I grew up in a small ranch house on the east side of Detroit in a neighborhood known as “Copper Canyon” because so many cops lived there. My dad was one of them.
My mother was very hospitable, and it was common for us to host family gatherings, welcome people who were in transition and take in sick relatives.
It was also common to walk into our kitchen and see my mother with one of her friends or a neighbor sitting at the kitchen table, each with a cup of coffee in front of her. The other women would usually be crying, and through muffled sobs I heard the same lament time and again, “I don’t know what to do.”
Some of the women would try to pull themselves together when I entered the room, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs too damp to absorb any more tears. I am sure they thought the subject matter was not appropriate for a child, but my mother would assure them that it was ok. She was teaching me a lesson, something I was not learning in school. I watched. I listened. I learned. “This is what life is like for a woman,” I remember thinking.
My mother would empathize and console them, but the truth was that there was nothing she could do about the black eyes and bruised bodies of the women who sought her help. She could not protect them from their abusive spouses or quell their fears about what their husbands would do to them “the next time.”
One of my mother’s friends was astoundingly beautiful and as glamorous as Marilyn Monroe. She was tall and thin, with porcelain skin and long, curly blond hair which she piled on top of her head. And there she sat, tears smearing her mascara, lamenting, “I don’t know what to do.” I was mesmerized by the contrast of her pure white skin and the dark purple blotches. I could not take my eyes from her marred beauty. If she, as beautiful as she was, could be so mistreated, I wondered what hope there was for me.
Beauty, I learned, did not exempt one from abuse. Nor did being kind, caring, generous, thoughtful, capable or any of the other positive attributes I observed in these women.
I knew from my dad that cops were reluctant to respond to domestic disturbance calls because the situations were so volatile. Add to that the code of silence among cops and I understood that no cop would respond to a domestic disturbance call from another cop’s house—it just was not done.
Being married to a cop, I learned, meant other cops stayed away.
The only help for these battered women was this informal network that offered a safe haven, if only for a few hours or a few nights.
I watched my mother welcome women into her kitchen and offer coffee and compassion; and I learned that sometimes that is all we can do.