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Home Base



The Story

When my children were small, I threatened their every transgression with life in a box. If you don't get good grades, you'll end up living in a box. If you don't clean your room, you'll end up living in a box. If you don't finish your dinner, you'll end up living in a box. Ironically, I was the one living in a box and had been for more years than I care to remember. Obviously, I didn't actually live in a box. But most of my life had been spent carrying the things that made me in a box. Small tangible items like paperweights, decades of life caged in picture frames, seashells from beaches around the globe, and jars full of buttons, anything that can be packed, unwrapped, and stored again and again and again.


When I was seven, we lived on Hemlock Road in New Haven, Connecticut. It was a cape cod with a magnolia tree in the front crab apple trees down the side and a strawberry patch in the middle of the yard. All hemmed in by pussy willow trees and raspberry bushes in the back. Behind us lived a reclusive artist and when I pushed through the bushes or climbed the pussy willow trees, I could see huge metal sculptures rusted and covered in lichen that loomed like skeletal giants from a fairy tale.


My friends and I would dare each other to run through the knee-high grass and touch one but none of us ever did. My room was at the back of the house and my dad had built me a bed with a cave-like box on the foot end. There were shapes cut out on each side that I could crawl through or stand on top of and jump into my bed. My mother had allowed me to choose a raucous wallpaper with deep and vibrant shades of green covered in vines as thick as my arm and blooming white and yellow flowers bigger than my head. It was the 70s after all.


Mornings I'd wake to gossamer sheets of sunbeam that snuck around the edge of my shade to slice the waning darkness of my room. In its brilliance, I could see small particles of dust that I imagined were fairies and our families heading off to school. I'd hold my breath and squeeze my eyes shut wishing for an adventurous day. Then jump out of bed and head downstairs to make toast.


You probably wonder why I tell you all of this. To paint a picture to help you understand that I was happy in my home. That summer, my mother and I traveled to see her parents who lived in Liberia. I can remember getting off the plane. So clearly the heat the dust that felt like blankets of air, the muddle of voices and accents in the airport. And then the rain during the car ride that left the air so crisp and clean, and the jungle so emerald-ee green, it reminded me of the wallpaper in the room I'd left behind. Unbeknownst to me what I thought was a visit was code for divorce and the beloved wallpaper wasn't the only thing left behind. The suitcase I'd packed didn't hold my bike, my favorite red teddy bear, or the Richard Scarry books that I'd cut the pictures of food from because I believed I could taste their flavors in the paper. None of these things that made me me we're in the new home except for well, me.


A few years and two more moves from grandparents to stepfathers, and then our own apartment in Liberia, and I'm nine. As most nine-year-olds would, I began to make my room my own. I collected books, small fabric dolls, and desktop tchotchkes. My father had sent me a red teddy bear and turntable and a letter explaining that divorce did not mean that he no longer loved me, but that the distance would make it hard to see me. Along with some records, I had a few VHS tapes Hello Dolly, The Sound of Music, and my favorite, which held a few episodes of Different Strokes. But most importantly, an episode of The Muppets with Leslie Uggams and Big Bird singing love will keep us together. With my personal space done, I decided to solidify my position in this new home by making the rounds to the neighbors. The building was at the top of a hill called Mamba Point. And Mamba Point was also the American Embassy where I go swimming, and a hotel called the Ducal Palace where my parents went for drinks. And Nina Simone supposedly skinny-dipped and hit on my uncle. The building itself was part of a compound with two buildings. Each building had three floors with two apartments on each floor. Each apartment had decks on three sides, lots of sliding glass doors with open space for entertaining on one side, and three bedrooms and three bathrooms on the other.


The day I decided to visit my neighbors I started knocking doors at the apartment across from us. I'd knock and if someone answered I'd say "Hi, my name is Tonyehn and my family moved into apartment six in the east building." I must have seen something like this on TV or read about it in a book because my mother surely didn't suggest it and she damn sure wouldn't have approved.


Most doors were opened by the house boy or nurse those ubiquitous partial family members found in every home in Liberia that helped to keep the household running. On occasion, the man or woman or child of the home would open the door. Look at me as if I were completely insane. mumbles something like great or okay and close the door. When I got to the final door on the third floor of the second building, I not and what at the time seemed to me and old lady that she was probably no more than 50 welcomed me in. Sheila or at least I'm calling her Sheila because I can't remember her name, opened her door with a wide smile, asked me a few questions. What grade are you in? What school do you go to, and then offered me laminate. I can vaguely recall the smell of her home. And though I can't describe it now, it seems to me it'd be exactly how you'd expect the I Dream of Jeannie home to smell. All magical and giddy with mystery. The layout was of course the same as mine. But the colors were different and now have the memory of the feel of the old South, fragile and ethereal filled with muted colors and actually very little sound except for when her husband came home. I would return to Sheila's pretty regularly. Like two or three times a week. Some days we bake cookies, others we'd look at magazines or I talk about school. But most we'd sit in her sewing room and flip through photo albums from the little bookshelf.


Each album had a floral cover and was the kind of multi-ring binder where you could remove or add pages. The pages were made of heavy, almost cardboard-like paper with faint ridge lines that I think was the glue that held the pictures to the page under a clear cellophane sheet. Sheila had created an outline of her life. The inside cover of each marked with a starting month and date each page titled with an occasion, and under each picture, a label detailing location and names of the faces captured in each frame. Later during college, I worked in Colonial Williamsburg and each time a tourist took my picture of me and my doily cap frock and woolen tights. I'd imagine my face captured in an album somewhere in the world. As someone shared travel logs with friends and family. We would slowly turn each page while Sheila relived the history and faces of places she'd been. The majority of the albums held family and home those summer travel. The ones we went back to time and again were the ones that held her children skiing for the first time, the trip to Disney, and graduations and weddings. I could tell she missed her children and didn't mind hearing the stories over and over.


Mr. Sheila, however, did not so much feel the same. Whenever he came home to find me lurking around, he'd immediately pop a beer or whiskey and plant himself, cigarette lit, on the couch. Or maybe he did this all the time as truly there was no way for me to know. Either way, this relationship eventually came to an end. When during the holidays, my mother found a paper mache Christmas angel in my room. She learned that angel had come from some random lady in the building next door and forbade me to return and then my older cousin promised not to let me roam. Really it was okay because Sheila had given me the angel as a parting gift because she and her husband were returning home. And I'd actually start to become engrossed in the drama of middle school and was visiting less.


Why do I tell this story because I believe for Sheila I was a conduit to home. Here she was this middle aged white woman living in West Africa with a husband who has gone all day and children she adored a million miles away. Maybe she saw something in the eyes of a small brown child who knocked on her door. But really I believe I was her anger and a place where she felt completely unmoored. Which takes us back to me and my life in a box.


I have lived in many homes since Liberia. From there we moved to New Jersey then Virginia. I went to college and Williamsburg then moved back to Richmond then Charlotte then a study abroad in Glasgow then Charleston and back again to Richmond, and on and on until I landed here. Through each of these moves I packed up all the items I trundle out when I need to label a place home. From where I sit now I can see vases my mother collected when I was a baby in Germany, a small glass blown fish from the bookshelf in my house on Hemlock road. Records I took from my father during the visits after the divorce. A pencil drawing of me on a napkin done in a bar in Tucson. My oldest first attempt at a family portrait done in red marker on a paper bag, and a pic of my youngest sitting between my feet brandishing a ticket for a pony ride.


This home is still a box in the sense that it is infused with memories of the distant past and emotional trauma of the not so near past that has made it hard for me to truly call it home. Yet at the same time, I've grown and expanded my own idea of what makes us space home. It is a place of joy and celebration that my children are proud to call home. I've breathed into every corner ripped out bathtubs and replaced floors, painted multiple a mural on my children's walls to match their passing fancies, grown food, fed birds and bees, and already bon-voyaged one child off into her own life. Life is such a funny and sometimes cruel bitch. But Home is a place that nourishes the soul and expands the mind. Mine was made up of treasures in a box then I had the joy of creating meaningful space for my children, while also realizing that I had not yet created space for myself. As I write this, I'm in search of that new beginning for myself and my partner. I know it will be in several spaces because neither of us are truly ready to call one box home. But each will be imbued with the essence of what makes us us. Provides our kids with a space of respite and our friends and family with repartee and relaxation. My life has been a hodgepodge of locales. But before you feel sorry for me, let me make it clear that moving once all I knew even loved, and being sedentary is not my vibe at all. Most might hear this and think I'm bitching about change and possibly blaming my parents or my roving lifestyle, my childhood happened and my adult moves were a choice. I will always explore and search for the definition of home and other cultures, but always provide a home base for my kids and anyone else who needs one.


The Interview

Conor

Well, thank you, Tonyehn, for sharing your story with us. This is a little weird to be interviewing you, and to be in front of the microphone at all. So I wanted to my first question I wanted to start with was, how does it feel? After three seasons to be on this podcast? Four actually, if we consider this one? How do you feel being the storyteller and not the host this time around?


Tonyehn

Ah, well, it didn't feel weird when I started out. But I have to admit, I've always wanted to be a storyteller. So that exercise of having to create this story for me felt really good. And it actually inspired me to create more.


Conor

I think it's worth mentioning that when we were planning out this season, and we just we landed on the theme of home, you remember your light, your eyes lit up, and you were really adamant like, Oh, this is the season. I want to tell a story. Yeah, we started that tradition back in season two, I believe with Dan. And then last season was me. And you were like, No, this is my turn. What about this theme really jumped out at you. And this is the one I'm going to be a featured storyteller for.


Tonyehn

Well, I actually had two versions of my story because I was going to write about how much I hate my home. And ended up not being that. And I think part of what this did was helped me think about my space and my home differently. I've always had one version that I kept in my head. But as we all know, sometimes the stories we tell ourselves aren't even true. So it kind of helped break a barrier for that.


Conor

With that being said, you know, speaking of your memories, you know, when you were crafting the story about packing and repacking, and I liked how you acknowledge that it's all you knew, right? Normality is what you know. Do you feel this has impacted how you live in your home now? Do you still have boxes that you've never unpacked? Or is your home fully unpacked?


Tonyehn

I have all my stuff all out. I mean, these are my pieces. I can walk around my house, and literally touch on memories. And I actually do this thing sometimes where I like to walk into my house and pretend it's not mine, to see how I would feel about my space and walk in it with new eyes so I can actually reconnect with all the things I've been carrying around for years.


Conor

Not what I expected to hear. That was interesting. Okay, just out of curiosity, you've listed all these places you've lived. Where have you lived the longest?


Tonyehn

In my current home.


Conor

In Northeast Pennsylvania.


Tonyehn

Northeast Pennsylvania, in the house live in


Conor

May I asked by how much what margin are we talking here?


Tonyehn

Huge. I don't think prior to going to college, I never lived in one place more than two years. So College was the first time where I actually maintain friendships with the same people at the same school for more than two years, in terms of the house that I lived in longest before this, gosh, maybe two years also.


Conor

Interesting. Do you think that your two children are going to follow in your nomadic lifestyle? Or do you think that they want to be more anchored into one location? Or do they not know?


Tonyehn

I think they've enjoyed being anchored. I definitely believe they would not have liked if I made them move in the middle of school age, right. But they definitely love travel and exploring, because it's a large part of what we do. They kind of definitely don't want to move back to the area. But I don't think they know where they'd like to settle. Like, Nymali's in New York City, and she feels very certain she doesn't want to stay there after she graduates, but she definitely is not coming back here.


Conor

Why is that? Just out of curiosity, here are the I mean, I guess she knows it's not New York and she knows it's not here. Yeah. So what is the


Tonyehn

I think New York can change? It's her first year. But here I think they've always felt a little bit like outsiders like they didn't fully belong.


Conor

I want to go back to an element of your story that really interested me, which was you work to Colonial Williamsburg?


Tonyehn  

Yeah.


Conor

I would love to dive into that psychosis and find out what what did you What was that that was this might not even make it into the podcast. I don't care. That was bad.


Tonyehn

I worked at a place called Tunings Tavern. So I was like a bar mate, and so to speak, and I wore a pose and a little skirt and doily cap. And, you know, they would do colonial reenactments and random soldiers would arrest us, it was like, really odd. And people always wanting to picture and I was like, this random Brazilian person's gonna have me in their photo album.


Conor

Well, that was my I'm glad you said that. Because that was gonna lead into my next question, which is, I thought it was so interesting how, you know, upon reflection, you know, you realized that you are part of countless other families, photo albums. And of course, they don't know your name, and they know nothing about you. But you're part of their story. I mean, you're I mean, in essence, you were part of their vacation, right? You were part of their theme park, colonial entertainment. Well, how does that feel to look back and think that you are this ghost in all these photo albums, but yet, you have absolutely no connection to these people.


Tonyehn

So that's kind of twofold, because even when it was happening, I would think, holy crap, these people are just going to have me in their pictures. That's totally odd. But later, yeah, later, a friend and I started doing something called Slide night, where we would find slides at old thrift stores and we had a projector and we would do slide night at this bar, and we would see pictures of people sending their kids off to college or someone visiting Egypt in the 60s. And it felt very similar to the idea of me being in these pictures. And even though I didn't know who the hell they were, it was still totally entertaining and we would make up stories for these people. So I did least like to think that if nothing else they ever be like this Black girl really would not have been waiting tables at Tunings Taverns back in the day or something. I don't know. Look at the poor, sad poor college student.


Conor

I'm sure there's a lot to unpack about Colonial Williamsburg that we could do an entire other episode about. Yeah, but I mean, in a way it. I liked how it all tied back into your story of Sheila, as we're calling her. Yes. And you know how you said you felt like you anchored her into a way Has that ever happened in reverse to you yet in your life? Have you found an anchor in someone else?


Tonyehn

Interesting. No, I don't think so. But I do think I always try to be an anchor. So I definitely spend a lot of my time wanting to not necessarily validate people, that's not the right word, but give people a place where they feel that they can settle down and share whatever needs to be shared. So it's almost like a no judgment zone. It's a place where you have the freedom to just be you


Conor

Very much in essence, what you do here on this podcast,


Tonyehn

Didn't even think about that. But yes.


Conor

You mentioned that you were in search of a new beginning a new chapter for yourself and your partner. And you mentioned you know, it will be in several spaces that you will make this new life I thought it was interesting that you immediately go I know was going to be several spaces. Why did you say that?


Tonyehn

I think because neither of us are from here for starters, right? So there will always be some missing part of ourselves if we settled in Northeast Pennsylvania forever. He's European, our other spaces don't necessarily have to be in Europe. But I feel very strongly that it would be nice to have a space that we call our own, like a completely new territory that we explore together. So it's not that I'm bringing him into my home in Northeast Pennsylvania, or I'm going into his home space in Europe, but that we're finding someplace new to explore and creating a brand new home there.


Conor

Is that exciting, daunting, scary?


Tonyehn

I think it's super exciting. But at one point, he had said something about, oh, so we'll leave Northeast Pennsylvania, find a place in the South because you've always wanted that. And we'll find this other home in this other place. And I genuinely had this moment of like, wait, what you want me to leave like everything and start anew, all over, in two new places, at the same time? Like, I'm used to moving. I can make friends fast, but I don't mean to do it in two homes, at the same time. So no, I don't think it's daunting. I'm actually looking forward to the new adventure.


Conor

Thank you so much for sharing your story and jumping on the other side of the microphone. Is there anything else? Is there any parting words you'd like to give the audience after your experience now on the other side of this microphone,


Tonyehn

it's not scary.


Conor

I think that's a good way to end it.

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