“Mama! Nellie’s head is on fire!” I screamed in absolute terror. My mother turned and dashed for the kitchen where my beautiful, thirteen-year-old sister was running back and forth, her long, heavy hair now in flames, her screams piercing the air.
Mama grabbed some kitchen towels, threw them over Nellie’s head, and began beating ineffectually at the flames, turning her own fingers into raw meat as the flames licked through the thin towels.
“Get me a blanket!” she screamed, and my fifteen-year-old brother, Bruce, dashed to the nearest bedroom to grab one of Mama’s heavy, homemade comforters, which was thrown over Nellie’s head, finally smothering the deadly fire.
I stood in mute horror as the scene unfolded in front of me. My sister’s screams pierced my consciousness, until she collapsed, moaning and twisting, on the cold linoleum floor.
She was no longer the sister I knew. Her hair was gone, as were her eyebrows and the tops of her ears. The smell of burned flesh rose sickeningly from this heap upon the floor, this heap that was my sister. Her hands and fingers were charred because she had thrown them in front of her face as a shield from the hungry flames licking at her cascading hair. Her dress had been burned from her shoulders and lay in a heap on the floor, exposing her raw, seared shoulders, which were already beginning to blister.
We lived in the Wisconsin hills, and we did not have a phone. Mama instructed Bruce to run to the landlord’s house for help. And run he did, leaping a four-foot chain-link fence that encircled our yard as though it was not there, he streaked for the valley below.
As Bruce ran for the landlord, my older sister, Clairece, ran the other way, up the hill to our nearest neighbor, an old, spinster lady who lived about half a mile away. She had a phone, and surely Clairece could use her phone to call for help.
While we waited at home, the hushed silence broken by Nellie’s sobbing and incoherent moans, another sister, Ruth, told Mama what had happened.
You would have to understand the time and the place, the hills of Wisconsin in the early 1940s. A child in the little country school we attended had come to school with head lice. She loved my sister’s long, flowing, blond tresses, and had asked if she could comb Nellie’s hair. Of course, Nellie agreed, not knowing that this child had lice. In those days, not only did finances prevent us from seeking medical help for something as common as lice infestation, but also, people just did not go to the doctor unless it was a life-threatening situation. The old-fashioned method for getting rid of lice was to wash your hair in kerosene. It was very effective. Mama had already rinsed my hair with kerosene, then shampooed the kerosene out with our regular shampoo, leaving it clean and fresh smelling—and lice free. It was an old, country remedy, but I am sure it is still used in some areas of the hill country today.
Nellie was preparing to rinse her hair the same way, when Bruce lit a cigarette. As he had done many times in the past, he handed the match to our two-year old nephew, Billy, to blow it out. But this time, instead of blowing the match out, Billy innocently toddled over and dropped the lighted match into the sink containing the pan of kerosene where Nellie was rinsing her hair. Her head exploded into flames.
Mama wrapped her now unconscious daughter in a clean, white sheet and I know in her mind she was calling out to her God for strength and healing.
Arthur, the landlord, and Bruce arrived with a pickup truck, and with Mama’s assistance they lifted Nellie into the truck bed and left for the hospital. The house was quiet; no one dared voice the fears that came rushing in to torture our minds, but we knelt and prayed, placing Nellie in the hands of God.
It was very late when Mama returned home. The news was not good. “If she lived,” the doctors said, “she would be blind, possibly deaf, and she most certainly would never be able to use her hands again.” But those doctors did not know the God that my Mother and Father knew! We did not know it then, but Nellie would spend almost a year in the hospital.