The Building Blocks


The sofas in my grandmother’s house were always wrapped in the plastic covering they had come in. It was only one of the many things I hated about going there. I remember being told that many Jamaican women of her generation did the same thing, but I didn’t think that excuse compensated for the pain I felt in the summer when the plastic stuck to my skin every time I tried to get up. I would beg my mother to keep me from going over to Nana’s, but there were times when contact with her was simply unavoidable, like that summer afternoon when I was in senior kindergarten.


The school sent me home early that day. Because my mother was working, they called Nana to pick me up. She came late, at twelve o’clock, the time I would usually go downstairs to the basement to eat lunch in the daycare. Lunch was going to be my favourite—chicken fingers and fries, which made leaving school to go eat chicken foot soup at Nana’s even more dreadful. She appeared in the office doorway sooner than I wanted: a squat, rotund woman with no neck and a beak for a nose. She reminded me of a pigeon.

“A wah do yuh?” she greeted me. “Yuh don’t look that sick.”

The secretary explained that I wasn’t going home because I was sick. I was being sent home because I was in trouble for slapping Tristan across his face. He was a classmate of mine, as well as my secret boyfriend. Naturally, nobody knew about the second part.

Nana looked at me and I stared right back with innocently raised eyebrows and a defiant gaze. Tristan had it coming. It was playtime and our teacher, Mrs. Goldman, gave me the choice between playing in the building blocks or in the drama centre. I chose the drama centre but Tristan had chosen the building blocks and he demanded that I play there with him. I had absolutely no interest in the block area and I told him so even when he insisted that, because I was his secret girlfriend, I had to go where he went. After I’d refused for a fourth time, Tristan pulled my hair. I reacted instinctively and slapped him.

“Come, now!” said Nana.

The walk to the subway was long and silent. She walked quickly but I lagged behind, kicking at small stones with my shoes. It wasn’t until we were on the train that the silence was broken. Nana turned to me, her voice low and measured.

“Ebony,” she said. “Yuh didn’t have to hit that bwoy.”

“But he pulled my hair just ’cause I wanted to play house and he wanted to build a fort!”

She shrugged. “Don’t matter. Yuh nevva do what him ask and bwoys do tings like that when them don’ get them way. Yuh should’a just play with him.”

I looked at her, bewildered. I stuttered, trying to find the right words, trying to explain that Tristan didn’t ask me to play with him; he told me to.

I loved everything about that neighbourhood, from the haphazard assortment of clothing shops to the soca or reggae that played in every other restaurant.

“But—but Nana, he didn’t—”

She kissed her teeth and waved me away with her right hand. “I don’t want fi hear it.”

I turned away from her. Why did I have to play where Tristan told me to play? Why couldn’t he have just joined me in the drama centre? These questions burned inside me, making me cross my arms and push out my mouth.

I cleared my throat. “We getting off at the next stop?”

“No. My back’s been vexin’ me all mornin’. It’s hard for me fi walk—”

“Oh come on, Nana, please!”

She kissed her teeth again and sighed. “A’right, fine. Get up. We make it to the stop.”

I followed her off the train and out of the station to Eglinton West Avenue—“Little Caribbean” to those of us who knew it well. I loved everything about that neighbourhood, from the haphazard assortment of clothing shops to the soca or reggae that played in every other restaurant. Even the way people gathered on the sidewalks excited me, the way men and women would lean against brick walls and laugh and yell and tell stories with their hands. It was the only thing I liked about going over to Nana’s; her house was on a residential street just off the avenue and the trip there made everything a little bit worthwhile.

When we finally made it to her bungalow, it was around twelve thirty. She opened the door and I lingered in the entryway, dreading the moment I had to actually go inside. I was planning to stand in that entryway forever, or at least for as long as it took for my mother to come and rescue me. But when I made no sign of moving, she shoved me inside.

“Hurry up,” she said. “I was in the middle of cookin’ when the school people call me to pick yuh up.”

She walked swiftly into the kitchen, turning the stove back on and taking the lids off the many pots to see what had become of her soup, oxtail and boiling yams. I took a deep breath and noted, with revulsion, that chicken foot soup was indeed one of the many things she was cooking.

“Yuh hungry?” she asked. “I have soup for yuh.”

I wrinkled my nose and shook my head. “I’m not eating that soup,” I told her. “It’s disgusting. I want McDonald’s.”

Nana looked at me, her hand on her hip. “Too damn bad. It’s good for yuh. Yuh need fi start eatin’ healthy. All o’ dis Macdonal’ is Canadian junk!”

I walked away without saying anything and wandered into the living room. I stared at the plastic-covered sofas with apprehension.

“Does this stuff always have to be on the couch?”

“I like mi tings clean, Ebony. Last time yuh was here, I let yuh eat the ice cream cone on the chesterfield and what happened?”

I bit my lip. “I dropped it.”

“Mm-hmm. Lawd help me if I didn’t have mi plastic coverin’.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll just sit on the floor.”

I picked a spot in the middle of the carpet and turned the television on. I hadn’t been sitting that long when the front door swung open and my grandfather stepped over the threshold. He was a tall and lanky man with a short afro. His gnarled face always seemed gruff and surly and behind his bifocals, his eyes were stern. He closed the door, slipped off his loafers and walked into the kitchen. He bent down and opened the oven to examine what was in there.

“The chicken looks dry,” he said, as he closed the oven door.

I hated how he never said hello to her. My mother and I always greeted each other whenever she picked me up from daycare. It felt incomplete, wrong even, to see that my grandparents didn’t share the same courtesy.

Nana didn’t seem to mind this incivility, though, because all she did was smile at him like she’d throw herself in front of a bus for him. I felt a sour taste rise at the back of my throat.

“Ebony slap some bwoy and the school call me fi pick her up,” she said. “S’why the chicken dry.”

My grandfather turned his head to the living room and saw me staring at him from the floor. He looked at me for a long time before saying anything.

“Why’d you hit that boy?” Even when he asked a question, his voice came out loud and sharp and something in me made me keep my mouth shut.


After a few moments of silence, Nana turned away from the stove and faced me while she ladled some soup into a bowl. “Ebony, yuh didn’t hear yuh grandpa ask yuh a question?”

I sighed. “He pulled my hair.”

“Did he hit you back?” He slowly made his way over to the living room, jingling his keys in his left hand.


“Hmm,” he said, frowning. “He should’ve.”

I opened my mouth but before I could say anything, he walked back to the kitchen and sat down at the table.

“No soup,” he said, as Nana walked over to the table with the bowl in her hand. “Give me some oxtail.”

“But yesterday yuh tole mi fi make yuh di soup.”

“I changed my mind. It’s too hot.”


My grandfather turned to look at her. “Just give me the oxtail, nah. It’s what I asked for.”

Nana sighed and took a plate from the cupboard, filled it with the oxtail and rice, and placed it in front of my grandfather.

“Ebony, come,” she said.

“I want the oxtail, too.”

“No, yuh gwaan fi get the soup,” said Nana, setting down a bowl at my seat.

“But I don’t want—”

Nana’s eyes flashed with impatience. “I don’t care if yuh don’t want it. Yuh too saucy, yuh know. Back home likkle girls listen to their grahn’parents.”

I set my mouth to kiss my teeth but then thought better of it and slowly made my way over to the dining table. I sat down with my face turned away from the bowl in front of me.

“Lawd help me,” Nana whispered as she sat down. She turned to my grandfather. “George, yesterday I saw Clarice’s bredren-law and —”

“No.” My grandfather glared at Nana as if she were an insect that needed to be squashed and she quailed under his gaze. “It’s not bredren-law. It’s brother-in-law,” he said. “You sound like an idiot saying bredren-law. Speak properly.”

Unconsciously, my hands curled into fists. I was in no way Nana’s biggest fan, but some emotion, something rising inside me, gave me the urge to go and shake her, to make her feel angry, to make her shout or break something.

“Um, okay,” said Nana demurely. “Yesta’day I saw Clarice’s brodder-in-law—”

My grandfather cut her off again. “Where’s my drink?”

“Oh, I’m sarry!” She got up and walked over to the fridge.

I stared at my grandfather, gritting my teeth, feeling the same way I felt before I slapped Tristan.

I could see the anger start to build in her and I felt a rush of vicious joy.

“What yuh want?” said Nana. “Carrot juice? Ginja beer? Lemonade?”

“Carrot juice.”

She poured the thick orange drink into a tall glass and handed it to my grandfather. He took a sip and gagged.

“You didn’t put any rum in it!”

She kissed her teeth. “Wah yuh mean? I put the rum in it. Ras.”

I could see the anger start to build in her and I felt a rush of vicious joy. But when my grandfather ignored what she’d said and started to eat, her shoulders sagged, her entire body seemed to deflate, and she just sat down next to him again.

“The rice is too soft!” said my grandfather between bites. “You let it cook too long.”

My fingernails dug into my palms. Suddenly I banged my fist on the table, causing the plates and the glasses to make clinking noises and making both of my grandparents look at me. “Is there anything you like, Grandpa?”

He put down his fork and looked at me long and hard, his eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. “Sure, there are things I like,” he said finally. “I like good food.” He stood up and walked over to the bathroom. “Give me something else to eat,” he called before closing the door.

Nana stared at the oxtail and rice my grandfather had barely eaten, at the oxtail and rice she probably spent hours preparing and cooking. She stood up and cleared it away and turned to the stove, her eyes passing over the different pots on the burners.

I watched her, wondering what she’d serve him now, wondering what else
was ready to be eaten; she turned to me, a slight smile on her face, and took a bowl
from the dish rack. She filled it with the chicken foot soup and I saw something in her eye, an inclination I knew all too well: defiance. I grinned as my eyes followed the chicken feet slip from the ladle to the bowl and remembered that if it hadn’t been for my encounter with Tristan, I would have been enjoying a good meal at the daycare. But somehow, I was glad that I was there to see this.

Olive Senior read this piece in manuscript, helping develop it for TOK.
View Zalika Reid-Benta’s author profile.
TopArt by Gilbert Li and Lauren Wickware

Recommended Reading