A Kitchen Fire and its Aftermath

I’ve been into genealogy for so many years I can’t remember when it started.  Maybe it was when I found the grave of my great great great grandfather behind the church I attended when I was a child.  Or when I read the chapter in a local history book about the immigrant who began the Welty line in America.  Or when I  found the records of his service in the Revolutionary War.

Mary Estelle Lansinger and Joseph H. WeltyToday I learned something about my grandmother that I can’t quite get out of my mind.  She was badly burned in a kitchen fire when I was a baby.  After being hospitalized for several weeks, she was sent home to die.  I knew all this.  My mother often told how Estelle, that was her name, held me in her arms shortly before the accident.  “There’ s nothing like a baby to cheer you up when you’re feeling blue,” she said.  It was one of those quotes that gets passed down in a family.

There are two versions of how my grandmother came to be burned.  Either she threw kerosene into the stove to get the fire started, or she emptied the sweepings from the floor into the stove, and a piece of burning paper fell out and caught on her skirt.  My brother Bob tells the first story, my sister Mae the second.

When she realized she was on fire, she screamed and ran into the living room.   My mother came running.  She threw Estelle onto the floor and began to roll her, hoping to smother the flames.

The part of the story that touches me so deeply:  I was asleep in the room directly above where this happened.  My mother was trying to save her mother-in-law, but she was also thinking of me.  I was two months old.  She’d just put me down for a nap.  If she didn’t get the fire under control, the flames would engulf the living room, the Christmas tree in a corner, then the bedroom where I slept.
My mother died just over a year ago.  I can’t ask her about these things.  I will never know exactly what was in her mind.  I have to take my sister’s word for it.

For months now I’ve been working on a Shutterfly book, a collection of old pictures, family group records, newspaper articles, genealogies, descendancy charts.  I want my children and their children to know the stories of those who came before.  The book is nearly done.  But this section, the one about my grandmother, I have yet to write.

She was nearly blind, my sister tells me.  Her skirt was long, reaching nearly to the floor.  She was wearing an apron, and there were grease splatters on it.  Was it a burning piece of paper that caught on her skirt and flamed up, or a stream of kerosene that exploded back on her?  It matters little.

In the living room of my house I have a punch bowl that belonged to her.  It sits on a wash stand she bought from Sears, Roebuck and Co.  In my china cabinet, her porcelain dishes.  In the hallway a charcoal drawing of a mill pond, given her by a rejected suitor.

My mother tried to save her, but she was also thinking of the baby who slept in the room above.  My mother.

7 Responses to A Kitchen Fire and its Aftermath

  1. Chris Svitek March 28, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

    Very lovely Rita. I really like the connection between the generations and the attempt to make sure that Liam and Kenzey can answer the questions about you and Rory that you can’t answer about your grandma.

  2. Leslie Bourke March 28, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    I love this too, and I can’t wait to see the Shutterfly book. I think we’re going to need an online version for your site.

  3. mary vance April 14, 2010 at 10:30 am #

    Rita, I so enjoyed reading your fire story and a bit of your geneaology, and the night at the Bluebird, and Leslie’s accomplishments. All of it!

    It looks like we’re sisters-in-kind. I have never been interested in joining the DAR but I do have a connection through my mother’s family. I have always been proud of those long American roots. I

    Guess you know about Mary’s website and her blogs. I’ve been tempted to tell complete strangers on the street to check it out. Love, Mary

  4. Anne Chevis November 7, 2014 at 8:36 pm #

    I am also a Welty! And a descendent of this lovely couple! Thanks for the lovely picture!
    Anne Chevis

  5. Anne Chevis November 7, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

    Actually after looking move carefully at the names- instead I am the great granddaughter of Rose Bernadette Welty and Francis William Lansinger who were brother and sister of Mary Estelle and Joseph.

  6. Kim January 7, 2018 at 12:30 pm #

    Thank you for sharing. I have heard little details of the death of Grace Welty – Warthen’s mother (Grace was my grand mother). The story I heard is she was carrying a kerosene lantern, she dropped it by accident, it exploded setting her night gown on fire. What is the true story I don’t know. Regardless not a pleasant way to leave this world 🙁

  7. Rob Warthen January 7, 2018 at 3:11 pm #

    I’m one of the genealogists in my family. Love hearing the old stories. I’ve gone so far as to take DNA tests to help worn through the ancestors. Thanks again

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