Let This Be the Last Time
Ijeoma Oluo and Gabriel Teodros in their new space.
A flashlight beam illuminates dishes still on the counter from a breakfast four months ago. That was the morning Ijeoma Oluo and Gabriel Teodros ran out of their blue house in Shoreline, shoeless, him not thinking to grab his phone.
A layer of sediment on the windows seals out the daylight. The couple walks floors warped by water from firehoses and points their flashlight at things now gone, even if they still exist. Oluo takes pictures of the spines of her books. Every page is illegible; the smell is awful. “I can’t save these,” she realizes. The images, at least, help her remember what she had.
They examine a wall of family photos, now distorted with heat and soot. The frames remain, the memories inside now defunct, darkened squares. They peer upward at the sky visible through the roof of her son Marcus’s bedroom. A smoke detector somewhere in the house still emits a garbled whine.
A colleague at KEXP, where Teodros hosts the weekday Early show, came along to see about any salvageable recording equipment. He refuses to give up on Teodros’s record collection. Today, they still sit in a weird, stinking pile inside the KEXP studios. “It was like walking through a horror movie of your own life,” Teodros remembers. It’s no exaggeration.
The couple entered with hopes of what they might reclaim. In the end, Oluo finds their passports, a single bag under her bed with a dress and a sweater. They could have saved more, but the house was sealed off for a few months, enough time for the layer of corrosive soot to infiltrate. “And so we just…left.”
This wasn’t Oluo’s first visit since September 17, 2020—the day her family lost everything in a cruel and sudden capstone to a year already full of trauma. In the weeks after the fire, she found herself driving past the wrecked house, trying to process what happened. She’d open the front door and peer into the space, still off limits for both safety and insurance reasons.
Inevitably, her eyes would fall on the painting by Carolyn Hitt, visible on the living room wall. Oluo met her through the relief fund she and Teodros helped organize with Langston Seattle to support local artists in the pandemic’s first panic-stricken months. She loved the vibrant series of inlaid squares and rectangles that form a buoyant interlocking cityscape—a community in abstract. The art had survived, though the canvas was coated in soot, its colors dimmed almost to nothing.
Each day it spent beneath that acidic residue damaged the piece, and its inherent memories, even more. Oluo kept telling herself, “I have to get it.” She could see two other, smaller paintings that appeared salvageable. Finally, on one of these impromptu visits to the remains of her old life, she darted across the darkened living room, pulled all three pieces off the wall, and hustled back to her waiting car.
Oluo and Teodros planned to be in that blue house so briefly, they didn’t even get renters insurance. Oluo fled her previous home after a sudden and intense act of harassment known as swatting. Her work as an anti-racism activist—her professional website describes her as a “writer, speaker, internet yeller”—means she’s a visible target for hate. But this went way beyond hostile tweets. She and her sons decamped immediately, to an address at the other end of Seattle. Malcolm was soon headed to college, but Teodros joined Oluo and her younger son, Marcus, combining their households more hastily than they had planned.
When the fire happened, Oluo had a new home already under construction. The couple doesn’t disclose its location, even its general neighborhood. It’s not hard to understand why. The house was still an uninhabitable shell, but even as a construction project, it was already freighted with significance.
In her first book, So You Want to Talk About Race, Oluo writes about a childhood spent between transitional apartments, often with intermittent utilities. Her work also emphasizes recognizing your own privilege. So You Want to Talk About Race came out in 2018; book money helped Oluo become the only member of her immediate family to own a home, a small one with a mortgage she knows she can always pay. It guarantees permanence for her two boys and for her mother, who now has her own small house on the lot, tucked behind Oluo’s.
America’s collective examination of systemic racism in 2020 thrust her two-year-old book back onto the New York Times bestseller list, where it climbed to the top spot. “That opened up a lot of financial ability,” she says. About a month after she and Teodros shifted from longtime friends to romantic partners, she amended the house’s plans to include a broadcast studio. She didn’t tell him at the time: “I thought that would be creepy.” But building a home without space for him meant these rooms would always be hers, not theirs.
At 41, Oluo has crafted a public persona that balances family photos with wisdom from bell hooks or Desmond Tutu, activism with eye makeup tutorials. Bright walls and beautiful, meaningful objects can be a mental health antidote for the unjust landscapes that occupy her days. She speaks often of “community,” restoring a word that’s often rhetoric to something practicable. For her, its many definitions include supporting good people who make nice things, and encouraging others to do the same.
Now she would apply those principles across an entire house. And, for the first time, she had resources to make this space specific to her family. Some days that idea felt healing, she says. Others, “I felt actually, physically sick with stress.”
When she and Teodros rented the blue house, Oluo splurged on new furniture, mass-market takes on the midcentury modern style she loved. “I’m not a patient person,” she admits. Her online furniture spree came close enough to her ideal aesthetic, and could ship within a week. It was cute. It was colorful. It started wearing out after just a few months.
She never imagined she’d stand on the sidewalk one day and watch crews chuck the charred, sodden remains of those big-box furniture buys into a dumpster. It was a painful lesson, says Oluo, but an effective one. The next time around, “It was just unbearable to me, the thought that I would put anything in this house that I wouldn’t want five years from now.”
It’s nearly closing time when the couple enters Karl Hackett’s shop. He watches the woman move immediately toward a burled walnut coffee table, a mushroom-shaped knob of wood, heavy as a boulder. He bought this rarity from the family of a man who salvaged the root himself maybe 60 years ago. “It was going to be mine,” Hackett says. His wife deemed it too heavy and rough-edged for their home. He didn’t know Oluo, or Teodros, but her attraction to that coffee table portended they might get along.
This was September 29, not even two weeks after the fire. Still dazed, still processing, the couple went to dinner at Amy’s Merkato, seeking a little community at their favorite Ethiopian restaurant. A follower commented on Instagram, suggesting she check out Jacob Willard Home, a furniture shop just down the block. Oluo looked it up. “A Black-owned vintage store? Are you kidding me?”
Hackett’s shop, named for his eldest son, embraces the clean lines of midcentury modern furniture that Oluo loves so much. Within weeks, Oluo was walking him through her future home, still a maze of framing and studs. Hackett’s an encyclopedia of midcentury design in black-framed glasses and impeccable sneakers. “Talk to me about your life,” he exhorted in his comforting baritone. “And I can interpret that with specific pieces.”
Oluo filled him in on her plans for cork flooring (soft, easy to clean) and the occasional flash of go-big wallpaper. She sought the meeting point between her Nigerian affection for all things bold and bright and the earthy charms of Teodros’s Ethiopian and Eritrean aesthetic—“we love our intricate patterns that kind of look like fractal geometry,” and the occasional stripe of gold, he says. Oluo wanted a sitting area separate from the couch and TV. She needed shelves for her books. Hackett left with a punch list and a budget for each room.
The shop owner started with his own inventory. A dramatically angled headboard in solid walnut fit the main bedroom, a kidney-shaped loveseat seemed destined for the front room, though not with its existing purple upholstery. A pair of George Nelson bookcases could hold Oluo’s replacement books. He started scouting for other items, but even the ones on hand required time, and more of Oluo’s scant patience, to become an exact fit for her home. Hackett sent a shelf unit off to be refinished; Oluo and Teodros selected a speckled velvet in soft chartreuse to remake that curvaceous loveseat.
All this took months, not that Oluo and Teodros had a place to put furniture anyway. When their new home finally had floors and walls, Hackett would deliver the sofa, plus a table just the right size for the tiny TV area—that hunk of burled walnut Oluo admired in his shop. It was the first layer of a home shaped by their links to other people. And one small step toward replacing all they lost.
The day of the fire, Oluo gets ready to give a speech on Zoom. She’s accepting a Harvard Humanist of the Year award. Marcus isn’t home; Teodros is done broadcasting for the day. He’s writing a few album reviews in his pajamas when an alarm goes off. Oluo asks if he can look into it—she’s about to go on camera.
Soon he rushes upstairs, alarmed. She’s still not that concerned. “He can be hella extra,” Oluo says affectionately of her partner. Downstairs, though, they confront a bulwark of black smoke hovering up near the ceiling. “It’s rolling at you,” says Oluo. “Like a thing from a movie.” A wall of flames eats from the laundry room into their bedroom. They stand there in disbelief. Then they get the hell out.
Oluo dials 911 with shaking hands; as a Black woman, she later points out, she does not do this lightly. She can’t remember her address. From across the street, they watch flames shoot from the roof. “I don’t understand what’s happening,” she tells the dispatcher. (Even today, Oluo and Teodros aren’t certain what caused the fire, though investigations centered on a lithium battery charger.)
Firefighters offer water and granola bars. A neighbor brings Oluo some slippers. KEXP got the couple a hotel room and emergency cash. They trauma shop at Target, filling a cart with toothbrushes and shoes. “Our house burned down,” Teodros tells the cashier, tells his barista the next morning. Each time he says the words, he processes it a little more.
As Oluo sifts through her emotions and all she’s lost, she’s surprised to feel a specific sadness for the items she never loved. She spent days working, missed out on time with her boys, to be able to provide things. In the end, those things didn’t mean that much. “We bought a whole house full of furniture I didn’t have an emotional attachment to,” she says. “That was book money.”
It sounds strange, says Oluo, but if this happened again, “I want to at least be able to mourn the things properly, because they were loved.” She adopted a mindset: “Let this be the last time.” The last couch, the last table. The things she put in the new house needed to be perfect, because she’d never replace them again.
Oluo sits in her brother Ahamefule’s recording studio, its walls hung with sound-absorbent panels. Over Zoom, the producer tells her to begin again. It’s been like this all day. She’s recording the audio version of her second book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. But her nose is stuffed up from crying. It’s two days after the fire, one day after her eldest son, Malcolm, called from college to tell her he had Covid.
“It was a fog,” she says. And the beginning of three months in residential limbo. After George Floyd’s murder, her schedule was full of talks, mingled with virtual book tour appearances, conducted against a rotating backdrop of Airbnbs, even the occasional well-lit bathroom when she stayed in a hotel. Marcus had to readjust to remote schooling in every new place. Finally, they were ready to inhabit their house, even if it wasn’t quite ready for them.
The crew hurried to finish a few spaces—two bedrooms, a bathroom, part of the kitchen, and the studio. Teodros goes to sleep early for his morning radio show, but Oluo would stay up late, obsessively scanning the internet for items worthy of her new home. She bought a stove in the middle of the night. Months later, she’d already chosen tile for the kitchen when she thought to sift through her email receipts to remember what the stove looked like. It’s bright yellow. “We had to change the tile.” Her sister texted her in the middle of another night about an exhibit in London by Nigerian artist Emma Odumade. Within minutes she was vying for a charcoal and collage portrait.
A hand-built chandelier made of reflective brass trumpets arrived from Portugal, another insomnia purchase. As Oluo mourned all she had lost, it helped to buy items that spoke to her, “a beautiful thing I know will be here one day.” When that day arrived months later, she realized—she’d never measured her space. The fixture commanded so much of the petite dining room, it would have touched the tabletop if hung from the existing ceiling. The contractor cut a deep recess overhead, a sort of impromptu cove ceiling reverse engineered to accommodate a chandelier of glimmering horns.
Teodros kept insisting, “I’m not going to buy any more records.” The fire destroyed his concert tickets and show mementos. Songs he wrote as part of the group Abyssinian Creole. Journals from middle school. Recreating something so sentimental might be too painful. Still, Oluo asked Hackett, “Do you know someone who could build record shelves?”
Patrick Tomeny works out of his garage in South Seattle, making furniture and built-ins whose quality matches even the most durable midcentury icons. He built Teodros a floating desk according to Hackett’s design; since February 2021, Teodros has spun his morning shows from its sturdy surface. The group brainstormed ideas for a built-in hallway bench. The result, full of storage and dramatic slopes, “is one of my all-time favorite pieces,” says Tomeny.
The sitting room still needed a coffee table, and Tomeny and Hackett wanted to do something for the couple. Hackett supplied an oval glass tabletop, Tomeny fashioned a base inspired by a 1960s-era Danish design. Originally, the gesture was one of support for clients who endured such staggering loss, says Tomeny. By the time the duo brought it in his van to place in front of the speckled velvet loveseat, it had become a thank you. Oluo’s Instagram house updates had generated a significant following for both of the small local businesses.
Ultimately, Teodros found it healing to rebuild his collection. Every record had a story; their replacements became “a symbol that holds these memories.” Tomeny’s floating record shelves show up frequently in the background of her zooms; they’re already full of vinyl.
One cloudy winter morning, Oluo wears a polka dot dress and slippers as she leads an impromptu tour of the house. “It will never be finished,” she allows, but now art leaps off the walls and plants cluster beneath the broad living room window.
Her office was the last room to be completed, but the first dedicated space this professional writer has ever had to practice her tradecraft. The walls are bright lime—the same hue as her kitchen tile—except the one Oluo covered in wallpaper, a retro pattern that resembles wood grain beads. Two of the paintings she grabbed from the ruins of her former home sit on a shelf in here.
Karl Hackett ensured she had a vintage pole lamp (rewired for safety) and a properly impressive writing desk. Marcus has a miniature version in his room across the hall. “Even though everything is new, it all has a story,” says Oluo.
Restorers did what they could with the Carolyn Hitt painting Oluo pulled off her mangled walls in a fit of desperation. Then the artist herself offered to give it some restorative love, a gesture of support to match the relief event that first connected Oluo with her work. The result occupies the focal wall in the home’s small sitting room, a burst of orange and blue and Oluo’s favored shade of happy yellow-green.
On the shelf beneath the painting, a pair of scarlet phoenix statues lift their ceramic tailfeathers, a pose of rebirth. Oluo’s friend Talcott Broadhead bought these before the fire, when Teodros and Oluo got engaged. Back then, the phoenixes were just a duo of beautiful art objects, a future wedding gift. Teodros and Oluo postponed their wedding, but Broadhead decided to gift them the statues anyway. It’s hard to ignore their symbolism in a home its owners built anew from literal ashes. Or the infinite community loops that surround them.