Why you should care
Because the modern world continues to be more dangerous than we give it credit for.
Summertime, the middle of the night. My babysitter, Della, grabbed me in her arms and screamed at my sister to get out of bed. NOW. Why? Where were my parents? Della carried me down the steep steps of our second-floor bedroom. My sister trailed behind. “Where are my mommy and daddy? Where are my mommy and daddy?” she yelled. We moved fast as lightning toward the front door and passed my parents’ bedroom, the bed perfectly made, my father’s shoes on the floor, the laces hanging down.
The sky was filled with stars, like the planetarium, but they were flat, not puffed up with light. Tears coursed down my cheeks and onto Della’s breast. She clutched me closer. I threw my arms around her neck. I looked back at our Cape Cod cottage, searching for my mom and dad. Men in silver suits passed in and out of the cellar like giant insects.
We crossed the street to the Winters’ house. Liberty was 6, like Annie, two years older than me. She and her mother led us down to a moldy room filled with mattresses. Green spores stuck to the ceiling.
“Diddy, Diddy, Diddy, where are you?”
“Shhh, Annie, everything will be OK,” Mrs. Winters said and hugged Annie, but I didn’t believe her voice.
Sometimes I heard my aunt and uncle whisper: “Dorothy’s face.” “The cellar exploding.”
“Where are they?” Annie cried out. “Della, where are they?”
“They were burned a little. They’ll be back in seven days.” Della was crying. I counted seven fingers on my hands. Della and I slept together, an old sleeping bag swept over us. Della’s breath smelled bad, like cigarettes. I turned my face to the wall.
In the morning everything felt different. Upstairs, I stared at my bowl of Cheerios with milk, silently gazing at the floating round O’s.
Annie ran to the window. To see our cottage across the street. “Where are Mommy and Daddy?” I said, running next to her. “Where are they?” She said nothing and stayed very still, which scared me. Then we both saw it: Daddy’s blue-and-white-striped bathrobe was burned black like the carbon paper in Mommy’s desk drawer. It hung across a wooden pole.
The next couple of weeks were a blur of houses and traveling. Della was gone. First we went to Dr. Simon’s, a doctor friend of my dad’s. He went to the small Cape Cod Hospital every day to help my parents. “Your mom and dad miss you very much,” he said. The smell of burns was all over him.
A few days later we flew back to our apartment in New York City with my mother’s friend, but we still couldn’t talk to our parents.
One morning our Uncle Louis came to the house and drove us up the New York State Thruway for hundreds of miles. When we got to a farm in Sherburne, New York, my aunt came out the door with her apron on and hugged us. Her hands were warm and wet. I didn’t feel like eating much and cried all night.
For nine months we lived with my aunt, uncle and two cousins on a dairy farm — through summer, winter and part of the spring. We broke off mica, small mirrors from the rocks, and buried them in the ground under the snow. We made an igloo that lasted for two weeks. We ice-skated at a nearby pond. I refused to go to school and followed my aunt around the house and did chores. I hung onto her skirts and put my fingers through her red hair. I didn’t want her to leave me, ever.
My sister and I made up a prayer: “God bless Mommy and make her better soon. God bless Daddy. God bless everyone. God bless the whole world.”
I stopped remembering my parents’ faces.
After a long time, my parents called every Tuesday. Their voices sounded as if they were drowning. Sometimes I heard my aunt and uncle whisper: “Dorothy’s face.” “The cellar exploding.” I learned to write my name on a pull-up pad so the words disappeared. I had a new family.
So many months later, when my father came through the door to the farmhouse, he didn’t run to us, and we didn’t run to him. He looked different — shiny, yellow mottled skin covered his face, neck and hands. We took the train back to New York City. At Grand Central Station, my father pointed to Pegasus, the magical horse flying in the sky, and clutched our hands. Annie and I began to feel excited. We were going home. When we walked into our apartment, my mother was sitting on a green trunk, her face, neck and hands a mass of ropy scars. I wanted to hug her, but her face scared me.
My mother went back and forth to the hospital for operations for the next four years. I pressed my face against the window, always waiting for her to return, afraid she wouldn’t. My father sat in his rocking chair for a year; it was hard to reach him. As summer, winter, fall and spring came and went, he rose from his chair and went back to work. Thirty-seven operations later, my mother came home with her “final” face. My parents both had scars on the outside. My sister and I had scars on the inside. My mother wanted everything to be normal, but nothing was ever quite the same. Everyone stared at my mother and sometimes whispered.
When my children were 4 and 6, panic attacks screamed through my body. I needed help to deal with all the fear, the silences and the scars. Fifty-eight years after the accident, married, with two daughters of my own, I found the house in Wellfleet where my parents were burned. That fateful night, after a play and dinner with friends, they went downstairs to light the pilot light on the gas heater. Gas with no smell had been escaping for hours.
My mother lit a match, and they were both engulfed in flames. Miraculously, they climbed up a rickety ladder and rolled their burning bodies on the lawn. Mrs. Winters and Della heard them screaming. An ambulance, which I never heard or saw, whisked them away.
At the Cape Cod cottage, so many years later, a kiddie pool and a swing set sat in the yard. The door was closed. I didn’t knock on the door to go inside. What would I say?
My husband and I walked away into another life.