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facts & arguments

SOPHIE CASSON/The Globe and Mail

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I had been granted the company of my four-year-old grandson, Jesse, for an afternoon so that my daughter could have some uninterrupted quality time with his little sister.

I made it clear to the little guy that I had a few errands to run before we could get down to the business of fun and frolic, and that I would need his co-operation to get through it all quickly.

Jesse was a bit of a paradoxical little boy. He was undersized for his age but shockingly wise. Every hour spent with him was an opportunity for me to learn lessons about all the things I might have otherwise overlooked.

For instance: I never thought to wonder, as he did, if Spider-Man had been stung by a bee instead of a spider, "would he have become Beeman?"

I never knew about the protocol that indicated when you're cut off by another driver who almost causes a terrible accident, you are not simply to say "Oh my goodness," as I did.

You are to rhyme off a truck driver's list of profanity, as he did.

"That's what Mommy and Daddy always say, so that's what you're supposed to say, right Grandma?"

Jesse was fascinated by moments that would flit by most of us unnoticed. Before the age of 2, at our dining-room table, he discovered the joy of humour. He found it after insisting his mother share her lemon wedge with him. I guess he thought it looked appetizing, but when the shock of the sour juice struck his senses, the face he showed us would have won a prize for comic ingenuity.

Once he heard the uproarious laughter from the assembled crowd, he was hooked on repeating the exercise and hearing the response. Jesse was always curious about life; his and other people's.

The first stop that day was lunch at McDonald's. I mean, who can get through an arduous to-do list without proper sustenance?

Happy Meals provided the fuel that allowed us to breeze through a trip to the dry cleaner, the bank, the shoemaker, the pet store and Canadian Tire.

Then there was a quick stop at Laura Secord to replenish our energy with chocolate lollipops before we ventured on to the movie theatre for popcorn, soda and the ultimate animated escape flick.

As dusk swept in to warn us that the day was coming to a close, my fast-food frenzy was a painful reminder that I now had an additional task to complete. I was in dire need of an antacid.

While Jesse studied the colourful postage stamps in the glass case at the postal counter, I lingered in the stomach-relief aisle with my grandson always in my peripheral view.

Wavering between antacid liquids and tablets, I was about to look toward the heavens in earnest contemplation (I find that lofty decisions are easier to resolve if accompanied by this upward glancing gesture), but somehow my eyes settled instead on Jesse.

He seemed to be engaged in conversation with a very old gentleman decked out in a blue beret and blazer who seemed intent on listening to whatever the child was quietly saying to him.

Then, suddenly, Jesse stepped back and raised his tiny pink hand to his deeply furrowed brow in a precise military salute. The old man did likewise.

I watched as Jesse, still standing at full attention, inhaled a swoosh of air and, in his most sincere, moving and melodious voice, began to chant "O, Ca-na-da."

Patrons started to migrate toward the pharmacy counter like beautiful, smiling, patriotic zombies. They encircled the two and gave them silent respect as the poignant hymn continued.

When the anthem ended, the gentleman leaned down and pinned a bright red poppy on Jesse's sweater.

My grandson looked over at me and offered up his most beguiling smile. The man followed the track of the smile to me and offered one of his own, along with an observation: "You have quite a young lad there, ma'am. Ya don't see many that have that kind of respect for their elders these days."

I smiled and nodded because words weren't available; they were being stifled by a backwash of tears.

The old man stepped back, saluted the child one more time and began to shuffle away.

I asked Jesse what made him think to sing O, Canada to the man, and this is what he said: "I told him that Mommy said I'm not allowed to smack Olivia when she bugs me. She says the only people who can raise their hand to smack other people are soldiers … and she says they only do it to keep us safe from really bad people.

"She says we're supposed to buy red poppies from their boxes, and we have to wear them for Canada and the soldiers.

"That man sold poppies from his box to the lady behind the counter, so I knew he must have been an old soldier. And I didn't have any money to buy a poppy for Canada, so I sang it a song instead."

I ran after the veteran and dropped 20 bucks in his poppy box.

Like I said, I always learn something valuable from my four-year-old grandson.

Reva Stern lives in Toronto.