Girl on fire: Kathleen Barrett

When she was four, my future mother caught on fire. I was thinking that someone should write down the story, so here it is.

It is a warm September* Sunday in 1929. 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, is four. Her 16-year-old sister Mary loves doting on her “baby” and brushes Kathleen’s long hair, pinning it to the top of her head.

Kathleen goes downstairs to look for her always-fun 11-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 and decide to do something else. But Kathleen loves the game and dashes upstairs to find more.

Meanwhile, her mother Kitty is home from church, starts cooking a pot of something for dinner, and leaves the kitchen. 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 Kathleen in it, 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 involved compresses of linseed oil and lime water. This Carron oil liniment was a standard, if old-fashioned remedy for burns. She was bedridden for months and had to repeat kindergarten. She remembers her 78-year-old grandmother Ellen Barrett sitting with her during that long convalescence, while Kitty was downstairs managing the store.

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 for me. 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. 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.”


* Estimate

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

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