Madiha was my step-mother-in-law—my husband’s father’s wife. My husband’s mother passed when he was 16, his sisters, much younger, needed care. Needed a mother. Madiha became my father-in-law’s second wife. Madiha passed away suddenly last month.
My father-in-law lives in Alexandria, Egypt. He and I speak a few words in English over apps: “How are youuuu? Fine, Thankses. We love you! We miss youuuuu!”
Madiha spoke no English at all but she always wanted to talk to me. If we were on FaceTime we would wave like mad at each other. If we were audio only, I would say the few Arabic phrases I know how to butcher: “Jamila! Beautiful” and “Bhabk, I love you.” She would giggle like a girl. In my mind I could see her toothy smile, her bright eyes.
The few times I’ve been in my father-in-law’s house in Egypt she was no wallflower — no shy, burka-clad side car. She was bustling and in charge. She didn’t need to speak English instead she found a way with me — patting my behind, pinching my stomach, kissing my cheeks and waving me off with both hands when I tried to help in the kitchen.
As if. As if I could help any of the women of my Egyptian family cook a meal. Please.
After I was married, my own father very much wanted to visit Egypt to meet my husband’s family, now his family. My dad had been to Egypt many times for business and on two Nile Cruise vacations but now he was related. My sister-in-law’s wedding proved the right moment.
Outside of the formal events there were two dinners in the family home, just for us. The guest list was six total: my husband, myself, my father, my father-in-law, Madiha, and my husband’s middle sister. Out came plates for 20. Madiha’s spread included her special stuffed eggplant and zucchini — impossibly small baby vegetables stuffed with meat and rice and then baked. Mounds of rice topped with fried vermicelli. Yes, you read that right. Fried pasta on top of white rice. There were always three kinds of hummus and tahini dips accompanied by plates of bread. The main course was four different kinds of fried fish. Alexandria is on the Mediterranean after all! Fist-size fried calamari rings, two plates of thin long fish piled high, one plate of a big wide-eyed fish, and giant prawns.
I put three calamari rings and one of each fish on my plate. Along with the rice and side dishes. I cleaned my plate. “What aren’t you eating?!” Madiha demanded in Arabic, my husband translating while he filled my plate and my father’s plate again. My standard answer, “We can’t eat more! We’re Americans!” only made Madiha cluck in disbelief.
After dinner, it was time for her homemade cookies and presents. I gave my father-in-law an astronaut pen from Kennedy Space Center. I brought face cream and perfumed bath gels for Madiha and my sisters, along with some orange candy from Florida.
Madiha then disappeared into the master bedroom coming out with stacks of Egyptian cotton sheets, towels, and duvet covers. “Oh no, I can’t!” I said, looking at the bounty. Her face registered disgust again as she shoved nightgowns into my hands.
She had no concept, and no time, for my white, middle-American guilt. How dare I refuse her gifts?! My husband said as much in English to me. “She has picked these gifts out for you. From her heart.”
I would never go into a house in the U.S. and expect my host to ply me with gifts! I had no idea how to behave. But after being chastised, I recanted. I threw my arms around her. Then I held each gift to my cheek and felt the cool cotton.
When my husband visits home without me, he travels very light with just a carry-on. Madiha would come out from the bedroom with a stack of things to bring back to me. “No, no, I can only fit one thing!” He would say it each time. And each time she would go back to her room and come out with one thing, folded and ready for his suitcase. When he got back to our Florida home, he would present each piece. “This one is from Madiha, you know she loves you.” I would unfurl the nightgown and three more would roll out. She could not be stopped.
It is a miracle that I ever met her. Ridiculous that I would meet Mohamed in Egypt and two years later be his wife. It’s even more incomprehensible that my father-in-law would welcome me into his home, this American woman who took his only son across the ocean. I should have been shunned. Instead on my very first visit, my father-in-law met me at the door, “Hallooo! Welcome!” He enveloped me in a hug then passed me to Madiha who held me tight and fretted that I was not fat enough.
I sat in their living room while she passed a plate of cookies, date-filled wonders. When I asked what bakery they came from she beamed and patted her heart. Of course. She made all of these, four different kinds of cookies, for me.
I will miss her bright smile. I will miss her sly gifts. Her raucous way in her home. Her laughing and pinching my fleshy stomach, “Too thin. Too thin.”
I have learned to cook many Egyptian dishes, each one captured in a photo and sent to her. Does Madiha approve?! Of the dishes I can’t make — the maamoul date cookies with their molded designs— and the dishes I won’t make — fried heart, liver and kidney — I will miss saying to my husband, “Don’t ask me to! Madiha will make it for you when you’re there!”
She was a woman who should not have stepped in to my husband’s home, except for tragedy and love. A woman who should not have welcomed me into her husband’s home. But she did. She stepped up and stepped in. She was wife, mother, and grandmother. Maker of feasts. Conjurer of presents. Life of the party. The mother-in-law I could never have imagined having, that I can not now imagine being without.
Categories: Alice's Voice