I hadn’t intended to write about my grandparents’ house on Walnut Street. Not really. Not until I found out it was being sold and then wandered from room to room, documenting every damn thing that happened there.
A couple friends read my lengthy non-fiction essay. They cried and told me it was beautiful. When I told those few readers “You Were Here” was being published by Under the Gum Tree, they seemed surprised. One woman said, “But it’s so personal.”
So why not share it?
On the cover of the April issue of Under the Gum Tree are four words: “Tell stories without shame.” I’ve always done so in fiction; why not in my personal life?
Under the Gum Tree editor Janna Marlies Maron puts it this way: “Fear is the very reason that I publish this magazine. Writing and sharing true stories helps us face the fears we have about who we are. We fear that others will judge us and not accept us—and our stories, our past experiences, are a huge part of that. But by sharing our stories we defy that fear and challenge it by seeing what really happens when we reveal a part of ourselves.”
I give you the opening of “You Were Here,” followed by a link where you can buy your own copy of the magazine.
YOU WERE HERE
by Sara Dobie Bauer
Papa died here. He got to die in his own home on a Saturday night while I was far away in Phoenix, just waiting for the call. He died in his own bed with his children around him.
When I was little, we all used to cram into that bed: Papa, Grandma, my brother, and me. I sported an awkward bowl cut then and glasses that made me look like a bug. Matt and I were boney little kids; it’s a wonder we didn’t bruise the grandparents, who were soft and cuddly before old age stole their weight and shrank their presence.
Matt and I slept upstairs when we stayed with Papa and Grandma, and I was scared up there because of the attic—that long, dark space entered via a midget-sized door ten feet from my creaky bed. Papa and Grandma’s bedroom was where I went when I got scared. I would knock on the door, and Grandma would walk me back upstairs and stay with me until I fell asleep.
If there were a midget in the attic, he never got me because Grandma was there.
Now, their bedroom is empty. The big picture of “Schwindig” nineteen-seventy-something is gone. It was a picture of my grandparents with their brothers, sisters, and cousins, all in Hawaii, burnt to a crisp, most of the men smoking cigarettes and sporting gold chains that tangled in abundant chest hair.
The dresser is bare, but inside the drawers, you still find socks, underwear, jewelry. My grandfather’s suits are still in the closet. I try one on and find it doesn’t fit. Too tight in the shoulders. It’s the jacket he wore to my wedding: the last earthly trip Papa ever made. Even though he was in a wheelchair, he found the energy to dance with me: “The Way You Look Tonight” by Frank Sinatra.
Papa’s hats don’t fit either. I apparently have a large head. It smells vaguely of Papa’s cologne in the bedroom as if he’s still in here somewhere, hiding behind his suits.
Only now do I cry.
The Front Door
The house on Walnut Street in Perrysburg, Ohio, looks like it’s made of gingerbread. Hidden behind oak trees near downtown Perrysburg, it’s surrounded by houses that look younger, newer, due to siding and modern touches like in-ground swimming pools.
It is brick, and has high, pointed rooftops. Huge front windows look out over the street, almost hidden now by an overbearing pine that stands like a sentinel near the recently paved driveway. When I was a teenager learning to wear heels, the gravel was murderous. Maybe I owe my adult high-heel dexterity to my grandparents’ driveway.
There are plastic pink flamingos along the front walk, leading to the heavy, black front door. My Uncle Barney had a passion for flamingos that, for some reason, transferred to the rest of the family. The house looks like a house you’d see in a movie—the one where the happy family reconvenes for a funeral and each learns something meaningful. There would be a Celine Dion song on the soundtrack.
At Christmas, the house was lit from head to toe. Snow melted around fat, old-fashioned colored bulbs, framing them. The crooked Christmas tree glistened in the big front window. Then, you walked in the front door.
Today, there is no sound of TV from the back room, where my grandparents obsessively watched tennis and game shows, but the house smells the same: like something old and yet not of decay. It’s a comforting smell, like the blankie you had as a kid that you refuse to wash.
To read the rest of my fearless family narrative (and get to know the rest of the house on Walnut Street), buy the April edition of Under the Gum Tree in print or digital format HERE.