March 21, 2021 · Issue 2: Space(s)

A Plate Away

Listen to Tyra read from her piece:

Textile · Tyra Forde - A Plate Away

My grandparents have lived in the same three-bedroom house in Cambridge since they immigrated to Canada from Bridgetown, Barbados in the early 1970s. Whether it was a paint job or a complete remodel, the house went through many changes over the years. Every room was transformed by my grandfather’s sense of purpose, all except for the kitchen. It’s not as though he hasn’t had time; the second-floor guest bathroom has been renovated twice out of boredom. He hasn’t bothered to replace the white lace curtains above the kitchen sink that are now as yellowed as the old refrigerator, or the broken bar stools that are one slice of rum cake away from collapsing on an unsuspecting guest. He hasn’t touched any of these things because, while the house may be my grandfather’s duty, the kitchen is my grandmother’s domain, a sacred place.

Thanks to her, I grew up in the kitchen. My parents and I lived with my grandparents for four years, while our house was being built and my brother was being born. We lived in the basement, only a staircase away from the sights, sounds, and smells of my grandparents and their Caribbean heritage. I have never been to Barbados, but I have been to my grandmother’s kitchen, and a difference has yet to be proven. We don’t live in my grandparents’ house anymore but visit at least twice a week. The door is always open, and the stove is always on.

When the door opens and the smells from the kitchen waft through, the large maple tree that drops keys down the driveway becomes a swaying palm and the dull grey concrete steps by the front door turn into hot golden sand. Aside from one clock in the shape of the small, avocado- shaped island, my grandparents have no other material reminders of home, until my grandmother opens the oven and pulls out the memories.

Life “back home” is not a frequent topic that falls from my grandparents’ lips, save for in discussion about the cold Canadian winter or when my grandmother is cooking, the only connection left to the Caribbean. They only venture back home once every few years. Usually a trip is only organized to refill their inventory of flying fish. They never refer to Canada as “home”. They also never call Barbados a “vacation”. Their connection between the two countries hangs in the balance and lives in the kitchen. While my grandparents love life in Canada, the trip home is never more than a plane or a plate away.

Encouraged by my father, my grandmother taught me to cook and instilled her favourite Caribbean recipes in me from an early age. From fried plantains to fish cakes and souse, she shaped the sun-soaked island with only a few ingredients. Breadfruit will never taste like French fries to me, no matter how hard my grandmother argues, but it resembles the lazy breakfasts with tea before donning her Sunday best and heading to church. The warm stovetop cider made from sorrel will always make my tongue curl, but hearing of Christmas in the Caribbean and the other treats served always makes me smile.

The kitchen may transport my grandparents back to the island, but it transports me back to my childhood. In twenty years, this kitchen hasn’t aged a day but has watched me grow up. This kitchen is where I choked and nearly lost my life to a hard candy from a Christmas parade. My grandmother was babysitting me, and I foolishly swallowed a peppermint the size of my palm. My grandmother turned around to find me wide-eyed and mute. She scooped me up, leaned me over the sink and promptly pounded my back. All these years later, I still remember thinking she was spanking me out of anger. That is, until the green perpetrator shot out of my throat and shattered against the sink.

She recounts this to me, once or twice a year, when we’re sitting at the island counter on the rickety stools watching the television above the kitchen table that never displays anything other than CP24. A headline will flash about a tragic accident or injury and her heroism will justify her hounding me to get my first aid certification. I still haven’t been certified, but to this day I haven’t eaten hard candy again, either.

Outside the kitchen window is a perfect view of the vast garden below the raised deck, another of my grandfather’s retirement projects. My grandparents have always loved gardening, and in recent years, the yard has been overtaken by carrots, snap peas, strawberries and herbs. There is a photograph of me and my grandmother picking sunflowers from a stalk that dwarved me in size.

The buttery yellow petals of a sunflower are impossible to find in Barbados, yet my grandmother used gardening to connect to her new roots in her chosen life in Canada. Somewhere between the backyard garden of flowers that the island couldn’t grow and the comfort of the kitchen that belongs somewhere on a beach, these two worlds collide. These two worlds and the place between them is my home and my family history. So when my grandmother serves supper and my mouth savours the different flavours, I can almost taste the sand, sunflowers, and maybe even a little hard candy.