Back in 1950, my husband’s mother Tata was married at age 12 and gave birth to my husband when she was only 13. Adnan’s dad was 21 or 22 when they married. At the time of her marriage, she had attained a 4th grade education. This was not unusual for that era in Arabia, but hopefully it doesn’t happen (much) in this day and age, except possibly among the remaining Bedouin tribes.
(Girls in the Kingdom now achieve at least a high school education. Some are married off then, and others continue their educations and obtain higher degrees at universities or even go on to get their PhDs. Even so, most still do not work outside the home.)
One day when Tata and I were sitting in her living room, she told me in her limited English a little about her experience.
“Me eleffen oh twelf years get married,” she said in her cute thick accent. “Mama and Baba kuh-razy! Me too young. Me baby!”
“Baby Adnan come after one year. Then baby, baby, baby after.”
Well before her 20th birthday, she had four kids.
She did not know her husband when they married. She was still playing with dolls. She told me that even though she had an older unmarried teenaged sister, Adnan's father wanted only Tata as his wife. It was, of course, an arranged marriage. But over the years she grew to deeply love her husband, who was a kind and good man. Adnan is the spitting image of his dad, who passed away right before we met 30 years ago. This, coupled with the fact that he is her first born, makes Adnan very special to Tata.
But Tata herself is very special. This woman with only a 4th grade education, who was married as a child of 12, raised four children who all graduated from college. (My husband has his PhD and his sister married a highly successful man who has his PhD as well.) This "uneducated" woman owns property, has managed her affairs by herself for the last 30 years, has a live in maid, loves to cook and learn, and has a great sense of humor. She is as generous as she is stubborn and strong. Even though my Arabic is very limited and her knowledge of English is not extensive, somehow we manage to communicate most of the time. She and I each try to teach each other new words and phrases. We enjoy each other's company and always laugh together.
Tata has an antique Singer sewing machine that she got shortly after her marriage. It is beautiful - well worn, but has been lovingly taken care of over the years, and it runs like a dream. It doesn’t even have a zigzag stitch, just a straight stitch and reverse. It is black with gold lettering and designs on it. The machine is heavy – it must weigh 25 pounds. I had to prove my sewing skills to her the first time I asked to use it, but now she lets me borrow it any time I need it.
My now-hairy 15 year old son Adam had been bugging us for months to get him an electric shaver. The other day, my husband came home with an old Philips electric shaver in a slightly tattered box, for Adam. The shaver itself is like new and works perfectly. I asked Adnan where it came from, as I haven’t seen any second hand stores around here. I don’t think they exist.
“It belonged to my father. Can you believe Mother has kept it all these years?” he said.
I caught my breath as tears came to my eyes and my throat tightened. I am and always will be a sentimental fool. This gesture, this kindness, this generosity! Surely this shaver was more than just an electrical appliance to her. The fact that she gave it to MY son and not one of her other grandsons spoke volumes to me and touched me in a way I cannot express. Nothing she could have done could have made me feel more accepted as a part of this family.
I always jokingly told people back in the states all those years that I was lucky I had no in-law problems because mine were on the other side of the world. Now that I have made the journey and am living right across the hall from my mother in law, I know what I have been missing.