Thursday, December 7, 2023

The Lowly Dandelion - An Abecedarian for My Grandson

April 2023

Your great grandmommy’s last visit to Seattle was in April. You remembered her from our previous August trip to Bloomington, Indiana to celebrate her eightieth birthday. I hold an image of the two of you in my mind’s eye. You are face-to-face, Grandmommy sitting in a garden chair leaning forward to your eye level. You both hold delicate dandelion seedballs in your hands. She releases a gentle puff of air and seeds rise skyward like tiny helicopters. You are delighted by this magic trick. “Now you try,” Grandmommy tells you. Not yet having mastered the fine art of blowing, you inhale, blanketing your face with tiny dandelion seeds. Your shared laughter is a joy. 

Bees, Birds, and Butterflies

Dandelions are one of the first flowers to bloom in early spring, a time when nectar is not readily available to bees. The leaves and seeds of the dandelion also provide much-needed protein for birds and butterflies. Because the dandelion provides early nourishment, these important pollinators are healthier and better able to pollinate other flowers and fruits, vegetables and herbs to maintain a healthy ecosystem and provide nourishment for other animals, you and I included. 

Common Weed

The dandelion is a common weed some despise, and others love. As a child I picked dandelion bouquets for my mother, your maternal great grandma. She’d thank me while explaining they were weeds and encouraging me to pull the roots. In her final years, I remember her bent at the waist digging dandelions from her lawn, determined to destroy the bright yellow flowers before they went to seed. Did I fall for the bright yellow dandelion just to be a contrarian? Perhaps. The first time you presented me with a scraggly yellow bouquet, it took center stage on the living room coffee table.


Grandmommy and her two sisters were sorting their parents’ photographs and memorabilia at the youngest sister’s home in Indianapolis. On September 25, Grandmommy felt ill and went to Indiana University Medical Center. A few days later she was given a diagnosis: cholangiocarcinoma. A rare but aggressive form of bile duct cancer. 


From flower to leaves to root, all parts of the dandelion are edible, except for the stem. Flower petals can be added to baked goods, leaves can be used in salads or cooked like spinach, and boiled roots can be added to soups and stews.


Your great grandmommy is Baba’s mother. A week after he learned of his mom’s diagnosis, he flew to Indiana to be with her. A week later you, your mama and I met them in Ohio where the family usually gathers. On the day family photos were scheduled, we arrived early. The family stood around a parked car waiting while Grandmommy sat in the backseat with the door open. You found the only dandelion seedball anywhere in the surrounding lawn and ran to the car, arm extended. With innocence and love, you handed your gift to your grandmommy.


The globular seedball of the dandelion is also called a blowball, puffball, or clock. The average dandelion plant can produce about ten flowers. Each of those flowers ends its life as a seedball composed of a hundred to two hundred tiny seeds. Each seed is attached to a tiny parachute or helicopter shaped structure called a pappus. When blown by breeze or human, these seeds are carried through the air making for a lot of potential new dandelions.


The dandelion symbolizes hope. We clung to hope, knowing there was little to be had.


Three days into the family visit in Ohio, Grandmommy was back in the ER. She’d developed an infection. She was released only to return the following day. On her second day in the county hospital, your mother and I had to say goodbye to her. Three days after we returned to Seattle, Grandmommy was ambulanced back to Indiana University Medical Center.


You were so confused, Jack. Why was Mama crying? Why didn’t Baba come home? Why was Grandmommy sick? The week you returned home, you had a fever of 103. When you were well enough to spend a day with me, you asked “Did Grandmommy puke like me?” You wanted to know when she would get better. How do you explain incurable cancer to an inquisitive three-year-old? 

Kiss of Death

By the last day of November, Grandmommy had enough of hospitals and procedures. She asked to go home. Home was a hospital bed in your great aunt’s dining room. Baba was on another flight back to Indianapolis. It was the kiss of death.

Lion’s Teeth

Due to the jagged shaped leaves, the French name for this member of the daisy family is Dens Leonis, Lion’s Teeth in English. In Latin it is Taraxacum Officinale. In our part of the world, we call it a dandelion. In English, dandelions are also known as Cankerwort, Irish Daisy, Monk’s Head, Priest’s Crown, Earth Nail, and Milk-, Witch- or Yellow-Gowan.


Dandelions are known for their medicinal value. Health benefits include vitamins A, B1, B2 and C as well as various minerals. The leaves contain more iron and calcium than spinach. In addition to being antioxidants, consuming dandelions has also been shown to control inflammation, cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure as well as support the immune system. In traditional medicine dandelions, especially dandelion roots, have been used to treat cancer.

November 16, 2023

Your great grandmother died of cholangiocarcinoma complicated by infection. 


You were three when we traveled to Ohio in October, when you last saw your beloved Grandmommy.

Picking Seedballs

It is early December as I write these words. Baba is home again, and we slowly find our way back to some type of normalcy. There are few dandelions growing in Seattle at this time of year. Seedball picking is limited. When you find one, you hold it up to me like a sacred object.


You are still full of questions. Questions we cannot answer. 

“Where’s Grandmommy?” 

“Remember, Jack. She died.”

“But where she GO?”

Just before Grandmommy’s death, you saw a collection of tiny brass tools I amassed during the years I lived in Mexico City. You wanted to know why I had tools. You are obsessed with tools and still a bit sexist, believing they are only for boys. 

“When I lived far from my family, the tools reminded me of my daddy,” I told you.

 “Where he go now?” 

“He died a long time ago.”

“But where he GO?” you asked, arms extended to your sides, palms up. 

I put one hand on your head and the other on mine and said, “He’s here because we always remember the people we love.” 

You gave me a skeptical look, pushed my hand away and said, “He not in there.”


We never forget those we love, even when they are gone. We may not have as much time with them as we wanted and expected, but they’ll always be remembered and always be with us, a part of the fabric of our being. You lost your great grandmommy a decade before anyone who knew her imagined her death. Three instead of thirteen, you were deprived of a decade of memories with her. Still, I have no doubt that every time you see a dandelion seedball, you will remember, and she will be with you.

Six Weeks

Six weeks from diagnosis to death. 


Baba and I have hosted Thanksgiving dinner for decades. Baba bakes pies and a few favorites he and Grandmommy perfected through the years, I roast a turkey and make gravy, and everyone brings their signature side dish. This year was no different though our joy was laced with sadness. We toasted Grandmommy and expressed our gratitude for having known her.

Grandmommy rarely came for Thanksgiving. She preferred to visit in the spring, a season she loved for nature’s rebirth and the abundance of fragrance and color (including bright yellow dandelions). But there was one Thanksgiving she came to Seattle when your mom was still a preteen. One of your great uncles was serving time for marijuana possession. This was before it was legalized, before cannabis use was as normalized as a champagne toast at Thanksgiving dinner. We were invited to share Thanksgiving dinner behind bars with him, and Grandmommy agreed to go with us. The meal, cooked by inmates, was one of the best Thanksgiving dinners we’d ever enjoyed. Your great uncle was charming and funny, and we all had a blast, including Grandmommy. She was an amazing woman. Always open to new experiences with never a shred of judgment. We need more like her in this world.

Unfulfilled Dreams

I wonder how many unfulfilled dreams Grandmommy carried in her heart, dreams stolen by cancer. Two years ago, Baba and I visited her in Bloomington, Indiana. We stayed at a lovely inn, and he gave us watercolor lessons on the university campus. Grandmommy dreamed of creating a watercolor she was proud of, and Baba dreamed of helping her reach that goal. We promised ourselves and her that we’d return every year. Last August was her eightieth birthday party and family reunion, a fun visit but different. Now, there will be no more visits.

Various Health Benefits 

I do not know if Grandmommy ever consumed dandelions, but I do not believe it would have made a difference. For despite the various health benefits of dandelions, I doubt any would have been strong enough to save your grandmommy.


I found a photograph of a field of dandelions – yellow flowers and white seedballs on a background of tall, verdant grass. I want to paint it in gentle watercolors, but it is beyond my skill level. Like Grandmommy, I love watercolors and am glad Baba has returned to that medium. He is the visual artist in our family, not me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy trying. And your mama, too. She has artistic skills she hasn’t explored since high school. Maybe one of us, maybe all of us, can create an image of dandelions for you. And for Grandmommy.


You love dinosaurs. We read about dinosaurs before nap every time you spend the day here. You chose a dinosaur duvet for your new big-boy bed and a stuffed dinosaur to sleep with you. Not long ago we read about the Xiaosaurus. You wanted to know what they ate. When I told you they were herbivores, you made loud, gobbling dinosaur noises. Then you asked, “Do they eat fast or slow like Grandmommy?” Before I could answer, you added, “But Grandmommy doesn’t eat now. She’s dead.”


Your great grandmommy had a boundless zest for life. At eighty-one, she still wrote, published, and distributed a nutritional newsletter to health clinics around the country. She loved working in her community garden plot. She was creatively and physically active as well as engaged in the world around her. She socialized with friends and family and enjoyed sports events until just weeks before her death. 

During those long dark weeks when Baba was in the Midwest and I was at home in Seattle, we had long nightly phone conversations. When he told me that his mother had lost her zest for life, we shared a cry knowing her end was near.

As we find and pick early spring dandelions for bouquets or edibles, as we gently snap off seedballs and puff the tiny seeds into the wind, we will remember Grandmommy. We will remember her positive energy, her bright smile, and her zest for the gift of life.


Pamela said...

This is a touching remembrance and beautifully crafted too. Jack is lucky.

arleen said...

Thank you, Pamela.

Nancy McBride said...

It's not complicated. Jack is blessed to have this memory kept alive for him despite her death.

arleen said...

Thank you, Nancy.