Moses had something to say about true justice
Judgments and Mothers
“You shall do no injustice in judgment; but in
righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”
My mother was far from what you would call a character. She was married at age sixteen. My father was the high school principal. He came up to her one day to give her a piece of paper.
“I’m in love with you. I will come to your house tonight to ask for your hand in marriage.”
These days he would be (rightfully) arrested. But he had a few things going for him. He had instilled a sense of pride and enforced rigid scholarship in this small rural school. He had organized sports teams that were successful at the state level. He had a reputation for being as straight as the firmest arrow. I think it’s fair to say that the town worshipped him.
My mom agreed to have him visit as a potential husband instead of as a professor. But let’s face it: the die was cast. For the first large chunk of their marriage she was the dutiful wife who followed his wishes, the same as she did when she was a student. She eventually became a successful college professor, yet she still handed her check over to him every month, and the money was spent as he chose. Same for the trips that we took or the leisure activities that we engaged in. To his credit, he never abused his privilege. But still…
At some point things changed. I don’t think that it happened in small steps. Maybe it began with the car. When we moved to a house that was beyond walking distance to the university, she bought a car. My dad had always refused to learn how to drive. He walked everywhere he went, or he took a cab, or he prevailed on someone to drive him where he wanted to go. He agreed to the car purchase because he thought that now he’d have a personal chauffeur to take him places.
Little did he know… The car was my mom’s ticket to freedom. She found new friends. She arranged to meet at restaurants that she’d never been to. She was gone a lot more than what she had been in the past. If my father wanted to be driven anywhere he had to stand in line, and often he was not the first in the queue.
Soon after the money followed. She stopped giving him her paycheck. She opened her own bank account. I thought that all hell would break loose, but there were minimal complaints from dad. Maybe because he figured that if he gave in on this aspect of the relationship he would get more rides. He was also getting older, and my two younger sisters, feminists to the core, exerted a much more powerful hold over him than the older three siblings had. He was forced to mellow.
Mom began to assert herself in other ways. I was not around for this development, so I was not prepared to deal with the debacle that I’m about to describe. I had come to Puerto Rico to visit. I called my sister Julie to see if we could have lunch some time. In those days Julie was a judge. She asked me to meet her in her courtroom shortly before noon.
I took my mom along. We came into the courtroom early. We had a chance to witness a case unfold. A woman was being sued by a local bank because she was way behind in her car payments. Let me elaborate. Within a few minutes it was clear to me that the woman was what Puerto Ricans call “una infeliz.” One of these people that never got a break in life, and was very unlikely to get one. Little education. Lacking social skills. Broke; her only job was an occasional babysitting gig.
Her former husband had been the breadwinner. At some point he decided to buy a fancy new SUV. She was thrilled with the purchase, but not for long. He would not let her drive the car; instead he used it to drive a girlfriend around; he would even lend the car to the girlfriend for days at a time. The girlfriend, excited by the fact that this man could afford such a nice vehicle, insisted that he should get a divorce. He complied.
Well: it seems that the man could not afford to support two women, three kids, and a fancy SUV. He stopped making payments. Unfortunately for her, the former wife had signed the SUV purchase contract, not knowing exactly what she was putting her name to when her husband told her to sign next to the “X.” Now the bank, a huge local business with dozens of branches, was coming after this impoverished and heartbroken lady for compensation.
Two sharply dressed lawyers represented the bank. An elderly man who appeared tired and uninterested was her counsel. The bank’s lawyers were trying to get her to admit that she had enjoyed use of the SUV to some extent. They were very rough with their questions. She seemed close to tears. My sister asked the bank’s lawyer to come closer to her.
“Not in my courtroom,” she whispered sternly.
The bank’s lawyer apologized and backed off.
When the arguments were done my sister declared a recess for lunch. She would pass judgment after noon.
As soon as her gavel hit wood my mom pounced up from her bench. She let herself past the little fence that separated the principals from the audience. She rushed to hug the defendant. Too late I realized what she was up to; I tried in vain to pry her away.
“You poor girl! I can’t believe that they’re doing this to you!”
MOM! You can’t do this! Come on; let’s go to lunch.
“What do you mean I can’t do this? This is where you get justice, right? Why do they want to torture this poor “infeliz?”
She pushed me away. She gave the woman another hug.
“Don’t you worry. You see that judge sitting there? She’s my daughter. I brought her up the right way. She won’t let these people bother you anymore.”
Mom, seriously, this isn’t right. We’re not allowed to even be inside this enclosure. Come on; let’s leave for lunch.
She pushed me away again. She walked towards the bank’s lawyers. I saw my life flash before my eyes; I tried to restrain her, but again I failed. She got within inches of one of the lawyers’ face and wagged her finger at him.
“Manganzones!” Now I looked for a place to sit down; for sure I’d be in jail that evening. “Manganzón,” in my opinion, is the worst insult that you can bestow on anyone in my country. In my mind a manganzón is a lazy, gross, disgusting piece of humanity who doesn’t work and sits around eating or drinking all the time. It’s not profanity, but on the insult scale it beats any comments that express doubts about your masculinity or your mother’s chastity.
“Manganzones,” she went on. “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Ganging up on a poor “infeliz.” What did your mother teach you?”
To my shock, the bank’s attorneys looked to the floor, as if they didn’t have the moral standing to look her in the eye. They walked away.
We had a nice lunch with Julie. After we ate she declared judgment in favor of the defendant, just as my mom had predicted. The bank’s lawyers did not ask for a mistrial.
I developed newfound respect (and maybe a bit of fear) for my mom. Don’t get me wrong: I always knew the kind of person that she was. I did not question her strength or her desire to help the unfortunate at any moment. But to go way out of her way to comfort a grieving soul and pounce on well-connected professionals took some guts. Needlessly risky, but that was her way.
As time went on my dad resigned himself to being the weakest voice in the home. After he had his stroke she cared for him hand and foot; many times I heard him express a level of gratitude and love that he was never good at manifesting. May they both rest in peace.