does this grab your attention?

February 24th, 2015

nobody noticed her burns

My mother was five years-old when she set herself on fire sitting on the edge of the bathtub.  Her seven year-old sister was there, behind a closed bathroom door on the second floor of a Virginia farmhouse.  Setting a match to a self-rolled toilet paper cigarette loosely filled with pipe tobacco, flecks dropped onto her dress.  My mother burst into flames while her sister watched and screamed.

My Grandfather Hudson heard my mother screaming near her death and bolted up a flight of stairs, broke down the door, picked up his burning daughter, and smothered her flaming skin in the hallway’s Persian rug.

For eighteen years, my grandfather took my mother by train up to New York’s Presbyterian hospital, so that his college fraternity brother, ‘Uncle Dan,’ could miraculously transform her burns, by growing new skin in sausages for future grafts.

I didn’t know why my mother carried her photograph as a burn victim taken by her doctor in her wallet, inside her black leather bag.  I was nine years old when I found the black and white picture, as I was ripping off her change.  My hand held her wallet, wrapped up with rubber banded notes and errands she needed to do.  I saw the bent edges of a photograph.

It was a photograph of my mother as a child, with bleary eyes filled with pain far beyond her five years, like a resigned war victim.  The camera showed third degree burns, her chin melted to her chest, mouth gaping open like a hideous monster.

I froze and stopped breathing. Everything got small. My worst nightmares could not have conjured the disfiguring severity of what my mother did to herself before I was born.  She had previously warned me, ”Don’t play with matches” and I thought, ”Blah Blah Yakety Yak.” So what was the big deal?

About a month after I saw the photograph, my mother and I got around to talking about the horrible photograph.  She confided to me that she had only recently received it with her late mother’s belongings from Virginia. My mother had never seen that picture before, and was so devastated by seeing the photograph that she kept it with her for months before she could finally put it away.

I grew up in a house without mirrors, except for our tiny bathroom one.  The only full-length mirror view I had of myself was looking out the plate glass living room windows into the dark. My mother wasn’t into her reflection in the mirror.

2 responses to “does this grab your attention?”

  1. Catherine Marshall-Smith says:

    Very dramatic and attention grabbing opening. Some of it is a little unclear. My Grandfather Hudson heard it seconds away from her death. Heard what? It feels like there are words missing.

    My mother had been carrying the doctor’s original black and white medical photograph in her wallet, inside her black leather bag. I thought the picture was of the doctor. It is a picture of her as a burn victim. That would be horrifying and you do have a strong reaction.But because I had to go back to figure out the subject of the picture, your response seemed disconnected.

    That said, these are tiny changes that can be fixed easily. The memory and the telling of it, are powerful and give your writing a strong hook.

    • Pru Starr says:

      thank you for those specific confusions. I tried to fix them, and hope it reads better. I’m thinking about using this to start my memoir.

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