This I Believe

Laura - Enfield, Connecticut
Entered on May 23, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
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For a Dandelion

Forty-five years ago my mother asked the manager of the Enfield Garden Center for the seeds for “those little yellow flowers on everybody’s lawn.” Our Brooklyn roots had just been transplanted to northern Connecticut. What did any of us know about dandelions?

In Brooklyn, anything that grew through sidewalk cracks was revered. Back yard gardens cramped a few tomato plants, a row of lettuce leaves, and a row of radishes together, in about half the space seeding instructions recommended.

The lushest spot on the block was the corner fruit and vegetable stand. As I remember it, baskets of beans, bananas, apples, and artichokes would slant towards short women in housecoats who had a knack for squeezing and snapping the produce for freshness.

My grandmother wore one of those housecoats. She also knew more about dandelions than any of us.

A few months after we moved, Grandma and Grandpa traveled four hours by train from Brooklyn to visit their son’s family in the country. First things first, Grandpa, a barber, snipped his son’s and grandson’s overgrown hair as they took turns on a bench placed out on our undergrown lawn speckled with a yellow flower here, a yellow flower there. Then we all headed to the Warehouse Point Trolley Museum for a nostalgic ride.

Grandma would wait out the ride on a worn webbed lawn chair placed by our ’55 Plymouth, or so we thought. By the time we got back to the car she had completely filled the car’s trunk with jagged dandelion leaves.

“Cicoria,” she said, more comfortable, as always, with the Italian than English. She was beginning to like New England.

Washed, her leaves filled a large macaroni pot every day through her week-long visit. Steamed, the bounty shrunk, resembling seaweed. And, like the lion’s teeth for which the leaves are named – those toothy greens did bite. My brother and I didn’t understand how the adults could so relish the bitterness.

Now, here I am, a third-generation dandelion lover. It ‘s never been for the taste, but more for the sunny bouquets my preschool daughter would pick and offer saying, “These are for you Mommy ,” or the sight of my five-year-old son’s puffed checks as he prepared to send a matured fluff ball of seeds into the air. Time seemed to stand still as we watched each seed attached to a tiny parachute of white down that guided it to its landing. Some would settle a short distance away from the parent plant; others would float out of sight.

That faraway flight is not so unlike my grandfather’s who, as a six-year-old in the early 1900s, sailed the Atlantic to New York harbor. The family account immortalizes how, with one hand, he held fast to his older brother and, with the other, he waved good-bye to his mother and father who remained rooted to the rocky Italian soil. From Old World poverty to New World promise they sent their youngest son across the ocean at a great price – never to see him again.

A similar sense of wonder about this new land inspired my mother’s father, a man who shined shoes, to give each of his four children a nickel every time he heard them sing God Bless America. Something assured him, through the hardship of youthful departure and obstacles of assimilation, that his trip would improve his life and provide descendants like me with opportunities he never had.

When my grandfather, the shoe-shiner, sailed back to Italy in the 1950s to visit his mother, his two-way ticket entitled him to a cabin instead of the steerage quarters of his first trip to America. In a home movie of his departure he waves as proudly as the captain of any ship. On his way to Italy, he would soon pass his younger brother on the high seas traveling to America for the first time – on the ill-fated Andrea Doria.

I never saw my grandfather again. After seeing his mother, he took sick and died in Italy. But I did get to see the rope burns his brother suffered when he was rescued from the wreck of the Andrea Doria.

Though I can remember once thinking the dandelion was too pretty and too much fun to be called a weed, I thought I had outgrown my childish notions of dandelion flight and fancy. Even my mother’s naive intent to cultivate the little yellow lawn flowers had lost some of its comic edge after I discovered dandelion seed packets in the herb section of the local Agway, along with an array of recipes for dandelion salads, soups, and even jelly in spring magazines. Yet, last fall, as I prepared to send the second of my two children on to college, this one three times farther away than the first’s one-hundred-mile distance from home, I’m reminded of the seedling’s natural and inevitable departure from the parent plant and my grandparents’ courageous voyages from their mother country. Like my grandmother, I’m tempted to add a few of its leaves to a crisp lettuce salad this spring. It’s time I developed a taste for the bitter green.

Laura Baione Hayden is a teacher and freelance writer from Enfield, Connecticut