Marisa Bianco, New York University 2020
(Essay Contestant Semi-Finalist)
I find it strange how after someone dies, we think, “How can they be gone? They were just here?” Even if they were here a month or a year ago, our brains feel as if they are just a step away. It’s like time isn’t linear in our memories, as if a moment lived years ago is happening simultaneously to the current moment, in which I am grieving alone and staring blankly at a ceiling wondering why.
At my parents’ request, I returned to Nebraska at the beginning of the pandemic. It was mid-March, but the roads still froze during the night. On the way back to my childhood home from the Omaha airport, I stopped by my Grandpa’s new apartment in a retirement community. Of course, I couldn’t go into the building or get close to him, so I saw him from outside of his balcony. His apartment was on a busy street, so we had to strain our voices to hear each other through the noises of traffic. While it was difficult to understand his words, I could clearly sense his smell—well, not his smell, exactly. The smell of his kitchen. My grandpa was an entrepreneur, who founded two restaurants. He forged his place in a Nebraska town by bringing traditional Sicilian cooking and familial warmth to his community. While both restaurants closed before I was born, food and family gatherings, led by my grandpa, were integral to my childhood. When I saw him through the balcony of his new apartment, the March air filled with the scents of chocolate and batter. He was baking a cake to distribute to all his neighbors in quarantine. The short exchange we had through a window about chocolate cake was the last time I saw my grandpa. He passed away suddenly a month later.
On the morning of his visitation, I received the notification that I was to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa . I told my aunts and uncles and cousins the news, but they didn’t say much. I thought maybe the significance of Phi Beta Kappa was better known on the East Coast. When strangers’ pitiful looks became too much to bear, I escaped to a back room of the funeral home that had free, albeit stale, coffee. My dad found me there—it turned out he had sought out the coffee lounge for the same reason. As he sat down next to me with his Styrofoam cup, he told me that my grandpa would have known about Phi Beta Kappa and how notable my achievement was. He wouldn’t have brushed it off like my cousins, he would have bragged about it to all his friends. He would have called his own cousins on the East Coast just to boast about his granddaughter.
Without my grandpa, I would never have been able to attend New York University. When I decided to go to NYU, nearly everyone in my life didn’t understand. My cousins and high school classmates went to schools in Nebraska. Why not save on undergrad and go somewhere expensive for grad school? My grandpa, however, made my dream happen. My parents were struggling to improve their credit, so my grandpa signed my student loans. I always imagined him at my graduation, taking photos with me in Washington Square Park and reminiscing on the afternoons in the 50’s when he would bring dates to the village and charm them under the arch. While we never got to be in the city together, my graduation and induction into Phi Beta Kappa felt symbolic of that never realized vision.
As I drink my morning coffee or walk to the subway, I sometimes smell my grandpa’s chocolate cake from that last day. I see him smiling with pride, since giving food to others was his greatest joy. In these seemingly mundane New York moments, those last few minutes with him are no longer in the past. They become my present. While it is painful to feel his absence and presence at the same time, I am grateful that grief allows me to let time collapse. He is gone, but I still smell the chocolate cake.