Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Mother in Law

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.


  1. Great story, Susie. Her machine looks a lot like my mother's who loved to sew. I never got into it, no patience I guess.
    Good read. Thanks - Marcy

  2. susie..i am really enjoying your blog..i think you have such a unique experience/perspective being relatively new to the "magic kingdom"..i wish you the best on this new journey and i pray it is the best of experiences...i read your blog everyday!

  3. Lovely story. It just goes to show that "love" communicates without language, and that some of us are very lucky with respect to our in-laws. Lucinda

  4. Thanks, Marcy & Lucinda! I'm glad my story hit a resonant note with you both.

    Aliyah - Thanks for your best wishes & welcome to my blog. It indeed is a "magical kingdom" so far! I feel blessed.

  5. Susie,
    This is your best blog! I so can relate to being sentimental and treasure so many things that have been given to me. Not because of the monetary value but because of what it meant to the person that gave it to me. How wonderful to have a fabulous mother-in-law. Tata must be so happy to have her family complete now. God Bless her being married at 12 and giving birth at 13. Not too different from my husband's Mom. She was 13 and had him at 15 or 16. I believe my own grandmother was also 13 when she married my grandfather, who was already a Doctor from Missouri, so he had to be at least 10 yrs older than her. How did they do it? The woman is the glue of the family and it's amazing the strength that they possess. I've always said if people just got to know each other no matter our background, religion or what part of the world we're from we would be able to see that we're not that different.

  6. Hi Sandie - I'm so glad you enjoyed this chapter. I was so touched I thought others should know how lucky I feel to have the in-laws I do.
    I don't know how girls that young managed to grow up while being wives and mothers at the same time. And to be successful at it!They are very special.

  7. Hi, Susie of Arabia!
    What a delightful, touching blog! I enjoy all of them, but this one was particularly sweet. Of course, she couldn't help but love you!!!

  8. Thanks, Vicki - This was such an easy blog to write too - it just flowed out of me. I feel very fortunate to be part of this special family. They continually blow me away with their generosity and kindness.

  9. Very interesting to read... my eldest daughter is 12 and I cannot imagine her being married! Amazing how quickly girls had to grow in days gone by. The relationship you have with Tata sounds really lovely - cherish it. :)

  10. Susie:
    Like Sandie said, this is your best blog so far. Your mother-in-law is a remarkable woman. I got a kick out of the Singer sewing machine. I still have the Singer I bought for Pauline in 1947. It's in perfect condition. One of the few things we saved from the fire in '94.
    Love, Felix

  11. Thanks, Umm Ibrahim - I know I couldn't have handled being married at 12 either!

    To Felix - Thanks for the nice compliment. I loved that old sewing machine of Pauline's - glad to hear it's still around.

  12. I enjoyed the story of your mother-in-law. Can you imagine being a mother at 13? She must have missed Adnan so much all these years. She must be over the moon to have you all there. What does she think of Adam? I am sure she has many grandchildren but Adam I bet has become “special” to her.

  13. To Janna - I know that all her grandchildren are special to my MIL, but Adam IS different from all the rest. He is a loud, crazy American teenager. He does make her laugh and shake her head a lot!

  14. Susie, I am so happy for you! Your mother-in-law seems to be what everyone could wish for. I am sure you remember my mother-in-law, I wasn't ever accepted by her even after we had 3 kids and were married 25 years. My grandma used to have a sewing machine like that, I learned to sew on it, don't know what ever happened to it.
    Thank your mother-in-law from this Johnson family member for being so kind to you! Also can't believe Adam is so big now, still remember him playing with Jessica when she was 4 or so and he was a little older in Grapevine, Texas. Adnan said "boy those two should be married" :) Jessica is 14 now, but I don't think her parent would allow any kind of marriage at this point.
    Love you, Sabine

  15. Wow what a wonderful and moving blog! You're making me miss my half-english/arabic conversations with my mother-in-law. *WEEP*

  16. Oh, Susie, what a very toucghing story! what a very impressive and intelligent woman yout MIL is!

    I have two hand-sewing machines next to my very modern one: I love them! They are beautiful, and sew anything! I used to have to finish everything by hand due to the no-zig-zag stich, but otherwise they are perfect.

    I really enjoy your stories, I'm adding you to my blogroll :)

  17. Thanks to Sabine, American Muslimah & Aafke - I'm glad you enjoyed this story. My MIL is definitely a remarkable woman and I am truly blessed to be accepted by her. Thanks for commenting!

  18. Susie, excellent! I really enjoy following/reading your blog. What an awesome experience and you have found a way to relay all your experiences to the rest of us. I am Blessed to know you and receive your blogs! Take care.


  19. To Terri -
    Gee, thanks for your wonderful comments. you made my day! I'm tickled pink you are enjoying the blog.

  20. Hi, Susie, This is a heartwarming story. I am happy for both you and Tata because you have found respect and love in each other. She will teach you a lot of Arabic, but be careful about the the words you learn!

    Once I was sitting in a small group, speaking Arabic, discussing breast feeding, and I said a word my MIL taught me for "breast", and one of the ladies burst out laughing. I believe the word was "bizazz," a coarse word that must have sounded hilarious from the mouth of a foreigner!

  21. Hi Marahm - So glad you liked my MIL story. I don't know that word that you mentioned, but I'll be careful not to use it!!!

  22. Susie -- I love your blog and think you are a very talented writer - it really is fun to read your posts. I am an American woman who has been married to a Saudi man for 10 years now though we live outside of KSA.
    Many of your posts remind me of similar experiences/thoughts I have had during visits to my in-laws. I am glad you are enjoying your time there so far and wish you and your family all the best. Keep posting!

  23. To Anonymous -
    Thanks for the nice feedback. I'm so glad to hear you can relate and are enjoying the blog.
    Were you able to come to KSA on a Hajj or Umrah visa? Otherwise it would be pretty difficult for you to come! I know what I had to go through to get here!
    Thanks again.

  24. Aww...that little story of your MIL reminds me of my own emirati mother-in-lawww! Almost to a tee...soo cute! I enjoy your blog a lot! I just started reading it today thanks to Aalia chaser of jannah :)

  25. Hi I have my grandmothers sewing machine that comes from Italy Sicily it’s very old, my mom told me to look for it and then I saw yours and it’s the same exact one . I didn’t believe I was going to find the same one but I did...They say there’s only a small amount of these ones is that true?