DOUGH ON HER FINGERNAILS

When my mother-in-law was in middle school in Beirut around 1946, she arrived late to class one day.

The teacher scolded her.

“You owe ten cents,” he said.

It had already been a long day for the 12-year-old girl. She was tired.

“No,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m not paying ten cents.”

The class went dead silent.

“And why is that?” said the teacher.

“I don’t have ten cents. And even if I did, it’s not fair.”

She was sent to the principal’s office.

When she arrived, the principal was working at his desk. She waited for him to finish writing.

Finally he looked up.

“Why are you here?” he said.

She was embarrassed and upset, but also angry. By nature she felt emotions intensely. Sometimes it was hard to gather her thoughts, to explain matters correctly.

But as she looked at her hands in her lap, she noticed something. She saw little traces of bread dough along the edges of her fingernails.

“Sir, I am sorry I was late for the class,” she said. “I woke up very early this morning. Our mother is in the hospital right now. She has pleurisy in her lungs. While she is gone, I am doing everything. I’m getting my one sister ready for school, and getting the other one ready to drop off at relatives. I get them dressed, I braid their hair, I feed them, I clean up. Today I had to knead the dough and take it to the bakers. Look, you can still see the dough on my fingernails.”

She held up her hands.

“It’s not a joke, what I’m doing every morning,” she said. “My classmates all live near the school. They can hear the bell from their homes. I live far away. It takes me 45 minutes just to get here. So I am very sorry I was late. But I’ve been running all morning. I’ve barely had time to breathe.”

When she finished, she looked at the principal and was surprised to see him looking down. It seemed as if he was pretending to look at papers on his desk.

He reached for a slip of paper, wrote a short note. He held it out for her, still not looking up.

“Give this to your teacher,” he said.

As my mother-in-law walked back to class, she felt relief. The anger and shame from the classroom scolding was gone. She had dispelled those feelings by speaking her mind, by giving the long account of her morning activities.

She felt happy and vindicated, yes, but there was more. The principal had looked away from her in order to conceal that his eyes had welled with tears. Her words had moved him to tears!

That was really something.

She thought about it as she walked back down the hallway to the classroom. She was holding a note which instructed that the 10-cent penalty be lifted and that no other punishment be implemented in its place.

My mother-in-law was not one for fake modesty or humility. As she entered the room, she knew her classmates were curious what the principal had said, what the note said.

But she ignored them. She walked to the front of the room, laid the note on her teacher’s desk, and returned to her desk.

Never mind the others. She could tell them the story later. For right now, she just wanted to show, with her cool and confident demeanor, that yes, she had won. There was no shame or embarrassment. She didn’t owe anyone anything — not an apology, not ten cents. She was ready to get down to work.

young nana2

My mother-in-law Cecile Keshishian, far right, with her parents and two of her siblings, ca. 1937

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, THE ARMENIAN IN-LAWS. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to DOUGH ON HER FINGERNAILS

  1. Sonia Keshishian says:

    Without our stories we are nothing a friend of mine would remind me .You certainly have captured the courage of a 12 tr old Cecille who will continue to tell more of her wonderful stories uniquely her own . She is a gem . Loved this .👍👍👍👍👏👏

    • kittroyer says:

      Covid has been good reminder to get all these stories down. For grandchildren and great-grandchildren and so on.

      Thank you for your generous and encouraging comments, Sonia!

  2. Great story. My child is that age and I can’t even imagine her having to be such a grownup. My dad left home at age 14. He grew up in Japan, all kinds of stories about not having enough food.

  3. jake says:

    Wow! What a beautiful human tale. Thanks for sharing, Kit.

  4. Ryan Ole Hass says:

    It is truly amazing the tremendous resposibilty so many have shouldered long before us to make it possible for us to be here today. Certainly it does not surprise me the incomparable Mrs. K was one of those people, but I would have never known due to her humility and selflessness. I wish I had amazing stories of my family before, during and after migrating to the USA to create a better life for generations to come. It is sad that our country, that was founded and built on the backs of immigrants of all colors, many if not most fled persecution in their home countries, still has so much work to fight systemic racism & institutionalized discrimination. I am confident that if we had a few strong/courageous/resolute (take no S) people like Mrs. K in our local, state, and federal government’s leadership, we would be way better off.
    Please keep these inspiring stories coming…maybe they will end up in a book about Dr. and Mrs. K??

    • kittroyer says:

      Thank you so much, Ryan. Immigrants have so much to teach about our OWN country and customs and beliefs. They are a huge resource, if we will be open to it. It’s one of the things which broke my heart about Trump election in 2016 – there was a heavy, consistent anti-immigrant theme. Thank you for taking the time to read my post and comment on it!

  5. Julie McBride says:

    I absolutely love the articles that Kit has written about my dear friend Cecile Keshishian. They have each shined a spotlight on separate incidents in Cecile’s life that define her uncompromising strength and moral integrity. These traits have guided her as she became a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother and successful in all of her endeavors. However, it is Cecile’s strong, loyal, loving, fun personality that have made her a great friend to everyone that she knows. And that smile. Don’t forget that smile of hers. It will melt your heart. Kit has captured the essence of her character in his stories and left me wanting to hear more about Cecile each time I read about her.

    The story entitled Down There in the Woods showcased Cecile’s desire to help a young woman that was in distress. At that time, Cecile had just immigrated to a new country and did not even know the woman. All she knew was that the woman may be in danger and needed help on a dark night. Without missing a beat, Cecile spoke up and immediately offered to assist the young woman without regard to any of the danger or repercussions that her involvement may have in Cecile’s own life. The story does not surprise me as I have seen Cecile stand up for her rights, and the rights of others, time and time again throughout the years that I have known her.

    The second blog, “Dough On Her Fingernails” is so real and compelling that I felt like I could actually smell the dough on Cecile’s nails as I was reading. The story shows that even as a 12 year old girl Cecile had enough wisdom to know that she was being wronged by the principal…and the courage to do something about it. Instead of accepting the blame and discipline for actions that didn’t warrant them, Cecile stood up for herself. Once again, in the face of possible negative consequences, Cecile spoke up and “won her case”. She would have made a great lawyer even then. She was right. Her responsible actions in taking care of her siblings during her mother’s illness did not warrant discipline and a fine but instead should have been praised. It was Cecile that taught the principal a valuable lesson that day. Cecile has been standing up for herself, and others, for 74 years since that time. Her influence has changed the trajectory of many lives.

    Cecile’s strength in the face of adversity in both stories transcends time. She has shown by her example that women (and men) of all ages can take control of their own lives and destiny, and the lives of others, if they are courageous enough to speak out when they see wrongdoing. As a result, Cecile has had a positive effect on hundreds of girls, women, and men in her life.

    I hope that Cecile and Kit will corroborate on a book. It would be a best seller. Cecile has a world of experiences and life lessons to share and Kit has the writing expertise to make them come alive. I ‘ll buy the first copy!

    • kittroyer says:

      Wow. What a beautiful, thoughtful response. There’s a lot here. And you bring even more questions to my mind to ask her. Thank you so much for this. I will re-read this a couple times at least. I will also print out and give to her when I see her tomorrow. Thank you, Julie! Your response is beautifully written and really helpful. Best wishes, kit

  6. Dr. Silva Karayan says:

    Cecile is a remarkably intelligent lady full of enthusiasm, who loves to share her rich life experiences with infectious energy. Her fascinating real-life stories teach, inspire, and empower everyone.

    The love for her friends and her readiness to help and support them is admirable. She is an amazing role model for the rest of us. A truly remarkable lady who has the courage and confidence to stand her ground and speak up her mind.

    A recurring theme running in the two stories, “Down There In The Woods” and “Dough on Her Fingernails” is that, people of all ages can take control of their own lives and destiny, and the lives of others, if they are courageous enough to speak out when they see wrongdoing and injustice.

    Cecile has won the admiration of the younger generation of Armenian ladies who look up at her as a source of inspiration and empowerment. She teaches by example. She is a Gem.

    Please keep these inspiring stories coming. You have skillfully captured the essence of her character with your amazing professional writing style, which is the “Pudding on the Cake”.

    Silva Karayan, Ph.D.

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