DOWN THERE IN THE WOODS

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.

Mrs K ca. 1965

Cecile Keshishian, ca. 1966

About Kit Troyer

Kit Troyer lives in Los Angeles. He worked previously as a newspaper reporter and a criminal defense attorney. For the last 15 years, he has been a stay-at-home dad. But that gig is running out. Kids will soon be moving out and moving on.
This entry was posted in COURAGE, HEROES, THE ARMENIAN IN-LAWS. Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to DOWN THERE IN THE WOODS

  1. Heidi Richardson says:

    She sounds like my kinda Woman 🙂
    Thanks for sharing that story.
    Hope to run into sooner than later
    I’ll pass this story on ……

  2. Joe Ditzler says:

    Love this column. Your friend Greene has committed similar acts.

  3. Aleen Keshishian says:

    This brought tears to my eyes. Wow. You are the world’s most amazing husband and my parents have always thought you are the universe’s best son-in-law. In any argument you and I have had, they have always taken your side. And I have to admit, they were right. ❤️

  4. Ghita says:

    This was beautiful, Kit. What an amazing person. Happy Birthday, Mrs. K.

  5. Deb Steinbaum says:

    OMG Kit, at first I thought that this was a picture of Aleen at a costume party! Please give my love to Aleen and your family, and keep Mrs Keshishian safe! She is precious. And let her know that hers was the first and still the best baklava I’ve ever had.

  6. Kris Aposhian Anderson says:

    Is there anyway to send a private message to you?

  7. Wise Hearted says:

    It is good you are penning these traits about your inlaws down so the grandchildren and great- grandchildren, and even great great-grandchildren can read them. I am sure some will follow her in many areas. How we need women to stand up for other women even when fear floods us. Your wife comment reminds me of how my Mom saw my husband verse how she seen me. she trusted him more than me. He is not a confronter but he drips with the gift of mercy. He is the only one she let reconcile her checkbook. Lovely post.

    • kittroyer says:

      Thank you, Betty. You made my day.

      • Jane Davis says:

        Heart of gold, spine of steel, crystal clear conscience. This is Cecile. The irreplaceable
        heroine in my life and obviously that of another young woman from Manchester, NH.
        Over & over I review my life and ponder what other woman comes close but the truth
        is nobody can touch her. Whenever I am thanked by someone for whom I have done
        some small thing to help them along I always say ” others have helped me so I am now
        able to help you”. I’m referring, of course, to the one & only Cecibeau.

      • kittroyer says:

        Thank you, Jane!

  8. Sonia Keshishian says:

    I have always loved this story from my adorable Cecille . And now it’s in the system forever where your followers can stand open to a remarkable woman’s strength and always being her authentic self . Loved loved loved this . So happy I am now a member of your blog . Proud aunty sonson

  9. Ryan Ole Hass says:

    Thank you Kit for writing this and sharing her story. It is more relevant today than the day you posted it less than a month ago because of the conflicts & civil unrest facing our country due to the lawlessness of those sworn to uphold the law, to protect and serve. She is brave and more of us need to be brave like her. My childhood growing up here in L.A. is much different than yours, but we both have been inspired by her life and learned from her example.
    Mrs K. sent me this article because she is proud of the story, but even more proud of you and to have you as her son-in-law. Since she first spoke your name to me she has held you in the highest regard. She would be the President of your fan club if you had one.
    The first day we met I was the new management representative for the new owners of the building she and her family have long been residents. Let’s just say she was not nice and called me some names. Fast forward, she is better than my own family to me and I respect her more than I can possibly express. You and your family, and anyone who she has touched, are truly blessed. Her husband was one of the most kind people I have ever met, and I miss him.

    Let’s be proactive to create change and hope for a better future! ❤️✌🏽🙏🏽

    Keep the stories coming!

  10. Krikor Keusseyan says:

    Thank you Kit for your excellent writing about this “Cop’s” story, I mean about Cecile. It is so authentic, What a character! …This is CECILLE. She was always unique, courageous, transparent, as I knew her from the first day I met her in Beirut as the girlfriend of my best friend Kevork Keshishian, which was then student of Faculté Française de Médecine, future doctor.

  11. Susan Reckon says:

    I’ve got goosebumps reading your story about Cecile Keshishian, my former neighbor and forever friend. Her effervesce charms me; her kindness and generosity (always bringing me pastry) warms me; and her intelligence plus her love for learning inspires me. Mrs. K. embodies all that is good in America and in the world. Thank you for this opportunity to toast her with hip-hoorays and cheers.

  12. Hermineh B. says:

    Hi Kit, I read with great enthusiasm your articles regarding Cecile’s interesting life experiences. We always look up to Cecile for her confidence, infectious energy and how she instantly lights up any room she enters. Her readiness to help and teach those around her is admirable. In short, Cecile is the definition of class!

  13. Vahe Imasdounian says:

    Hello Kit;
    Enjoyed reading.
    I thought I knew Cecile quite well, looks like I am still ignorant about her courageous character.
    Many thanks for bringing up few additional highlights. An amazing person.

  14. Narineh Ryan says:

    This is some great story and very well written. I know Mrs. Keshishian for about 20 years and from the first meeting I knew she will fight for justice and protect the innocent. I read the first paragraph and already knew what she would do, sure enough, she stops and confronts the officer in the middle of the night. She is the kind of a person that makes an impact on people. Mrs. Keshishian, thank you for being YOU.

  15. Mary Najarian says:

    Thank you Kit for sharing this amazing story of Cecile . I have no doubts this is one of the many heroic events of Cecile. She is a woman with a heart of gold and an iron spine, and courage. Cecile is unique and no one could and done what Cecile has done in her life. I am proud to call her my very best friend. As I have said before “If you have to have one friend in life it has to be Cecile.” In cecile’s presence, like a child i feel comfortable and very supportive. She does not always say what you really want to hear but it is always the truth, and only Cecile has the courage to say it.
    Kit, I met you very first time at Kevork’s memorial. You gave a beautiful tribute, and I could almost hear kevork saying, “Mary, I told you my son in- law is special he is one of a kind.” I enjoyed every word you said, and sitting on the front raw, I could not help but watch Aleen, who never took her eyes away from you while you were speaking, and I could see the pride and joy all over her face. It was a beautiful memorial for my dear friend Dr. Kevork Keshishian who was made of love, and kindness from his toes to her head.
    Mary Najarian

    • Aleen Keshishian says:

      Thanks so much Auntie Mary! What a kind and lovely thing to write – about my mom, dad, and Kit. You are a loyal, kind, and generous person and we are lucky to cal you our dear friend.

    • kittroyer says:

      Thank you so much. This means a lot to me, coming from you. Not only are you a close and trusted friend of my mother-in-law, you are an extremely gifted writer. Aleen and I are both reading your book. We are amazed not only by the stories themselves, but also by your writing. It’s not easy to write simply and clearly. In fact, it’s hard and takes time. (In my experience anyway.) I can’t wait to read more of your book. The first 40 pages are remarkable.

      Yo

  16. Robert Hasserjian says:

    Kit: Thanks for sharing that beautifully written and moving account. Growing up in Manchester, I spent many wonderful times with the Keshishians. Cecile has had a great influence on me, instilling a respect for my Armenian heritage by showing me–not just telling me–the basis for this respect. She has a way of getting right to the bottom of things and summing things up in a way that is always accessible and understandable. . . and always with a great sense of humor! Cecile taught me several Armenian poems when I was a young teenager, patiently explaining the significance of each word and how to say phrases to inject them with meaning. Now I must admit, poetry is not my thing and my Armenien has always been pretty rudimentary (we had a lot of laughs about some of my awful mispronunciations!)–but 40 years later I remember those poems word for word. Like the ‘Phoenix bird’, they come to life as I recall them now, with all their complicated, vivid words, and they still bring tears to my eyes. Thank you Aunty Cecile for all you taught me!

  17. Carie Akaragian says:

    Wow! What a nice tribute!

    One of my favorite childhood memories was spending my summers in Manchester staying with Uncle Kevork, Aunty Cecile, Alex and Allen. They were the best Host and Hostess to me. Learned a lot of new things every summer while staying with them and I always had some good laughs. It was a lot of fun.
    Happy 86th Birthday!?Wishing you continued good health and many more Happy and Healthy Birthdays!!

    With Love,
    Cousin Carie

  18. Tarek says:

    Growing up in lebanon during the civil war i can say that circumstances like these either make or break a human being. It didn’t break Cecile. Having the pleasure to be in her company on several occasions last few years, i can attest to her perseverance , sharpness, and her impeccable sense of humor. I have always thought that the latter is a great measure of intelligence which puts Cecile in the same category as Einstein and Winston Churchill in my book.

  19. James T says:

    This is a fantastic blog, Kit! Mrs. K’s actions are inspiring. It’s remarkable what she did on her way home from Boston that night. She listened to her gut and had the courage to stand up to someone in a position of power, which takes great strength. It’s not always easy to stand up for what is right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We can probably all take a page out of Mrs. K’s book on that front (especially given the current state of our world). Please keep sharing stories like these!

  20. Justin W says:

    What an unbelievable story, Mrs. K! I can’t say I am at all surprised this is what you chose to do when confronted with this situation. You are one of the strongest people I know and this story just reaffirms that to me. If only the rest of the world could be as brave as you to stand up to injustices when they see them happening!

  21. Sarah Baley says:

    I have known Mrs Keshishian and often referred to her as simply Alek’s mother, not really knowing too much about her. Alek is my dear friend with a heart of gold and I’m so grateful to see a glimpse of who this powerful woman is. What an inspiring and beautifully written story about a woman of courage and integrity. I have a feeling she would do the same today. If we all were “guards of the guard”, imagine the impact. Cecile Keshishian is a force. I am so happy she shared this story with me. We all need to be like her. I’m so moved and inspired and understand why she is so adored.

  22. Brandy Menefee says:

    I love learning about Mrs. K through your beautiful writing and everyone’s thoughtful comments. She embodies my favorite qualities in a person: curiosity, generosity, and resourcefulness. Mrs. K is a force unlike any other — a natural producer leading with light and love, plus a passionate , unfiltered storyteller thirsty to learn and uplift.

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