Alice's Voice

Mourning the Loss of a Woman I Should Never Have Met

 

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.

Madiha and I ready for dinner.

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. 

My father-in-law on the left, my father in the middle, my husband on the right with my husband’s uncles at the wedding celebration in their home.

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. 

6 replies »

  1. There are not enough words to thank you enough for writing and sharing this remarkably happy family story, with a beautiful but sad ending.
    I have always wanted a large happy family. My father’s family was older, and I’d never met my grandfather. My grandmother was ill the few brief years I knew her. My dads brothers and sisters were not close. I was a third child born later in my parents life.
    My mom’s family was all much older. I’d never met my grandmother or grandfather on her side of the family, although my mom and my favorite Aunt spoke so lovingly of her. She was my moms only sister. An older sister who I adored being with each time we were and those occasions I’d get to spend time with her and her husband (my uncle), on their small farm. They adored us kids and I was the youngest, who got the most attention. They didn’t have children of their own, and in those days you didn’t ask why. I just knew I loved her and my uncle with every fiber of me. She taught me how to bake her many kinds of fancy Christmas cookies with her along with cakes and everything the holidays were known for. In the summer I spent time with them on their farm, where they had a few cattle, chickens, rabbits, and grew all kinds of fruits, and vegetables and so many different kinds of flowers growing! My Aunt was as beautiful on the outside as she was inside and my uncle adored her. Everyone did. You could see it in his face and eyes and you could easily see their admiration for each other in their wedding photos, and such. It wasn’t until after my own two marriages were sadly both over and my daughter married with 3 beautiful granddaughters, that in reminiscing over days gone by and had my own parents wedding photos alongside my Aunt and Uncle’s wedding photos, (both after WW11), that I saw something much different in my Aunt and Uncle’s photos that was not apparent in my parents that have since that day I made the discovery, changed my life in different ways.
    The difference wasn’t something most anyone would ever notice, (me too), but on that day I could see plain as day the love in both my aunt and uncles faces and their body gestures towards each other like never before. It was absolutely the most enormous presence of a love so deep, that I hoped the photographer had seen it through his lens. It was as if they didn’t notice their photos were being taken. Their looks at each other vs the camera. I did not see any of those same kind of loving glowing faces in my parents photos. Not one. My parents made a very good looking couple, there was no question of that. My mother and my aunt had few similarities in features through their lifetimes. Both my uncle and dad were both gone in the late 1990’s. My dad only 77, when cancer took him in 3 weeks. Both my mother and Aunt were here much longer, but my aunt the eldest passed peacefully at 99. My mom several years later at 94.
    I’m telling you all this because they were for me, the “happy” in my families, for as long as I can remember. Not that my own family growing up was not, but it lacked a lot in comparison. Then my own two failed marriages along with the hurt and pain those often bring, there are very few times I spend time with any family remaining, all for different reasons. I will always cherish the time with my Aunt and Uncle and felt so special with them everywhere they took me they bragged and doted about me. Something my own family did not. I passed that onto my daughter as I was very proud of her and my love was always with her in person or not. I can’t say my parents didn’t love me, but I can’t say I felt loved very often and that made me sad then and even more when I first realized it.
    I guess what I’m saying is we don’t always know who “family” is all the time, but we do know who makes us and things feel like family as this wonderfully remarkable woman did for you in your life for all the years you knew her, and that’s something so special that doesn’t happen every day anymore. I love the photos you shared. Such robust and happy joy filled people! I’m also glad this was the email that stood out to me this morning when I’m feeling so down today about too many things to count. When it hits it hits hard and all at once sometimes. I’m so glad I could put aside my worries and tears to stop and read your beautiful story and was able to feel the feelings you shared about the foods, her pinches, and laughter. She was indeed a woman much loved by so many and I’m thrilled that you were one of them.
    Thank you so much! ✨🌻💫

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    • Thank you, Nancy for sharing your story. As our sister Siren Lisa said to me, “May you all have such a force of love in your life. Or better yet, let’s be that force.” Even when we don’t have that love, we can be that and I’m so glad my story gave you courage.

      Like

  2. I can so relate to your post, having also had an Alexandrian father-in-law! Sadly, Fouad passed on in February 2002, but we were lucky enough to be there for his funeral. (What a difference, weatherwise, from my first visit there, which was in the summer.)

    Shoukrun for this lovely piece, which brings back so many fond memories for me!

    Like

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