One night 50-something years ago, my mother-in-law was driving home to New Hampshire from Boston when she noticed two cars stopped along the highway.
She slowed down as she approached the two cars. One was a police car.
Nobody was in either car. My mother-in-law thought this was odd, so she pulled over and parked her own car nearby.
She got out and looked around. Down a slope in the darkness, she saw a police officer standing by a young woman by the edge of the forest. The woman appeared scared.
“What are you doing down there?” my mother-in-law called out.
The police officer said he was conducting a drunk-driving investigation.
“Down there in the woods?” my mother-in-law said.
The officer told my mother-in-law to mind her own business. He told her to get back in her car and move along.
She stayed where she was.
“No,” she said. “I’m going to watch.”
The officer instructed her again to get back in her car and continue on her way.
“No, I will watch,” she said. “I’m allowed.”
It wasn’t that my mother-in-law had free time on her hands. It was already past 11pm that night. Her young family was asleep at home. She still had things to do before she went to bed that night. But there was something she didn’t like about the situation by the roadside. Simply put, she was suspicious of the officer’s intentions.
My mother-in-law was not a lawyer, she wasn’t rich, she didn’t have a powerful or important job. Hell, she was basically still new to the U.S. She had been born in what is now Turkey and then raised in Beirut, Lebanon. She didn’t move to the United States until late 1968.
Nor was she physically imposing — just an inch or two taller than 5 feet, and thin. She spoke English with an accent.
But she stayed there on the shoulder of the highway and waited for the officer to finish the sobriety test.
The young female driver was not arrested, but she was still very frightened afterward and was trembling noticeably.
My mother-in-law approached and asked where she was headed.
“Manchester,” the woman said.
“Me too. Where?”
The young woman gave the address. My mother-in-law said, “It’s not far from where I’m going. I’ll follow you in my car, I’ll make sure you arrive safely.”
The young woman nodded, disoriented not just by the traffic stop, but also by this short stranger with an accent who had pulled over, confronted the police officer, and then stayed to watch the traffic stop.
No matter how many times I ask my mother-in-law to re-tell this story, no matter how many times I relay it to others, I remain stunned by the kindness, bravery, and frankly, the kick-ass, punk-rock spirit.
There’s a saying in Latin, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Basically it means, “Who guards the guards?”
If I were new to a country, low on my list of things to do would be: Stand up to the cops.
Also low on my list would be: Pull over in the dark to investigate two cars near a forest.
These acts would fall still farther down my list if I were a woman.
Even today, as a 51-year-old man and a lifelong citizen of the U.S., I doubt I would do any of this. But I come from a different background. Unlike my mother-in-law, I grew up in affluence, with all the advantages of social and political privilege. Not until I became a newspaper reporter years later did I start to realize that not all police officers can be trusted, that some may abuse their power, even to the point of, yes, rape.
My mother-in-law grew up in different circumstances. She was raised in relative poverty in the aftermath of historical atrocity. All of her grandparents were killed during the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to 1918, which claimed the lives of an estimated 2 million Armenians. As a child, even though she was born years after the genocide, she had recurrent nightmares in which she was chased across rooftops by Turkish gendarmes.
At a young age, she was already taking care of younger siblings, getting them to school, helping with cooking, walking 45 minutes to school, and just generally trying to help her family make ends meet. The childhood wasn’t easy. Along the way, she learned to stand her ground and speak up for herself.
I have not always seen eye to eye with her. An Armenian mother-in-law can be a forceful mother-in-law.
But I have always known where I stood with her. I’ve always known what she believed in. I’ve always known she will fight for family — or strangers even — when she feels they are being treated unfairly or are in jeopardy.
It’s not that she isn’t scared of anything. Plenty of things scare her. The difference is, she goes forward anyway, whether it’s learning to drive, moving to a new country, learning a new language, or yes, stopping to keep an eye on a police officer.
For all we know, the officer that night was doing his job honestly and correctly. But also, it didn’t hurt to have a witness. Sometimes extraordinary courage consists of just that — stopping to bear witness.
To me, the story is also a good example of what we, as lifelong Americans, can learn from more recent arrivals from other countries. My mother-in-law, having studied U.S. civics and government in preparation to become a citizen, knew that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, that even people who have been stopped by police have rights.
Of course, intellectually I knew the same. But what I didn’t have, having grown up in easier circumstances, was a visceral, streetwise sense of why those rights were important — vital even — and why those rights were worth insisting on, even if it meant pissing off a police officer.
My mother-in-law Cecile Keshishian turned 86 last week. She lives near my family here in Los Angeles. Her life isn’t easy. Her beloved husband of 58 years died in 2018. She is cooped up in her apartment, prohibited during COVID19 from visiting friends, hugging grandchildren, going to church, or stopping to tell strangers the most important thing in life — health!
But her mind is sharp. She stays current with the news. She remembers events from 50 years ago as if they happened last week. And she will always, always speak up.
Her message may not always be what you want to hear, but she’ll say it anyway. That’s how she was raised. That’s how she has lived her life. It has gotten her this far.
You could be a movie star, a janitor, a nurse, or the CEO of a major corporation, it doesn’t matter. Cecile Keshishian will treat you the same way. She’ll keep an eye on you. She’ll root for you. And yes, she will speak up when she thinks you’re going sideways.