The Open Door


         “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.

            Mother grabbed some kitchen towels, threw them over Nellie’s head, and beating ineffectually at the flames, turning her 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, home made 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 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 live about a 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 place, the hills of Wisconsin in the early 1940’s.  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 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 of 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 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, 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 doctor 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.

       The news of our tragedy quickly spread through the little farming valley where we lived, and the following day the true story of God’s miraculous working in our behalf was told.

              Arthur had been out working in his fields.  It was only mid-morning, but he felt a strong urging to return to his house.  It did not make sense to him, so he shrugged it off.  He had planned to be out in the field until dark, and had even packed a lunch so he could work straight through the day.  But the feeling to return home persisted, so he stopped work, climbed into his pickup and drove home.

       “What am I here for?” he mused.  Perhaps his old Aunt Kate needed him.  So, impressed by this thought, he picked up the phone to call her.

       Meanwhile, Clairece had reached his Aunt’s house and knocked on the door.  No answer! She knocked again, pounding upon the door. Still no answer, so she reached down and turned the doorknob.  Finding that the door was not locked, she walked into the kitchen, picked up the phone to call Arthur at the same instant that Arthur was picking up the phone to call his Aunt.  They were connected without either of them ever dialing the phone.

          “Please come quickly,” Clairece begged, my sister has been seriously burned and we have to get her to the hospital.”

              “I’m on my way!” he responded, bounding out the door and jumping into his truck.  He met Bruce on the way to our house, picked him up, and heard the rest of the story as they drove back.

         The following day, Aunt Kate came to call.  After hearing the story of Nellies’s accident, she turned to Clairece.  “How did you get in my house to use the phone?”

       “The door was unlocked, so I just walked in, made my call and left.” Clairece replied.

      “But, that is impossible!” the old lady sputtered, “I locked that door before I left for the fields yesterday, and dropped the key right here,” she said as she patted her apron pocket. “That door was still locked when I got home.  I know, because I had to use my key to get in!”

           My Mother smiled and softly quoted a verse from the book of Acts, “But the angel of the Lord—opened the door.”

     Although Nellie’s struggle was long and difficult, and though there were times we were not sure she would make it through another operation, God was with her.  She was not left blind, however, her eyebrows never grew back and she has had to use a pencil just to create eyebrows.  Although the tops of her ears were burned off, she can still hear.  And those hands that the doctors thought would never be used again, although badly scarred, still play God’s praises on the piano.  She continues to use her beautiful, soprano voice to praise a loving Father who walks beside us, even through the valley of the shadow of death, and leads us into green pastures of safety.


Barbara Bender