Aunty J had a stroke. She’s in the hospital. Daddy was so upset he sent it to me on blackberry messenger and my blood went cold.
You know the piece of sunshine in the family, the woman who is always doing something, always taking care of others with never a moment for herself. Always cooking, ironing even my undershirts, scolding me for not dressing for the weather. Her house always smelled of ripe plantains and was as warm as Jamaica even with the snow falling outside.
Grandma died when my dad was a toddler and Aunty J, even from a distance, has done her very best to fill the gap. She is the grandmother I know. Her home was my home when I moved north for university. She cooked countless Sunday dinners and sent monthly care packages full of her special banana bread, chocolates, coconut cream, ackee and salt fish. Always ackee and salt fish. In a brown shoe box. I would get a slip in my mailbox saying to please collect the large package at the porter’s desk. Where Aunty got all those shoe boxes I have never thought to ask but there they were in a steady, reliable stream, one for every month of four years.
The cake would last from month to month with the new one arriving just as the last crumb of the old one disappeared. The rice and peas didn’t come out right the first few times but soon I was a professional. But the major hit was the ackee and salt fish…
Aunty would be on the phone on a Sunday – we always spoke on Sundays – and walk me through every step of ackee and salt fish until I got it right. And if I were to take the train ride down to her for the weekend she would have the fish soaking in the kitchen as she boiled the water for my hot water bottle on cold nights. I would wake to ackee and salt fish on the table with fried dumplings and fresh fruit with coffee and orange juice every morning that I woke up in that house.
Some people light candles. I, like Aunty, prefer to cook as I pray. Yesterday while she was in the Intensive Care Unit I was picking fresh ackee out of the red shell. This evening after hearing of her improvement and her move out of the ICU I poured hot water over the golden ackee flesh, boiled the salt fish and shredded it, and threw them together in a pot with thyme, onion, a spoon of oil and family secret pepper sauce. I will send up savory steam rather than smoke, heavy with the smells of our shared experiences and a bond like no other.
I pray Aunty will soon be back on her feet and taking care of everyone again. Cooking delicious tropical delights in a grey wintry northern city, ironing, sending birthday cards (never does she forget a date), cooking, walking to the post office, taking the bus to the grocery store, cooking and being the rock that so many of our family have been built on. And cooking. But today I am doing her cooking for her.