Get your Sass Mouth on right here… This is Chapter 2.
“My mother wore the apron, the pants, and the gun belt in the family.”
Chapter 2 . FREEZE! POLICE-MOM
The wind blasted through the open window of our silver Chevelle as my mother launched a high-speed chase through our peaceful suburban Baltimore neighborhood. Other mothers wore platform sandals and carried straw purses. My mother sported steel-toed tactical shoes and packed a .38. Fresh from graduating from the police academy in 1975, she tucked her “Pat Eberstarker” name badge and county police badge in her purse, just in case. She was convinced crimes were constantly in progress, and that it was her duty to apprehend every criminal. Personally.
Technically we were undercover, disguised as a plain-clothes family returning from Fashion Quarter Mall. My 6-year-old brother, Bruce, and 4-year- old brother, Matt, dangled their pencil legs in the back seat. I rode shotgun, like a partner. We rounded a corner as the racing stripes of the red Pontiac GTO zipped through an intersection.
“Speeding bastard,” our mother growled, as she squealed wheels after the car. As we rocketed past houses, neighbor kids froze in mid-play like child mannequins in a Sears catalog. The Pontiac screamed up a big hill on Happy Valley Road while I dreamed of being a pre-teen version of Police Woman, tossing my hair like Pepper and mashing my lips together, pretending they were frosted with gloss. When our mother performed a law-abiding stop behind the sign, looked both ways, then floored the Chevelle up the hill, my brothers cheered, “Wooo!” until she barked: “You two, shut the hell up.”
When we caught up with the Pontiac, she flashed the high beams wildly, waving her gun and badge out the window. Only then did the Pontiac roll to a reluctant stop. Officer Eberstarker slammed the door behind her as we shuffled around making room for the guy, thinking there’d be an arrest. But all she did was talk nicely to him after all that because she was unable to issue a ticket since we were outside Ball County city limits where she worked as a police officer.
Back in the car, she switched the high beams off and spat, “Asshole.” Other kids in this situation perhaps would’ve sensed the quiet rumble of my mother’s anger and kept their mouths shut. Not me. After earning a “1” on my third grade report card for outstanding progress in oral communication, I mistakenly thought I was supposed to verbalize things clearly not meant to be said. Squaring my shoulders, I delivered what I thought was a smart question: “Aren’t you going to arrest him?”
“Shut the hell up, you stupid little bitch,” said my mother. “Or I’ll shut you up.”
I slid to the bottom of the bucket seat, stared at the silver cursive “Chevelle” emblem on the glove compartment, then whispered to my Bionic Woman doll the rest of the day.
The relationship between my mother and me was like the relationship between the mole and mallet in a Whak-a-Mole game: whenever I surfaced from a hole, she pummeled me. But sometimes my buck-toothed spirit would pop up again, triumphant, only to be hammered back down again. The results were mixed. Sometimes I’d feel permanently flattened and sink into a depressive hole for weeks. But as I got older, I’d find strong-willed friends who pierced my mother’s tough façade and stared at her straight, daring her to attack them too. She never tried. Seeing my mother temporarily reduced fueled me with the confidence I needed to furiously pop up in different holes, confusing her and rendering her mallet useless.
Opinions vary about which one of her children my mother disliked the most. I contend she despised me the most consistently, which turned out to be a good thing. Kids who are loved one minute then despised the next must be totally confused. At least I knew where I stood because she exploded at my every move. But still, hope that she would change her mind about me appeared to me as randomly as noticing a sparkle of dust in a ray of sunshine. Any hope vanished after the afternoon she walked the runway of a charity fashion show at my school with another little girl. It started when, after noticing other mothers volunteering in my third grade class, I asked mine why she never did. She seemed to soften for a moment, and to my surprise, started appearing as a class helper and fundraiser organizer. To the outside world she must have looked like a mother who cared deeply about her children. But this was a woman who forced her kids to line up at parties, saluting her as cocktail-wielding guests shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
Now, volunteering for the fashion show at my school, I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t surprised that other girls in my class were picked to be in the fashion show, since I was sure my mother was right – I thought I was too ugly. But nothing prepared me for the sight of my mother sashaying down the runway holding the hand of a “model” daughter – a daughter who wasn’t me. Pretty and smiling, each of them took careful steps and nodded to the audience as I went ballistic.
How come she’s nice to that little girl?
My grandmother held me tighter, mumbling, “Oh, I knew this would happen.” Adults around me pleaded, “Oh honey, you’re just upset because you wanted to be in the show.”
But the truth was, I believed my mother when she told me I was ugly and stupid and a flat-out terrible kid. Now she had found a replacement with way cuter hair and smarter clothes that she obviously liked better.
Throughout my life, the emptiness of not having experienced a nurturing, maternal love would stun me at the most random times, like when someone else’s mother told me to carry a purse that “matches, not clashes” with my shoes. Moments like those made me feel as out of place as showing up at a formal wearing cut-off shorts and a t-shirt. Moments like those, I found myself paralyzed with a “You’re not like the other girls” terror running through me.
And yet, no matter how much my mother disliked me, as her child, I was enormously proud of her. She succeeded at becoming a female police officer at a time when hardly any officers were women. Plus, it was pretty cool knowing that our mother was the only one on field trips packing heat. Soon our house transformed from daycare to outpost. She constantly monitored a CB as it blared in the kitchen. Small handguns suddenly appeared in drawers and a shotgun leaned against the wall in the upstairs closet. She seemed happy at first to shed her stay-at-home mom status. Eventually, she’d turn her police missives internally. Instead of being on a mission to find out who spilled Kool-Aid on the counter, she focused on crime prevention at home.
Convinced the word “child” was interchangeable with “criminal” and that her children were destined for cover profiles in “Penitentiary Life Magazine,” she set out to stop us before we headed for our inevitable lives of hard crime. But instead of using friendly childhood icons we could relate to, like explaining that The Cat in the Hat should have been charged for breaking and entering, or Mister Magoo arrested for driving under the influence, she forced us to watch real convicts on Scared Straight. Had we been past the ages of 9, 6, and 4, our introduction to crime probably would have been more productive. At 9, I was too busy watching Emergency! and imitating Randolph Mantooth’s eyebrows in the mirror to stage a hit on the Good Humor truck. Bruce and Matt were so involved baking dog turds in my Easy-Bake Oven, they weren’t planning to roll some kid for his Pet Rock.
Dad, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. Pat Eberstarker screamed; George Eberstarker barely talked. She hated her kids; he adored his kids. She was explosive; he was comatose. Professionally, she handled disasters as they happened; he handled the aftermath. But one thing was for sure: We knew he loved us. He packed our sandwiches every day, toted popsicles home on his lunch break when we were sick, and scooped us up in the middle of the night when we were scared. In the summer, he chased us around the yard with our friends for hours until the lightning bugs whipped us in the face. My friends wanted a dad like ours; I wanted a mom like theirs. Sometimes, he crossed the line and became one of us kids, joining in our battle against our mother and forming a kind of “I Hate Mom Club.”
Working shifts meant my mother slept for long periods of time, giving us ample opportunity to slip out of the house without her. By the time Dad got home, she was well into hibernation, preparing for her night shift. We piled into the 1972 Chevrolet Impala station wagon my parents called “Ironside” and drifted backwards down the driveway so she wouldn’t wake up. Then Dad drove us to the Charred Grill Diner, where we immediately launched into our re-enactment of a TV commercial that was running constantly advertising Steak-Ums, thin sheets of unidentified meat just perfect for sub sandwiches.
The spot featured a family sitting around a table at a restaurant politely giving a waitress their order. When our Charred Grill Diner waitress arrived, Dad scooted back in the squeaky vinyl booth in nervous anticipation as we sat up straight, held our laminated menus up high, and started our act.
“I’ll have a steak sandwich,” Bruce tipped his blonde head back and stated proudly.
“I’ll have a steak sandwich with cheese,” Matt said, with a cheeky grin through his smudged face. He was one of those constantly dirty kids like Linus of the Peanuts. Except he was as dusty as the blanket.
“I’ll have a steak sandwich with cottage cheese,” I finished, popping up in my chair just like the pig-tailed girl with braces on the commercial when I said “cottage.” My father slapped the linoleum table wheezing from laughing so hard.
“Oh, I get it. Steak Ums commercial, right?” Our completely unimpressed waitress cracked her gum and held her pen in mid air. “But is that what you really want?”
After cracking up at Matt bouncing his hotdog around and making it bark, we begged to stay out later to avoid going home and running into our mother.
“But she’ll make us go to bed early before she goes to work. I hate her,” I whined, setting off my father.
“Don’t talk about your mother like that,” he said, popping his straw down into his empty glass.
“Why?” I said, shocked at his reaction.
“Because she’s your mother. You’re supposed to love your mother,” he demanded, then slid out of the booth.
When we got home, our mother leaned against the kitchen counter, smoking a cigarette in full uniform with one hand on her gun belt. “You got dinner without me, didn’t you?” she demanded as she smashed her Virginia Slim into an ashtray and broke it clean in half like a kneeling scarecrow. As he stood in silence looking at her, she pounded her steel-toed shoes into the kitchen floor and slammed the back door so hard, the glass rattled. The three of us froze, looking to Dad for some kind of reaction. But instead of soothing the situation with a wise parental lesson, he said: “Want to watch Emergency!?” with the same kind of mischievous glint as if he had announced: “Hey kids, wanna blow up a banana with an M-80?” Just then, the Chevelle peeled wheels out of the driveway and spit gravel clear across Happy Valley Road.