The Warrens of Virginia

Contributor: Cathy S. Ulrich

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Her daughter burned.
She was the youngest, Mommy’s Little Sweetheart. Her other children were nearly grown by the time the last was born, so they never knew that the youngest was her favorite: Martha, sweet Martha, the silent film star.
Oh, Mother, please. I’m not a star yet.
But they both knew she would be.
Martha in her first leading role: Not the vamp this time, but a lady, a real lady, wearing hoop skirts and all.
Martha could invite her mother to watch the filming; no one else could get away with it. Relatives, husbands, wives — all banned. Only Martha, tilting her head to one side, flashing that lovely smile: Please?
Martha’s mother sat behind the director and observed quietly. Sometimes she’d even bring cookies for the crew that would be devoured during the breaks.
Martha always came running to her mother when filming stopped.
Oh, Mother, how did I do? Was I very good?
There would always be one cookie left that the mother kept wrapped in a napkin in her purse, and that was given to the daughter, who would respond by kissing her mother on the cheek.
You’re the sweetest mother.
The sweetest mother and her daughter, beautiful Martha, who was joking about how dangerous the old-fashioned hoop skirts had been.
If a lady went to the docks and there was a gust of wind, it would lift her up, just like an umbrella, and deposit her in the ocean, Martha said. Of course, she couldn’t swim in a skirt like that, and would drown.
The mother didn’t think it could possibly be true.
It is! I read it in a book somewhere.
Smiling Martha, laughing Martha. The mother had never loved her beautiful daughter more.
There was a lit match thrown then — the mother swore later that it was a lit match, though the studio said it could have been Martha’s own cigarette, but my daughter never smoked! — and landed on the hem of Martha’s costume.
Martha at first laughing when the bottom of her skirt caught fire, trying to beat it out with her bare hands, then finally screaming as the flames engulfed her. The mother backed away as her daughter reached for her.
The leading man threw her to the ground, smothering the flames with his jacket. They were taken to the hospital together, leading man and leading lady, and the mother followed in the cameraman’s car.
She waited with the crew for word, and someone had thought to bring her cookies along, so the mother was chewing on one when the leading man was released. His hands were wrapped in gauze, and he’d been given medicine for the pain. He would finish the movie in gloves that clung to his lingering scars, and only the most observant fans noticed.
He wept: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I tried, holding those ruined hands out to the mother, who couldn’t take them.
She could only swallow her cookie and shake her head: No. No, no.

For Martha’s funeral service, the mother selected a pink casket, lined with satin. The older siblings came along with their mother to the funeral home (their father had died not long after the youngest was born; of course Mother dotes on Martha, they said) to make the arrangements.
I want to see her, the mother said. I want to see my baby.
Her children tried to dissuade her, and the mortician too: You don’t want to see her like that.
But the mother was implacable.
I want to see my baby.
The mortician relented and led her into a room where the pink casket was laid out, flowers surrounding it. (So many people loved her, remarked the mother, didn’t they? And her older children agreed.)
He patted the closed lid reverently (I was a fan of her films myself, he revealed to the mother) and then left the room with the older children, so she could say goodbye in peace.
The closed pink casket gave the mother no comfort, for how could it possibly contain her youngest daughter, how could she know? Trembling, she undid the latch and opened the lid, so she could see her daughter — at peace now, her older children said, at peace — one last time. She’d had some favorite items of her daughter’s delivered to the funeral home to be buried with her, and they greeted the mother mockingly, from the otherwise empty casket.
Where is my baby? she wailed again and again until the mortician and her children came rushing to her side, pulling up short at the sight of the opened casket.
She’s not in there, she said bitterly. It’s empty.
No, said the mortician, she’s there, and pressed the mother’s hands gently into the casket, where she felt, under a layer of fabric and another of plastic, her daughter’s body.
Oh, said the mother, softly weeping, I see.
After the mortician had gone, and her older children too, she stayed like that for a while, stroking her daughter’s burned body with her unblemished hands.

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Cathy S. Ulrich knows the difference between a casket and a coffin: It's in the shape.
Read more »
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