Girl on fire: Kathleen Barrett

When she was six, my future mother caught on fire. I was thinking that someone should write down the story, so here it is. (Revised 2 Mar 2020)

This looks like a school photo, 1931

It is May 3, a warm Sunday in 1931. The Barrett family — widowed mom and four children — live over the family grocery store on the corner of Rowan and Ridge in north St. Louis. The youngest, Kathleen, has just turned six. Her 17-year-old sister Mary loves doting on her “baby” and brushes Kathleen’s long hair, pinning it to the top of her head. The photo below shows how her hair was pinned up. The handwriting is Kathleen’s mother’s.

May 2, 1931 “the day before she was burned”

Kathleen goes downstairs to look for her always-fun 12-year-old brothers Bill and Bob. She finds them in the basement dripping lines of gasoline along the dirt floor and setting the lines on fire. They soon run out of matches. But Kathleen loves the mischief and dashes upstairs to find more matches.

Meanwhile, her mother Kitty is home from church, starts cooking a pot of something for dinner, and leaves the kitchen to change her clothes. Kathleen knows the matches are kept high on a shelf above the stove. She pushes a chair over to reach them. As she reaches, the sleeve of her airy dress catches fire.

She screams.

Kitty races back into the kitchen to see her beautiful baby in flames. She grabs a scatter rug from the adjacent bedroom, wraps it around Kathleen, and drops her to the floor. It’s lucky that Kathleen hair is pinned out of the way of the flames.

I don’t recall my mom ever talking about the pandemonium that follows. Or the terrible pain she must feel, with third degree burns covering her inner arm from elbow to shoulder and down her side.

The doctor is called to the Barrett’s apartment. Kitty Barrett mistrusts hospitals. People go there to die, from her mother at age 38 to her husband at age 44. Her baby will be treated at home.

Hours later, after Kathleen is settled, the doctor asks Kitty how she is. She finally notices that the front of her own Sunday frock is burned away.

Kathleen’s treatment involves compresses of linseed oil and lime water. This Carron oil liniment was a standard, if old-fashioned remedy for burns. Bedridden, she misses the rest of the school year.* She remembers her 80-year-old grandmother Ellen Barrett sitting with her that long summer, while Kitty was downstairs managing the store. Sadly, Grandma Barrett dies of heart failure in September.

1931 labeled “after” her burn. Left arm appears bandaged.

Kathleen’s scar was terrible–a web of shiny pink and white flesh. That’s where the story starts for me. When I was old enough to be curious but still young enough to see my mom without clothes, the scar was an object of fascination. As she got older, the dense scar tissue sort of melted into her maturing flesh, but in her twenties (or so I remember), it was still vivid.

I learned this: it was a physical scar, not an emotional one. She made no effort to hide it and even owned a two-piece bathing suit.The scar did not become her identity. She was neither a “victim” nor a “survivor.” She was a storyteller.

And her story was never a saga of pain or terror. The story of her scar was a loving family portrait: her fun brothers playing with matches, her prescient sister pinning her hair up, her quick-witted mother rolling her in the carpet. Her old grandma sitting by. People taking care of her.

I think about this story now: a horrifying, literally scarring event, transmitted to Kathleen’s children wrapped in the gauzy glow of love. It’s a tribute to my mom’s strong sense of self and deep love of family.

I’ve decided it also reflects this bit of wisdom (to paraphrase Nietzsche): “What doesn’t kill me, makes a good story.”


*Family lore says Kathleen missed a year of school or at least had to repeat a year. My dad used to tease her about having to repeat 1st grade. But she graduated from 8th grade in 1938, right on time if she was in first grade in 1930-31. I have heard she was “young” in school. So, my theory: busy Kitty put her smart girl directly into first grade at age 4, in 1929-30. (Kindergarten was optional in those days.) Or enrolled her in March when she turned 5 (what my husband’s mother did in a similar era). That suggests Kathleen would have been in second grade when she was burned. She then repeated second grade in 1931-32 — no big deal because she was so young. That puts her on track to graduate in 1938.

Photo at top: a composite, with Kathleen before the incident, about 1929.

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