Four-year-olds ask really good questions. The things we take for granted, they see fresh. My grandsons, Tyler and Bryce, were born with three great-grandparents still alive. At the wake for the last of the three, the boys saw the body in the casket, but were told Great-Grandpa Tom was “gone.” The body still there, but the person they knew was gone.

As we drew pictures in the funeral home kitchen area shortly after, Tyler asked an obvious, perfectly logical question: “Where did he go?”

“That’s a really good question, Tyler,” I replied.

After some er-ing and ah-ing, I said, “We believe he’s in a different place … with God … and that he’s very happy.” I was thankful they didn’t ask “Who is God?” and “What does the different place look like?”

I’m still working on those answers.

In an interview, you can always tell when someone is buying time to think. “That’s a really good question,” they say, gears turning rapidly. A really good question is a question someone doesn’t have a ready answer to.

I frequently congratulate the boys on their questions.

“Why do you like trees so much, Papa Ken?” Bryce asks during dinner, looking over my shoulder at the large photo of a tree on my calendar, which contains large photos of trees on every page. You wouldn’t think 4-year-olds could be such good dinner table conversationalists.

One adult at the table complains about forgetting her eyeglasses. “Can you see without your glasses?” Bryce asks. 

“Sort of,” she replies vaguely.

Bryce leans forward and asks, “Can you see well without them?”

He is a penetrating interrogator.

A couple of weeks ago at their house, Daddy and I are playing our assigned roles as neighborhood crime victims, and Bryce is in his Flintstones-style police car, his little feet furiously padding the pavement as he makes his way up the sidewalk to “our house” (a neighbor’s driveway).

“What was taken?” Officer Bryce asks in his most official manner. Daddy quickly invents a list, which includes a missing lamp.

“Which way did he go?” Bryce asks, to which I reply, because I can’t resist, “He went thataway!”

On his way back to the squad car, Bryce turns and asks, “What did the lamp look like?”

Good police work, Officer Bryce.

After dinner last Wednesday, Dylan coughs as he buckles Bryce into his car seat.

“Do you have a cold, Daddy?”

“No, I was just clearing my throat.”

“What’s in your throat?”

“Probably a little piece of my burger.”

“Where is it in your throat?”

“I’ll bet you’re sorry you opened up that line of inquiry,” I tease Dylan.

He simply kisses him on top of the head and says, “You ask really good questions, Bryce.”

Back home, we walk into a scene that can be explained only by one of two possibilities:

1)A terrorist bomb

2)4-year-olds playing there several hours earlier.

“Who made this mess?” Bryce asks, his eyes dancing with mischief, after I compare the scene to option #1. “Papa Ken, did you make this mess?”

I tell him I’m partially responsible … and I will partially help him clean it up.

My grandparenting philosophy is to encourage questions and always try to answer them even if the answer is beyond their ken — or beyond Papa Ken. I don’t try to give “clever” non-answers because I’m not clever enough and I think they can see through it anyway. I don’t try to “frame” my answers for a 4-year-old mind because I don’t want to underestimate the 4-year-old mind.

I want them to feel that questions are welcome and that I take the two of them seriously enough to attempt an answer. 

Not all of the answers satisfy them, of course, their most frequent question being: “Papa Ken, do you have any surprises for us today?” They mean presents or treats, of course. Often the answer is, “No, not today, but we’re going to have plenty of fun anyway.” 

Last Wednesday, the first warm day of spring, we visited the Oak Park Conservatory’s outdoor Discovery Garden, which features a sand area, packed down hard by a long winter’s inclemency. Surprised, I soon found myself on my knees in the sandbox, loosening the sand for them with a small plastic spade — more surprised still to feel that this was some sort of achievement deep into my 66th year of life, a sandbox version of love, I guess, like a farmer priming a field for seed. 

Then we heard a siren and sprang to our feet to see what was the matter. To our wondering eyes did appear, from the firehouse across the street at Rehm Park, a firetruck in full warning wail, lights dazzling, heading off on a call — just what the boys had been pining to see for several weeks. 

The real, and surprising, answer, of course, to the question about surprises, is that every day is full of them, some for me, some for them — and plenty to go around.

Our task being to pay attention, note their abundance, mark their understated splendor, and appreciate them so that we never, ever take our time together for granted.

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