We are twelve days away from the two year anniversary of my great uncle passing. Bernardo Sanchez, more endearingly known as Tio Niño. I’ll never forget receiving the news. December 3rd, 2016. It was the final class of the Fall 2016 Writing Our Lives seminar with Vanessa Mártir and I had just finished having an essay workshopped for the first time.
I expected the constructive criticism. I was grateful for it. But I was floored by the praise. I listened to writers who I admire tell me that my words moved them and gave them the courage to write their own stories. I doodled in the margins of my notebook to avoid eye contact as someone compared me to a sculptor with a chisel. “That is how precise your language is. You know there’s some people who can write precisely but then it’s lacking in emotion. I think the precision is what added the emotion, which is fucking hard to do.”
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I won a Daily News essay competition in the fifth grade, but I hadn’t dedicated myself to working on my craft until I met Vanessa. This class was the first step in a series of commitments I made to believing in my writing again. A few minutes after my workshop, I received a text from my cousin about Tio Niño, who had been on life support after a tragic accident two weeks prior.
2:25pm: Everything has been removed. Now we are with Tio.
2:35pm: Tio just left us. It was very quick. He didn’t suffer.
I found an empty bench to sit on by the bathrooms down the hall and let my tears fall onto the dark gray carpet. I called my mom and I could feel the weight of her sorrow in the silence between her heavy sighs.
“He was like a second father to us Nia,” she finally said. She paused before continuing, as she often does before saying what she really wants to say, ” to me.” And I knew her words were burdened with the heartache of a girl who was sent away from home when she was seven years old and a woman who found paternal love through her husband’s family.
I have only fond memories of Tio Niño, most of them involving dominoes, tropical birds, freshly picked fruit from his backyard and laughter. Lots and lots of laughter. He was a man of faith, gratitude and deep-seated joy in life. He is three years older than my grandfather, so his passing was a reminder of what I already knew to be true.
Loss is inevitable.
It is a bittersweet day in the archives of my mind. We lost a remarkable patriarch in our family. I was also affirmed of my calling to write. Six days later I boarded a flight from Laguardia Airport to West Palm Beach with my father to pay our respects at the funeral. I learned a lot on that trip. I wrote out a family tree and discovered that my father has somewhere in the range of 71-78 first cousins. I scribbled down stories as I listened to the cousins talk about all sixteen of my great-uncles: who died of diabetes, who was always asking for a loan, who housed complete strangers. I learned how to play Royal Casino with my Tio Andres and cousin Steve. And I scrawled a recipe for cornbread into my journal after devouring half a tray at the reunion.
Where am I going with this?
I’m currently working on an essay about my mother’s cooking. Last week during the first snowstorm of the season, the one that shut down the city with only six inches of snow, I made my way to Mami’s house and asked her to teach me how to make sancocho. I have been chiseling at this essay every day since. I woke up at five in the morning today to work through a second revision before heading to work. I’ve been thinking about my relationship to food and how its connected to my relationship with love. It is layered, generational and melancholy. It’s amazing how something as simple as a recipe can mean so much more.
I’ve made the cornbread many times since December 2016. I have one writer friend who started naming foods after her friends and she dubbed it Nia Ita Cornbread. Sometimes she’ll randomly text me and tell me she made it and she’s thinking of me. Whenever I make it now, I think of Belkis, one of Tio Niño’s daughters. I think of the trip I took with my father and the pink floral journal where I traced our ancestry. I think about family.
It’s important to write these things down. Both the stories and the recipes. I’m sharing all this on Thanksgiving eve. I hope you are surrounded by loved ones tomorrow. I hope you get to listen to stories that make you laugh and stories that make you ache. I hope you get to eat some of your favorite foods. And if you try this recipe for cornbread, I hope you don’t just think of me. I hope you think of Tio Niño too.
Ingredients: 1 can of sweet corn, 1 can of creamed corn, 1 (8.5 oz) box of Jiffy cornbread, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup of butter, 8oz of sour cream
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl. Spray 9×13 baking pan with cooking spray before spreading mix. Bake for one hour. Let mixture cool before cutting and serving.