparents who are confronting real problems in what we often call the golden years. Maybe together we can find some homegrown solutions. Write to me at smartin@globeandmail.com.

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