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.
Today 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.