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.