Painful Secrets
by Judith Freudenthal
1996, revised 1999

"Natalie, you're going to make me late. Hurry up, " Robert Lambert shouted up the stairs. He knew it wasn't like his daughter to be late.

"Can't I stay with mommy today? I promise to be a very good girl," Natalie said, from the top of the staircase. "I don't want to go to grandma's."

"Mom's too sick for you to stay here," Robert said, knowing this was not easy on any of them. "Go kiss her good-bye."

Five year old Natalie traipsed into her mother's room, climbed onto the bed and gave her mom a huge hug and kiss. Amanda's wavy chestnut colored hair was very much like Natalie's, as were her large green eyes. Amanda's illness left her pale and weak with dark circles under her eyes.

"Thank you, Natalie. I'll see you later. Remember I love you," Amanda said as she hugged her daughter and kissed her on the cheek.

"You're welcome, mommy. I love you too."

Natalie somewhat reluctantly climbed down and went downstairs to where her father was waiting by the door. Robert was trying to keep a hold of the squirming two year old Richard.

"Do you have everything?" Robert asked Natalie.

"Yes."

 

Robert escorted his children to his mother's front door like he did every weekday morning.

Mary Lambert opened the door as soon as she saw them approach. She was of average build with short gray hair.

"Hi Robert, Natasha, Richard. Come in."

"Hi, Mom. I can't stay. I'm running late as it is," Robert said, as he kissed her cheek.

"Honey, do you ever slow down?"

"I do sometimes. Right now I'm in the middle of a major project. The deadline is less than a week away and we still have way too much to do."

"I hope you will take a breather afterwards."

"I will," Robert said, pleased that his mom was still looking out for him. He kissed her cheek before turning towards the street.

Mary escorted the children into the house. Natalie was unsure what was going to happen. Things used to be great, but these days anything could and often did happen.

"How's my Tashka today?" Mary asked warmly.

"Okay, Nana."

"Would you like to help me make some cookies today?"

"Okay," Natalie said, her eyes brightening. She liked making cookies because then she got to eat them.

"How's my Richie?"

"Good."

 

Natalie tried to crack an egg for the batter and spilled it all over, not having perfected all aspects of her fine motor skills yet. She looked up at her grandmother with some fear in her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Nana," Natalie said genuinely sorry, with a hint of fear mixed in.

"Didn't I tell you to wait for me?" Mary asked, growing annoyed with her granddaughter's eagerness.

"Yes, but I wanted to show you I could do it."

"Why don't you clean it up. In cooking the one who makes the messes should clean them up."

Natalie climbed up on the chair by the sink and found the dishrag. She squeezed it out, like she had seen her mother and grandmother do and headed for the counter. She climbed up on her stool and wiped off the counter, accidentally knocking into the flour which went everywhere.

Mary snatched the rag from her hands, smacking her across the cheek with her hand.

"Didn't you see the flour?" Mary asked very annoyed.

"Yes. I didn't think I would hit it," Natalie said fighting back her tears.

"Cooks have to be careful in the kitchen. They always have to be observant. Go play while I clean up the mess."

"I'm sorry Nana," Natalie said sadly as she left the room.

 

Natalie wandered into the bedroom she usually used and hid in the corner. She sat there her knees pulled up tight against herself. Tears silently ran down her cheek, which still stung slightly. Fear showed in her large dark green eyes.

 

Mary finished the cookies on her own, after cleaning up the mess. It had taken the entire morning. For lunch Mary had fixed Natalie a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich and glass of milk which she set on the table. She had Vienna sausages for Richard as they were soft enough he wouldn't accidentally choke on them. She had his milk in a lidded toddler mug so he wouldn't spill it.

"Natasha, come here. Bring your brother."

Natalie reluctantly entered the kitchen, still a little afraid, holding her brother's hand as he toddled into the room.

"Yes, Nana."

"Eat your lunch and then you can sample the cookies."

"Okay."

Natalie hungrily ate her lunch and then ate several of the sugar cookies before Mary pulled the plate away.

"That's enough. I don't want you bouncing around full of sugar. Why don't you go play. Put your brother down for his nap first."

Natalie knocked over her chair as she got up and found herself getting another hard smack, this time on her butt.

 

Natalie tucked her brother into his bed before she headed for her room and the corner. She liked the corner because she was safe there. No one could sneak up on her.

Some time later Natalie pulled out one of the new beginner books her dad had bought her the other day and started to read, still seated in her corner.

 

Several hours later her father entered her room and saw her lying across the bed reading.

"Hi Natalie. Ready to go?"

Natalie nodded as she shut her book, climbed off the bed, put her shoes back on and grabbed her bag. She also gave her dad a big hug which he returned.

"Did you have a good day?"

"We made sugar cookies and I read two of my new books."

"Sounds like you had fun."

Robert scooped up Richard on the way out.

"Hi Richie."

 

Natalie's whole body relaxed as soon as she was buckled into one side of the back seat. She was going home. No one hit her there. Robert noticed his daughter's reaction as he was buckling Richard into his car seat on the other side of the back seat.

"Natalie, what do you say you, me, and Richie go to the zoo Saturday?"

"Yes. Can mommy come?"

"If she's feeling up to it. I thought we'd get ice cream afterwards."

Natalie smiled. "I like ice cream."

Robert knew that Natalie needed more attention than he could give her and tried to spend extra time with her on the weekends. For the last few months it had been just him and his two children because Amanda was growing sicker and sicker, requiring her to spend most of her time in bed.

Natalie loved spending time with her parents, but was sad because dad was so busy and mom was so sick.

 

Once home Natalie carefully peered into her mom's room to see if she was sleeping, pleased to see her reading. She opened the door the rest of the way, saw her mother smile at her and pat the bed next to her. Natalie ran to her mother and hopped up onto the bed cuddling up to her mother. Boy did her mother's hug feel good.

"How was your day?" Amanda asked.

"We made sugar cookies and I read two of the books dad bought me."

"Sounds like a good day."

Amanda detected something in her daughter's eyes that seemed out of place in her generally happy, loving child. She knew her illness was hard on Natalie and felt badly. But somehow Amanda knew that what she saw in her daughter's eyes wasn't related to her illness.

"Would you like me to read you a story?" Amanda asked knowing how much Natalie loved to be read to.

Natalie eagerly nodded her head and pulled their book off her mom's night stand. Amanda took the book and opened it to where they had left off. Natalie cuddled up and listened to the story.

This was the one benefit to her mom being sick, she got her all to herself while dad fixed dinner. Richie got her after dinner, until he went to sleep then she was all Natalie's again, until bedtime.

 

That night her father read her a story as he did every night before she went to sleep. He tucked her in before he began the story. He too had noticed something different about his daughter.

 

The next morning Natalie was stalling. She did not want to go back to grandma's.

"Natalie, we're going to be late."

"I don't want to go. Can't I stay home?"

Robert felt Natalie's forehead and didn't detect any signs of fever. Natalie didn't seem sick. Robert knew that this wasn't typical behavior for her.

"We've already had that discussion."

"Can't I go with you? I'd be very quiet. You wouldn't even know I was there."

"No. Is something wrong?"

Natalie knew she couldn't tell. How could she say that her grandma hit her? Mommy and daddy yelled at her when she was bad so she must deserve what grandma did to her.

"No," Natalie said defeated as she picked up her bag and followed her dad downstairs. Richie was once again in her father's arms and squirming.

Robert was starting to wonder why she did not like going to Mary's any more. She used to love it. She used to ask when she could see grandma. Natalie and Richie had been spending the day with grandma for the last year. It was only in the last couple of months that Natalie had begun to fight it, surprising him. He had noticed subtle changes in Natalie's personality, and not for the better. She had become more tense, nervous and even scared when she made any sort of mistake. She almost seemed afraid to enter Mary's and seemed in a hurry to leave when he arrived.

 

Shortly they arrived at Mary's doorstep, where he rang the bell. The door opened and Mary stood there motioning them in. Robert paid closer attention to his daughter's reactions to his mother. Mary was nothing but the loving picture of a grandmother. He gave his mother a kiss on the cheek.

"Hi Mom."

Robert gave his children a big hug and kiss on the cheek before he left. They returned the affection. Natalie seemed to hang on a little longer than usual.

Robert kissed his mom on the cheek and left. As he pulled the car away his thoughts from earlier reentered his mind. He began to wonder if something was going on that he should know about. He found the first pay phone and called in to work saying that family problems had sprung up forcing him to take the morning off.

Robert parked about two blocks from his mother's house and headed for it being careful not to be spotted. He looked in Mary's windows being careful not to be seen by those outside or inside the house.

Inside the house Robert saw Natalie sitting in the corner of her room with her knees drawn up to her chest crying, eyes full of fear. He wanted to rush in and comfort her but needed to know what was going on. He looked around and saw Richard happily playing with his blocks.

Robert moved around to the kitchen where he saw his mother picking up the pieces of a broken glass. He could see the milk on the floor. He knew that Natalie sometimes spilled things or knocked things over when she was excited about going somewhere or doing something special.

A while later all seemed to be fine. His mother and his daughter were playing a game. Richard was playing not too far from them.

After the game Natalie got up too fast and knocked over her chair earning her another hard swat on the butt.

Robert wondered if he should intervene. Wondered if it was the reason for the changes in Natalie. He knew he couldn't stay out there all day, but knew he would return. He had to find out for himself what was going on.

 

Robert entered his office but couldn't concentrate. What he had seen kept intruding on his thoughts. Seeing Natalie so scared bothered him most of all. He didn't think much of anything scared her. Natalie had always had more tomboyish instincts than most girls her own age. She even preferred pants to dresses except when going out for dinner.

Robert finished his most urgent work then ducked out of the office.

 

Robert arrived back at his mother's house early but did not ring the bell. Instead he peered in the window and was stunned by what he saw.

Mary and her granddaughter were baking cookies. When Natalie accidentally dripped some of the batter on the floor while showing it to Mary, Mary roughly grabbed the spoon, and slapped Natalie across the face with her hand.

Robert wanted to rush in there and ask what the hell was going on, but knew that it wouldn't get him anywhere.

He saw Natalie leave the room and followed her, finding her hiding in the corner again. At least he now knew why she did that. A memory came back to him. He remembered the last time he had become angry and yelled at Natalie how he had found her hiding in the corner of her room, exactly like she was now.

He knew he had to get his daughter out of there and decided to pretend that nothing was wrong, at least for now. He didn't want his children to be further hurt by his doing something stupid if he gave into the various emotions running through him at the moment. His children's well being was his most important consideration.

He walked around to the front door, making sure his face was neutral before he rang the doorbell.

Mary answered it showing no evidence of the anger she had directed towards her own granddaughter.

"Hi."

"Hi. You're early today."

"I finished early and thought I'd spend a little extra time with them before dinner."

"I'm glad to hear it. They're in their rooms playing."

When Robert entered his daughter's room he was nearly knocked over as she ran to him, practically throwing herself into his arms. He hugged her tighter than ever and felt her relax.

"What's wrong honey?"

"Nothing. Can we go home?" Natalie asked, her eyes begging him to take her home now.

Robert nodded his head as he scooped her up in his arms. He picked up her book bag, slinging it over his arm, and left the room.

"Mom, what happened?" Robert asked, being careful to keep the anger he felt under control.

"We were making cookies when she grew tired and didn't want to finish. I told her that cooks have to finish what they start. She ran into the bedroom. Maybe she's just overtired."

Robert couldn't believe the lies coming from his mother's mouth so convincingly. He'd seen just the opposite. Natalie had been enjoying cooking before she'd been slapped.

"Thanks for taking care of them."

Robert scooped up Richard and left before he did or said anything he would later regret.

 

Natalie was too quiet that evening. She stayed in her room. Robert peered in on her from time to time, concerned what sort of a long term effect Mary's behavior would have on Natalie.

 

Amanda was concerned. She had seen the difference even stronger in Natalie's eyes when she had seen her daughter before dinner.

"Robert, can you come here for a moment?"

Robert sat down next to his wife, concern on his face.

"What is it honey?"

"Is something wrong with Natalie?" Amanda asked concerned.

"I'm thinking about taking Nat to work with me tomorrow. She's always wanted to see where I work."

"Robert, what's wrong?"

"It's my mother. I'd noticed the changes in Natalie over the last few months and thought it was because of your being sick. She's been stalling, hesitant to go to Mary's lately. The other day at work I began to wonder about that and decided to see if there was something going on at mom's house. I saw her hitting Nat. Not just a swat on the butt either. For no good reason she slapped our daughter. She doesn't seem to have a problem with Richard."

"What!? Did you say anything to her?"

"No. I was too furious. She even lied to me, blaming it all on Nat. She didn't know I had seen her. She said that Natalie had left their cookie making because she was tired, when it was exactly the opposite. Natalie was having a great time until she dripped some batter on the floor and was slapped for it. Natalie ran into her room and hid in the corner, hugging her knees, scared and crying. I saw her curled up like that this morning after I doubled back. Nat's not going back there. She tried to tell us but we couldn't hear her."

"Natalie, can you please come in here," Amanda called out.

"Yes, mommy," Natalie said as she entered, hoping she wasn't in trouble for something.

Amanda patted the space on the bed in between herself and her husband. Natalie eagerly scampered up there. She saw the concern on their faces, and grew worried she'd done something wrong.

"Natalie, how would you like to come to work with me tomorrow?"

Natalie happily nodded.

"You'd have to be quiet. You couldn't disturb me unless it was important, like having to go to the bathroom. You couldn't wander around."

"Okay. I'll be quiet. I won't disturb you. I won't wander around."

"Natalie, I want you to honestly tell me what happens at grandma's."

Natalie hesitated. She looked down at her hands, and wouldn't look up at her parents.

"It's okay. We won't be mad at you," Robert said reassuringly.

"She hits me. Any mistakes I make she hits me. I try not to make any but..."

"It's okay. You do the best you can. We know that. It's not your fault," Amanda said soothingly as she wrapped her arms around her daughter.

Robert also wrapped his arms around Natalie. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"Do I have to go back there? I don't want to," Natalie said fearfully.

"No. We should've paid more attention to you when you said you didn't want to go back there. We didn't understand. We're sorry. Why didn't you tell us?" Robert asked, being careful to keep his tone gentle and reassuring.

"I didn't want you to get in trouble. I didn't think you'd believe me."

"I would not have gotten into any trouble. We'll always believe you, honey," Robert said reassuringly.

"Can I sleep here tonight?"

"Sure," Amanda said.

Both Robert and Amanda were worried. Natalie hadn't asked to sleep in their bed since she was three. Now, only the worst thunderstorms had both children wanting the safety of their parents' bed.

 

The next morning Natalie was dressed and ready to go when her father was. She looked quite relieved not to be going back to grandma's. Neither of which went unnoticed by Robert. He stuck her lunch, snacks and drinks in a small bag he carried.

"Do you have your books, crayons and paper?"

"Yes."

"You ready?"

"Yes," Natalie said with a smile.

Robert scooped up Richard. He was taking Richie to a neighbor's house.

 

As soon as they entered the office building, Natalie curiously looked at all the people and things around her. Before long they stepped off the elevator, onto the floor where Robert worked and headed for his office.

"Hi there. What's your name?" asked one of the secretaries.

Natalie looked over at her father, who nodded that she could talk to the woman.

"Natalie."

"Hi. Natalie."

"Robert, you have a cute daughter there."

"Thanks."

 

The day went pretty well. Natalie got a little fidgety near the end of the day so he took her on a walk around the floor. Once they got back to his office she was able to sit still and color until he was ready to leave.

"Natalie, you did very well today," Robert said and saw his daughter smile. "How about we stop off at the bookstore and pick you up a few more books?"

"Can we?" Natalie excitedly asked.

"Yes."

 

Earlier that day, Mary called Amanda to see why Natasha and Richie had not been dropped off. Amanda lied, saying that Natalie wasn't feeling well so they kept both kids at home.

When Richard and the children arrived home, Amanda told Robert about his mom's call. Robert put off dinner, gave Natalie and Richard a snack and headed for his mother's house.

 

Robert rang Mary's doorbell and was ushered into the living room by his mother. She noticed how he did not kiss her or even greet her. She knew that something was bothering him, but was not sure what it was.

"Robert, such a pleasure."

"Mom, have a seat. We need to talk," Robert said seriously. He was torn between being easy on his mother because she was his mother and telling her what he really thought of what she had done to his daughter.

"I hope Tashka, Richie or Amanda aren't too sick."

"No. They're fine. How could you hit your own granddaughter?" He asked, keeping most of his emotions under control.

"She's a headstrong little thing and needed to be taught discipline. I did nothing wrong. When will she be coming back?" She said, subtly blaming him for what she had done.

"She won't be unless there's an emergency." Robert said refusing to fall for her mind games. He knew there was nothing wrong with Natalie. She was a bright, curious five year old child. Her enthusiasm came from her natural curiosity.

"Will Richie be coming back?"

"No."

"Why are you punishing me for disciplining Tashka?" Mary asked confused.

"I'm not punishing you. I'm protecting Natalie," Robert said, knowing that his daughter's well being came first. If that caused problems well, then so be it. "We discipline her without hitting. It works well for us."

Robert left, knowing there was nothing to say that would change her mind.

 

The next day Robert tried leaving Natalie at home with her mother. Richard was again left with a friend because he needed more looking after than Natalie did.

Natalie spent the day playing in her room and keeping her mom company. She felt safe and secure at home.

The mother's helper noticed that Natalie was no problem. She was a very self-reliant little girl who wasn't afraid to try new things.

 

When that arrangement seemed to work, they decided to stick with it, at least for now. They knew it was what Natalie needed, if she was to heal.

 

Both Robert and Amanda could see the lingering effects on Natalie. They tried to counteract the effects of the abuse by giving her all the love they could. Still the damage remained.

the end

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