Ton Ton

The subject line on the email simply read Ton Ton. When I clicked, the body of the email was empty. My brother is very eloquent and usually wraps his words carefully before sending them off. So I searched for the meaning of Ton Ton to see if I had missed something. I found: the name of a restaurant in Atlanta, an animated bear and a “childish word for uncle in French Creole.”

I got it.

Just before Kojo was born, I asked my brother, “So what do you want him to call you?”

“Let me think about it,” he had said. 

When I received his answer many months later, I wrote back:

What’s up with Ton Ton? And by the way, is it pronounced Tone Tone or Tawn Tawn?

My oldest brother was the responsible one. He is the one in the photo of the three of us with Santa wearing the brown turtle neck, standing next to the bearded stranger looking fearlessly into the camera. My other brother and I look ridiculous by contrast with teary eyes squirming uncomfortably on red velvet knees. He did everything first and we followed closely behind him. 

I was looking for something playful, easy to say, and funny. I want to be the entertaining uncle who shows up, let’s loose and crawls all over the floor. I did lots of research and liked the sound and feel of Ton Ton (pronounced Tone Tone). Besides, it reminds me of the word tonto in Spanish which means silly.

 That subject line so long ago, now flows off Kojo’s tongue.

“When is Ton Ton coming? Will Ton Ton be there? Did Ton Ton give me this?”

Ton Ton certainly has lived up to his promise. 

One afternoon after reading a story about a bagpiper to Kojo, Ton Ton decided to show him a bit of Scottish dancing. Ton Ton has neither been to Scotland nor taken any sort of folk dancing class. He searched quickly for some proper Scottish folk music and turned up the volume and there right next to kitchen table, he began to move like we’ve never seen before. 

Ton Ton’s long legs seemed weightless above the rug as he lifted his knees higher than the kitchen counter behind him, his socked feet moved this way and that appearing to be one giant white blur, he raised his hands in some sort of catch-a-bird way to the left and right. 

Kojo and I, who were lucky enough to be sitting in front row seats, saw it all up close. We could see the sweat begin to gather on Ton Ton’s forehead and see his lips pushing down his desperate urge to laugh. Somehow, he managed to stay in character. Kojo and I, on the other hand, were barely able to sit up. We laughed and giggled so intensely that we both began to have trouble breathing. 

Then, it happened. Between steps, his blurred feet landed slightly off center and the rug underneath him moved away from his towering body. The momentum threw him up in the air and flat onto the rug. 

At this point, I could not see clearly because my eyes were filled with tears. I really wanted to check to see if he was ok but I was paralyzed with laughter.

Ton Ton looked up from the kitchen floor and immediately saw Kojo’s look of concern. He hopped back onto his feet and with a big smile said, “I’m OK!” 

He kicked the rug back into place as he raised his hands again to the left and to the right. The song played, Ton Ton danced, I dried my eyes, and Kojo watched. 

All responsible grown men, whether lawyers, accountants, or engineers, should consider channelling their inner Ton Ton. To this day, Kojo handles great falls well. He gets up and says, “I’m OK!” And we both smile. 

In case you are reading this today, Happy Birthday, Ton Ton!

It’s Never too Late

Kojo stayed closer to me than usual. He didn’t stray far from the boundaries of the the lakeside railing, the front wheel of the stroller, and my left side. Under the light of the day, he prefers to run ahead, wait for me to catch up and then repeat. His trot is comfortably led by his right foot, light and airy, yet bold and confident as if he’s running a victory lap at a crowded stadium. 

This evening, his steps are still light but more like the tiptoeing of a ballerina dancing on only a tiny piece of the giant stage around her. The sky is now dark grey soaking in the light of the tall buildings across the lake. The water, although never transparent even in daylight, looks like it’s covered by a thin sheet of reflective glass. The lake watches enviously our unique mix of motions. 

We were supposed to leave the house earlier. That was the plan. Somehow the path coming down from the bedroom was not a direct one. After going back for clean socks, stopping at the kitchen, grabbing a snack, filling a water bottle, feeding Lola for the second time, kicking around the soccer ball, discovering a bamboo stick, testing out the baseball glove, locking the gate and then going back for a flashlight, we were finally on our way.

We had spent all day inside and both felt the need to fill up some open space under the sky. There are only a few street lamps by the lake but we were determined to light our own way. The frequently passing motorbikes agreed to help.

“Is that the hotel we see from our window?” Kojo was anxious to complete the missing landscape that was now covered in darkness. “Does that road go behind Hung’s house? Have we been down there before?”

There was a lull between passing motorbikes.

“What’s that sound, Mamma?”

I wanted to ask him what he thought but I could sense his need for certainty.

“They’re crickets.” 

“Where?”

We shined the flashlight towards the dried lotus leaves and the muddy grass at the edge of the water. His foot rested on the blue railing. The distance between him and me had now completely disappeared. 

“I don’t see them,” he whispered. 

“Neither do I. But they’re letting us know they are there by singing their song.”

I felt Kojo’s shoulders lift and his lungs fill with air in order to say something. I prepared myself for the next question.

Instead, he stayed quiet. We listened together and each completed the missing scenery in our own minds.  

I vowed when we set off that tomorrow I would get us out of the house earlier. Now, returning home with him comfortably riding in the stroller, I wonder, “What’s the hurry?”

Maybe…

“I don’t know” is not a sufficient answer for Kojo. Some attempt to provide a response is a sign of love for him. When he asks a question, you must muster up some kind of hypothesis or make an effort to apply a place holder until further information can be found. I have been unsuccessfully trying to get him to share his own theories for a long time now. 

“What do you think?” I will answer. His face crinkles and the shine on his cheeks dims. After a few moments, he will ask again. 

If we walk into a shop or restaurant and we hear a baby crying, he will undoubtedly ask, “Why is she crying?”

“I don’t know,” I will respond. “What do you think?”

“Say, ‘Maybe…’ ok?” He will urge me to come up with something quick.

“Maybe she’s hungry and wants some milk,” I finally give in.

While reading stories, Kojo studies the images intently. He is especially drawn to unusual facial expressions. “What is he saying?” He will ask without looking up from the page.

I predictably respond, “What do you think?”

Although I try to pause in order give him wait time, he has yet to answer or contribute his own take on things. I catch his gaze move upward which indicates that lots of thinking is going on. 

“Why is that man making that face?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

Pause. 

“Say ‘maybe…’ ok?” He urges.

“Maybe he’s watching the game hoping his team is going to hit the next home run,” I respond.

“What are they saying?

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

Pause. 

“Say ‘maybe…’ ok?” He urges.

“Maybe she is saying that she wants to play with the doll and the other girl says that it is hers.” I respond.

“Why are they fighting?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

Pause. 

“Say ‘maybe…’ ok?” He urges.

“Maybe he doesn’t know how to use words yet and he’s upset because his feelings are hurt,” I respond.

“Why is she covering her ears?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

Pause. 

“Say ‘maybe…’ ok?”

“Maybe the music is too loud coming from those huge speakers and she’s asking him to turn it down.”

“And what is he saying?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

Pause. 

“Say ‘maybe…’ ok?”

“Maybe he says, ‘Ok. I’ll go turn it down.’” I answer impatiently. 

And to my utter surprise, after so many failed opportunities, “No,” he interrupts confidently, “He is saying, ‘I LIKE IT LOUD!’”

The Load

Her book was open, in view, and just out of reach. She had stopped wondering about the character’s choices and left the story’s stormy setting almost an hour ago. Her focus instead was on the loss of feeling in her lower left leg. It rested precariously on the edge of the coffee table and had been taking most of the weight of her load. Her elbow burned with the friction of the sofa’s arm as she attempted to shift softly over and over again. She wished she had pulled the blanket off her feet when she had been able to move freely. 

The 13 kilos resting on her middle and upper thighs was so warm that she no longer felt the slight chill she had earlier. With the time to think and feel and nothing more, she let her mind wander. 

Despite all the discomfort, she was in a state of peaceful happiness. 

She had held her own three children so many times, so many years ago. They too had gone limp in her arms often. She remembered this well. What she never remembered was sitting under them motionless. Back then, there was too much to do and worry about. She would bravely risk putting them down so she could desperately get things done. If she did linger for a moment, her mind was always filled with reviewing the days events, planning the evening or organizing all the essentials for the next day.

Now, there was just one. Her routine was predictable and practiced so that planning no longer required the energy it had so long ago. For the first time, she felt the sensation of hovering in the present. Worrying about her grown children would happen, as it always did, comfortably in her bed at night. Not now. She was dancing in the moment and time seemed to have stopped. 

Her only grandson was blissfully breathing on her shoulder. As he fell deeper and deeper asleep, he grew heavier as he finally let go of all the energy that made jumping and running so effortless and light.  Her nose was close enough to his head that she could smell the lemony scent of baby shampoo. The zest reminded her of the baby cologne she had used with her own children. 

She breathed in and out slowly and intentionally. Despite all the weight pushing her deeper and deeper into the couch, she had never before felt so light. 


This post is dedicated to my mother on Women’s Day who has advised me to let the dust gather and not worry what the neighbor’s think. 

The Equation

Posted in front of every now closed, public or private school is some variation of this poster. This one was taped on his school’s purple gate. This is the gateway each morning that transforms Kojo from the loud chatty guy into a quiet shy observer. As we walk through each morning, he appears to shed his warm home vest and put on his cool school shell. It is also at this gate that Kojo gives a giant high five to either Nin or Dang depending who is on duty. This is the gate where we saw the lion hanging for the Autumn Festival, the flags for International Day, and the the peach blossoms for the lunar new year. 

We walked by his school yesterday. From a hundred feet away he asked, “What’s that on the gate?”  

We’ve past several posters already on our walks and he’s asked to stop every time we see one. These vivid images are designed just for him. Most of the environmental print around us is filled in fonts and combinations of letters that are foreign to us. With these drawings, he can begin to make meaning on his own. He has lots of experience reading pictures. 

“Read it, Mamma,” he still insisted.

I began to interpret the images. 

“Coughing is ok?”

“Yes,” I answered. “It’s natural and happens sometimes.”

“Those aren’t vegetables in the pot,” he protested.

“Well then what is that green thing there that looks like broccoli?” I said pointing to the forth box. 

“Why is he telling her to stop?” 

“He doesn’t want to get too close to people he doesn’t know,” I answered clumsily. 

This version of the poster was an easy sell. Another one we past earlier in front of a large public school on the corner from the park, was much more controversial. There was a menacing green blob chasing a child who was running away. The green creature has deep bends in his eyes making him look angry and was running with his tongue sticking out of his mouth as if he was hunting for his next meal. 

I decided to stop at the colorful gelato sign with swirling blue and orange lines forming the scoop on the giant cone in front of the shop down the street. I then led him under the flashing carrot hanging by the veggie store and pointed at the smiling chef on the sign above the bakery. We took the long way home to greet the dancing chiles above the Mexican restaurant on the neighboring street.

That should do it, I thought as we approached our home gate. 

1 green blob = 1 ice cream cone + 1 flashing orange carrot + 1 happy chef + 2 dancing chiles

Dear Julien Jacob

Dear Julien Jacob,

When my son, Kojo, turned one, my parents gave him a small blue and white CD player. Finding a simple one was difficult since they are hard to find or the ones still around have too many fancy options and settings. 

He began opening and closing the lid with his persistent wet hands or pulling on the CD inside while it was still spinning.  We marked the ON button with a big black circle.  He learned the button was important so he would press it repeatedly.  To our delight, the player still works two years later.

At a weekend market in Ghana, we came across a stand selling CDs. There were shelves of still unopened discs at bargain prices.  We bought a box full and took them home.  

Kojo has now perfected his skills and can intentionally turn on and off the player, insert and remove CDs, and adjust the volume when needed. One corner of our living room is dedicated to music with the player, CDs, chair and a small lamp all huddled close together. 

This morning when I sat down to write hoping he would play independently alongside me, he chose one of the CDs in that collection from the market called “African Groove”. He gave me the book inside the CD cover and asked me to read it. As each song played, I showed him the photo of the artist.  He loved saying and repeating names like: Issa Bagayogo, Badenya, Madeka, Didier Sourou Awadi, and Dady Mimbo. 

When your song (number 4) came on, he pointed to your image and said, “Tell me that story.” 

He stared at your face while listening to your voice as if he knew you somehow.  He listened to the simple guitar chords that started the song. His body stopped moving and his eyes, although looking forward, seemed to be looking elsewhere. 

I told him about where you were born and how close Benin is to Ghana. His hands relaxed with the baritone vibrations of your voice. 

I explained that you speak French and that your mommy and daddy were from the blue seas of the Caribbean. His heartbeat seemed to slow down to match your steady djembe beat.

He heard about your journey from Africa to Europe when you were just four.  He listened to you chant, Kalicom over and over again.  

“What is he saying?” He asked. 

I told him that you are a writer and thinker. I told him that you sing in an invented language that “flows forth naturally and spontaneously”. I explained that you want the listener to find his own meaning. We both sat quietly until you stopped singing and the room became silent again .

I am writing to tell you know that your message has travelled across time and space.  And I thought you might like to know that we had breakfast with you this morning and something magical happened. I wanted you to be aware that although you don’t know us, we now know you.

Until meet again, 

Kay and DJ Kojo