Dear God, Natalie said silently to herself. I cannot deal with this toiling of my emotions. There has to be some way to escape this feeling of guilt! Natalie wanted to scream, to cry, and to keep her emotions bottled up inside of her. Maybe, Natalie thought, it was better if she tried to disregard her feelings, to push them aside and ignore them as if they never existed—the less she had to think about, the more likely she wouldn’t have to deal with her emotional baggage.The next morning, after the somber first entry in her journal— that would later on become the very recollection of her life’s story—Natalie was still distraught over the death of Gracie. It was a great deal too much to bear and Natalie tried to tell herself that it wasn’t her fault that Gracie had committed suicide. But there was a powerful force that constantly plagued her and played with her emotions— telling her that she had everything to do with Gracie’s death.
Natalie had awakened to a day rich with the assurance of promises and new beginnings. However, Natalie had no interest in stopping to admire the daily gifts that God presented her. She was distracted by a feeling. Where and when had this feeling developed? The feeling invaded the very center of her bosom; a cool sensation had overcome her. Was this what peace felt like?
It felt less like peace, and more like an Icy-Hot patch that had been placed upon her heart, as if trying to calm down the very nerves that threatened to burst from her chest. It was a feeling that she could not describe and barely understand. Something had taken place yesterday afternoon, something that had served to comfort her, encourage her, and yet at the same time, create a feeling of fear and resentment.
In a hurry to escape the maddening structure that seemed more like a prison than a place of refuge and strength, Natalie pushed her way through the kitchen filled with all ten siblings clustered curiously close to the counter, eying Mrs. Steel’s first batch of Apple pies and freshly baked bread.
While Natalie struggled to make her way through the crowd to the kitchen door, she felt her mom’s piercing stare upon the back of her bare neck. Stopping for a quick second to look back at her mom, Natalie’s stomach began to churn. This involuntary churning of the Natalie’s stomach was not because her mom was repulsive. On the contrary, Mrs. Steel was a pretty lady with smooth and intricate features: an oval face with high cheek bones, full lips, an angular chin and a captivating smile. This sensation of instant nausea was from the nerves that threatened to suck the very life out of Natalie.
The suffocating strangulation of hopelessness and guilt had forcefully invaded and had become intertwined into every fiber of her being. Natalie was about to lose her nerves; her mom’s glaring black eyes seemed to dig deep into her very soul. It was as if Mrs. Steel was reading her daughter like a book. It was as if she knew. Did she really know what was going on in Natalie’s life?
Mrs. Steel, like all moms, did inquire after Natalie’s reason for being unexplainably hasty to leave the house. Mrs. Steel obviously had read what was on Natalie’s mind and therefore knew what she was up to. She had heard all about Gracie’s sudden death from the neighbor next door. In fact, only two days after Gracie’s death, the news had spread through the little town of White House, Tennessee faster than a wild fire. The gossip that went on behind doors about how and why Gracie had died was something Mrs. Steel cared little to know about. But what she did care about was her daughter. She wanted to somehow make it all better. But how could she? How could she, as a mom, mend the broken spirit of her tender and youthful child?
Natalie began to shrink back and clutched tightly the back of the Windsor chair idly stationed at the kitchen table. Her mom’s stare became more intesified with each movement Natalie made in an attempt to alude her mom’s unaviodable dark and luminous eyes. It wasn’t out of fear—in fact, it was out of an uncharacteristically and unfathomable introversion that Natalie had recently developed due to the death of her friend, Gracie.
Natalie knew there was no other way to get out from under her mom’s heavy stare. It was evident that Mrs. Steel knew about Gracie. Was Natalie’s mom disappointed in her? Was she disappointed in the way Natalie had handled the situation at school? Natalie lowered her head in disgrace. She was afraid to look her mom in the eyes. She was afraid her mom would see right through her and rekindle the raw emotions that she had so desperately tried to suffocate.
“Steel children,” Mrs. Steel said in a firm and authoritative tone. She looked at her children who had stationed themselves in arms reach of the goodies on the counter, and said coolly, “…I need you to leave at once. Go outside and play. I do not want to see you in this kitchen again until lunch. Understood?”
The Steel children understood clearly and they ran out of the kitchen. The Steel children knew all-to-well that when their mom told them to do something, it was best that they do it the first time. Procrastination or the inability to follow the rules resulted in punishment. And more often than not, the punishment fit the crime. Rarely was there a moment when they children were allowed to get away with anything. Mrs. Steel believed that discipline was a major ingredient to a child’s healthy development. However, she also believed that the showing of grace and mercy also played its own important role.
“Without Grace and Mercy one cannot learn. God gives us these gifts, so that we can grow, mature and develop.” Mrs. Steel would often tell her husband after dinner. This long and drawn out debate of how to raise a child usually resulted after Mrs. Steel had disciplined one of the boys. Sometimes Mr. Steel would chime in, but he was usually left listening to his wife chatter endlessly about how parents taught to teach their young. “If we are constantly haggard by punishments and scolding, how will we ever learn was true love is? God uses different methods of teaching, and so must a mom and dad if their children are to amount to anything in this world.”
As soon as the children left the kitchen, Mrs. Steel turned her attention more directly onto Natalie who was beginning to wish it was a school day. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday, and she was trapped between a closed door that beckoned to her and her mom’s iron stare. Natalie prayed her mom wouldn’t say anything; she hoped that she would let the matter rest. Please, please, please! Don’t say anything, mom. Just let me go outside. Please! Natalie wanted to cry out aloud. She knew there would be no getting out of talking to her mom; and even if it was a brief moment of dialog, it was sure to seem like an eternity to Natalie.
Nonchalantly, Mrs. Steel began making her second batch of bread; she carefully measured flour into the large mixing bowl in front of her and started pouring the measured flour into the bowl when she motioned for Natalie to sit on the stool at the counter. Reluctantly, Natalie complied. With her jaw set in an earnest manner, Natalie directed her eyes away from her mom and positioned them onto the cooling pies that were only inches away from her reach. As Natalie’s mom continued to pour more of the measured flour into the bowl, she couldn’t help herself but to ask: “What’s wrong, Hun?”
“Nothing,” Natalie answered with an indifferent air that made her mom feel violated and unwanted. She did it! I knew she couldn’t keep from asking me a question! Natalie thought to herself, rebelliously rolling her eyes. Natalie was in an awkward position. Natalie wasn’t in the best mood—her friend Gracie had just died and she wasn’t up to talking about her feelings. Gracie was still fresh on Natalie’s mind and the fact that she had “let” her die (which was absurd) was still too much to process so soon after she had learned the news. Natalie knew that her mom knew about Gracie, and knew that that was the reason she was prodding into Natalie’s personal life. She just hoped her mom wouldn’t get to personal.
“Nothing…?” Mrs. Steel said softly. Her words were barely auditable to Natalie who had preoccupied herself with picking pieces of crust off the apple pies. Mrs. Steel grabbed a spatula that was sitting off to her right and smacked Natalie’s hand with it. Natalie reared back in surprise, rubbing her hand in pain.
“Ouch!” Natalie said as she gave her mom a mean glance. “What was that for, mom?”
“To get your attention,” Mrs. Steel said kneading the bread dough vigorously. Sweat beads began to appear on Mrs. Steel’s broad forehead as she worked hard to release all of the air bubbles that were trapped in the smooth and sticky balls of rubbery dough. Slapping the dough over and over again with her hands, Mrs. Steel proceeded to roll the dough into loafs, and put them into the greased pans over by the stove. “Natalie, how am I supposed to help you if you won’t tell me what’s wrong?” There was a raw determination that had sprouted within Mrs. Steel’s bosom that Natalie hadn’t seen for some time; it was usually seen when she wanted the truth and the facts. Today was no different—Mrs. Steel was going to find out what was bugging Natalie, even if she had to badger it out of the girl.
As Mrs. Steel placed the white loafs of bread into the hot oven, Natalie answered her mom’s question with a defeated and semi-annoyed reply: “Mom, nothing is wrong.” Natalie said. Silence. At this point, the silence and tension between mom and daughter seemed to infiltrate the already stiff and uneasy feeling within the kitchen. Trying to avoid a heated argument, Mrs. Steel busied herself in an attempt to appear as if she wasn’t snooping into her daughter’s problems. She often did this in order to let her daughter cool off before poking and prodding any further into the long and extensive investigation of her daughter’s troubles and feelings.
Remaining silent, Mrs. Steel walked over to the stove and took out a knife and spoon from the silverware drawer, a plate out of the cabinet from above and whipped cream out of the fridge across from the stove. Placing all of items onto the counter by the Apple pies, Mrs. Steel took the knife and the plate and cut a large piece of Apple pie and placed it directly onto the plate. After fiddling with the whipped cream container lid, Mrs. spooned the whipped cream onto the top of her pie. She looked at the decadent desert and her mouth watered. The gooeyness of the pie filling was sticky and fuming with the scent of spicy cinnamon and nutmeg.
“Oops!” Mrs. Steel declared. “…I forgot a fork.” She looked to Natalie with a goofy smile and retrieved a fork from the silverware drawer. Returning from her spirited flight to the silverware drawer for the fork she had forgotten, Mrs. Steel picked up her piece of pie, cut into the thick crust and took a bite. “This is really good, Natalie.” Mrs. Steel offered Natalie a bite of the pie, but her daughter refused. Once she was finished with her pie, Mrs. Steel retuned her full attention back to Natalie who was slumped in her chair bored and annoyed.
“Now, tell me what’s wrong, Nat.”
“There’s nothing to tell you. You already know everything there is to know. So, stop asking me what’s wrong!” Natalie said in offense. She stood up quickly and headed for the back door.
Mrs. Steel didn’t try to stop her daughter from leaving. If there was one thing she knew about her daughter, it was that Natalie was an explosive ready to go off on a moment’s notice. It was in Mrs. Steel’s best interest to leave Natalie alone, giving her time to reflect and cool down before she perused the problematic issue any further.