Miniature skeletons sprawl across our kitchen table: an Italian Caproni, a Flying Tiger, a Wright Flyer, a Short Sunderland. Sinewy, steely little planes, they take surgical fingers and caring hands to come to life. First, you glue a ribcage using curved slivers of balsa wood, no bigger than toothpicks. Next, you insert a heart, the rubberband from the Sunday newspaper. Then come the wings, long and kite-like. Finally, the skin: a thin covering of tissue paper, from the fuselage to the wingtips.

You began building balsa airplanes during the Great Depression. Living on a mushroom farm in rural Pennsylvania, you worked from sun-up to sundown, seven days of the week. The only time you had to yourself was during your lunch break, when you ran down to the basement to build for ten minutes, or until Pop finished his lunch.

“One day,” you laugh,“ I got caught up in building a plane and didn’t hear him calling for me. I was so intent on building that I didn’t hear him come up from behind me. All of a sudden, a big, thick fist slammed down on the plane, smashing it to smithereens. BOOM! Pop never said anything, but later that night, after work and after dinner, he silently handed me a quarter. That was enough to buy five model airplane kits!”


Balsa trees, as light as they are, carry a deceptive strength. Pound for pound, the strength of balsa wood surpasses that of pine, hickory, oak, and even steel. The trees grow all over Latin America, from southern Mexico to Bolivia, though they are most common in Ecuador. Spanish for ‘raft’—but known as ‘boya’ or buoy in Ecuador—balsa is a soft and buoyant material, used for insulation and flotation, not just handicrafts. The seed fiber is used for stuffing mattresses and cushions. A versatile and robust tree, it is tender too.


You shared your father’s name: Vincenzo. A short, industrious man as bulky as an ox, Vincenzo Senior never spoke much English. Born in Abruzzo, Italy, he made the weeklong trek via steamer to America as a young man. Once in America, he built and maintained mushroom houses, selling produce to large and small vendors. Lavora sodo, he told you. Nose to the grindstone.

A proud farmer at heart—who talked others’ ears off about the art of mushroom farming—you went on to earn a college degree in mathematics and physics, despite no one in your family holding more than a middle school education. A career mathematician, you worked on the first ever programmable computer, the ENIAC: Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. The body was your cockpit, the brain its engine. You were fascinated by time and space, by the vast distances information could travel. You learned, though, that no matter the miles or years we span, sometimes the shortest distances—the ones we think least about—are the hardest to fathom. One day, just a few miles from your house, a drunk driver swerved his tractor-trailer into your father’s pickup, crushing his ribcage. He died minutes from home.


Balsa trees are familiar with loss. Called ‘nurse trees,’ they protect areas of jungle ravaged by tropical storms or other natural disasters. Quickly sprouting to impressive heights—so quickly, in fact, that they used to be categorized as weed trees—balsa trees grow incredibly large leaves, some up to four feet across, which spread like hands over the forest floor and protect the seedlings of slower-growing trees from the harsh rays of the sun. By the time the saplings are strong enough to fend for themselves, the balsa tree begins to die.


Twice a month, we grandkids assembled in the windows of our ranch in Georgia, counting down the hours until your old, brown Buick rolled up on our street. When you finally arrived, we would race outside and into your arms.

You used to accompany us on bike rides around the neighborhood cul-de-sac, picking up little stones and flowers along the way. Sometimes, you invented background stories for a chipmunk or squirrel we encountered. In our front yard, you taught us golf with some of your golfing equipment. I struggled with it, and so, one time, I proposed to you a new rule: the person with the most strokes wins. This made you erupt into laughter.

You had your oddities. Up until your last moments, you only ever wore shorts, even in the winter cold. I think back to one day in particular, a freak snow day in the suburbs of Atlanta. You, my brother, sister, and I walked to the local high school to sled down the massive hill behind it. We brought trash can lids and boogie boards. The entire hour or two we spent there, you stood like a sentinel in your shorts, dressed for summer, keeping watch from the top of the hill. We all laughed at you. “All that matters,” you returned, “is what’s between the ears.”

Every time you visited, you would bring mini balsa wood airplane kits for us to build together. You would bring your own, complex creations, too, some with wingspans as wide as my outstretched arms. Whenever we found a tall hill or an elevated point from which to launch, we would come back the next day with a balsa plane. Whether at a special spot, at the local soccer fields, or just in our front yard, we gave each of your planes a test flight. Before lift-off, I would slowly wind up the plastic propeller. You would remind me to only coil until the rubber band began to double back on itself. Then, I would hold the plane as high as I could, and launch. Some landed more gracefully than others.


Balsa wood used for crafting must be painstakingly dried in a kiln for two weeks. This is because green balsa wood, a natural fire retardant, contains five times more water than wood usually does. Thus, it can withstand high temperatures, including the hot sun, without burning. Beneath its skin, balsa wood houses ecosystems of bacteria, fungi, and insects. The nursemaid of the

jungle, balsa is also a microscopic homemaker, tending to all kinds of organisms. At all levels, it creates space for others, clearing space for germination, for new life to form.


I can’t remember when I first learned you were sick. Maybe it didn’t matter, because you seemed to be able to mend anything, from furniture to sour moods. Wasn’t the body just another construction, in need of repairs from time to time?

But the cancer swept like a flame through the building of your body. Swift and orange, it spewed and spat, licking through your wooden bones. Before long, it spread to your control center, your brain. Still, you remained steadfast, withstanding its heat, determined not to give out. Even with a permanent urostomy pouch and medications sprawling the bathroom sink, your body was the last thing on your mind. Wincing from the pain, you would laugh and point to your head, repeating the same mantra: “All that matters is what’s between the ears.”


It was the height of the Covid pandemic, and everyone was sheltering in place. You were at your home in South Carolina, and I was in Georgia. We had phone calls from time to time. I mostly stayed in, and you did too, as you were at much greater risk should you contract the coronavirus or any other illness. I trusted your cancer would pass quickly, that you would kick this sickness the way you kicked chainsmoking many years back.

Dad tells me that, as a kid, he used to watch you smoke as you worked at your old, walnut desk. You used to go through three or four packs in a day. One day, Dad explains, you found yourself lighting a second cigarette when you were only halfway through the one in your hand. Frustrated, you pounded your fist on the table, resolving to quit there and then, and you never lit a cigarette again.

You decided not to have surgery. The chemotherapy was exhausting and painful, and so you wrote into your will your plan to give whatever money you had saved to your family.


On January 9th, 2021, you took flight.

It was a Saturday.

We couldn’t have a funeral, because of the pandemic. For days, and then weeks, and then months, you sat in a small, taped-up Postal Service box marked ‘Human Remains’ on a chair in the corner of our living room. Before the box arrived, we sat in silence as Dad, holding himself together, told us that you had passed on two days prior. He had tried his very best to be there. When he received a call from a family member that you were on your last leg, he furiously drove three hours to you. In your last moments, with a pen and a sliver of paper, you attempted to write something to him, but you only got past his name.

He missed you by seven minutes.


After you passed, Dad gave me a stack of letters, yellow with age, that you saved from your tío Luis and tía Margarita in Argentina. Over the course of a month, I translated them all from Spanish and Italian to English. You never got a chance to read any of them in translation, so I felt like I was writing back to you, in a way.

So much grief wells up from those pages. In the longest letter, your primo Romeo discusses the death of your tío. He lists all of your cousins—Augusto, Aida, María, Olga—and the ways they are processing, both near and far from him. La muerte de él fue un golpe duro, he writes. Todavía la sentimos como en el primer día. Struggling to find a satisfying description, he fills four pages with ornate handwriting, John Hancock Spanish. But, he writes, no hay palabras. Over half a century later, I can feel the depth of his sadness.

But the sadness that grows between us has flowers, little bromas strewn about its branches.

Tío Luis was a jokester. Romeo recalls one moment wherein he, your tía Margarita, and your prima Aida were teasing him. Luis erupted into a fit of laughter. All of a sudden, his body went rigid, and he fell to the ground. His heart had given out. Romeo, horrified, began CPR and managed to revive him. Luis chuckled. He arose. It was all pretend. Perhaps a joke too far. No te podés imaginar la alegría que había en casa cuando estábamos todo. Joy and loss share the same, fragile stem. We nurse them both with the same hand.


At some point, Dad and I sat down to write your obituary. We pondered daily over it, like business partners drafting a proposal. Assembling a picture of you in writing felt like a weighty task, so we relied on numbers. You worked as a mathematician for forty-two years. You coached baseball for thirty-three. In golf, you shot sixty-seven consecutive rounds playing your age or less, and you shot an eighty-three in your final round at age ninety, despite being in pain from your cancer. You donated over 11,000 hours to the local hospital. You had five grandchildren. You made it to the year 2021.

Given there would be no funeral, at least for the foreseeable future, assembling a narrative of your life felt ceremonial, like we were bidding you farewell for good. How do you put a lifetime of feeling into a handful of words—a couple of numbers? How do you clear a space for the last page for someone who lived his life so fully?


Balsa trees are resilient, even stubborn. Farmers in Latin America often struggle to keep food plots clear of balsa growth for balsa trees will spring up quickly if given the opportunity, even in soil carved and cratered by trauma. Still, usually only the ‘strongest’ balsa tree wins out. The others make way, suffusing their strength into the soil. So, by the time the winning tree reaches adulthood, it might be the only one around for more than an acre. Think about the lives that stand behind each organism.


You and I stand in the middle of our front lawn. It is dusk. The pink sun is yawning over the sweeping oaks in our neighborhood. I am maybe ten or eleven.

“Let’s see how far it goes,” you exclaim. “Make sure to wind the propeller just enough, just until the rubber band begins to coil back on itself.”

I follow your lead. Raising the plane above my head, I prepare to launch.

“Okay. Keep it level.”

Holding the plane as level as possible, I throw it.

“Wow!” You yell. The wind has picked up. The plane coasts for ages, straight as an arrow, before tapering off, gliding softly to a controlled stop on its button wheels. This time, the test flight is successful.

Beaming, I run to retrieve it, to try our luck again. Behind me, you look on, your shadow lengthening with the day.


Gia B.

"I wrote this piece to remember my grandfather by. Grief, I have learned, requires assembly, even though our assemblies inevitably fail us in some way. There is no way to accrete an image of a person in writing, only to beckon toward a fading image. It’s like putting together a puzzle even though you know, from the outset, that a few pieces are missing. Still, the only way past grief is through it. And so, I sought to begin that journey with this piece."

When not circling the vortex of academia, Gia B. enjoys scribbling bits of nonfiction. She lives in New England but calls the South home.

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