Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A Lady is Gone

A lady died last night. She was a widow with three sons of her original five still surviving. On the first night of Ramadan it is traditional that children break their fast with their mothers, a tradition that is the source of infinite amounts of conflict in many Egyptian homes when both the wife and the husband want to have iftar at their own mother's home. In most cases, this is solved by going the first night to one mother and on the next to the other. Last night two sons joined their mother for iftar and then sat chatting after the meal when she retired to her room to pray the evening prayer after the meal. When she didn't come out after an hour or so, it was assumed that she was napping, as she was in her early seventies and not in the best of health generally. Later in the evening when the sons got ready to go home, they went into the bedroom to say good bye and discovered that she was sitting in the chair in her bedroom in the position of prayer. Her legs had long ago become too arthritic to manage prayer kneeling on the floor. Her head dropped to her chest and her hands on her lap, it looked as if she'd fallen asleep in her chair, but the sleep that enveloped her was much deeper than any nap.

My mother in law and I didn't always see eye to eye. She wasn't wild about the idea of a foreign wife for her much adored oldest son and we were very different personalities. Once we moved to Egypt, we learned to work together over the years. I became accepted along with some of my funny ideas about childrearing as time went on and my children showed themselves to be decent young people and very good scholars, a trait that is well-respected in the family. Overall, our relationship was very good, I thought, until my husband died and the extent to which I was different from the rest of the family became rather more noticeable. There were conflicts and frictions, and although I was told by many Egyptian friends that these conflicts can occur even with Egyptian widows and their husband's family, I felt more and more unwelcome. Over the past year we had spoken rarely and I hadn't seen her for some time. We didn't have a great deal to talk about together and the experience had become more and more difficult. I was still hit hard with her death, although it was just the death that she would have wanted, in fact had spoken of for the past few years. For a devout Muslim, which she was, to die peacefully at prayer during Ramadan is an end to be richly desired.

She was a strong-willed woman who married very young and moved far from her family in Cairo and Alexandria to live in Khartoum, Sudan, in the late forties. In those days travel between the two capitals of Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was a lengthy affair involving many days of train travel. She couldn't have been more than seventeen when she had her first son, with her second and third each following almost exactly a year apart in sequence. The first son was the victim of a fall on the train when the toddler fell, hitting his head, while his pregnant mother was caring for my husband who was an infant at the time. There was no medical help available until the train reached Khartoum a few days later, much too late for the boy. When many years later, she lost my husband unexpectedly she never really recovered from the loss. She often bemoaned the fact that a relatively young man had been taken while an old woman had been left behind. But who is to say how these things happen? Overall, somehow I think that they died their own deaths correctly.

She had my husband and three of his brothers to raise during the fifties and sixties in Sudan. They lived in a suburb of Khartoum known as Shaggara, or Gordon's Tree, where colonial villas were set on large lots. Her husband's family were rather well-connected, to say the least, as her sister-in-law was married to the President of Sudan after the split of Sudan and Egypt in the early 60's. My father-in-law, however, was an engineer in the Department of Irrigation and chose to move to Egypt when the division of countries occurred. When I first met them in the mid-70's, one of her sons was a career army officer, another was working in the hotel industry, while the third was still in secondary school. They were living in the upper floor of an old villa that had belonged to her grandfather, a musician to the Ottoman court and a founder of modern Egyptian music. Her mother, my husband's adored Momou, lived downstairs. The close proximity of the generations impressed me at the time. Later, the fact that my parents were both dead, my father before my marriage and my mother when my daughter was only a year old, but my in-laws were in Cairo was a deciding factor in our consideration of coming to Egypt. I wanted my children to have grandparents.

She was my husband's mother, she was my children's grandmother, and for many years she was the only mother that I had as well. This morning I did not go to her house to be with her sons and my son. I could not go. I should have gone. But my grief at losing so much over years of conflict and all at once, when she was finally taken as she wished to be, was simply something that I couldn't share with anyone. Somehow, I should have found a way to manage it, but I simply couldn't. Tomorrow the Quran will be read at a mosque in Heliopolis in your memory. I will be there for that. I'm sorry, Haboba. We may not have always liked each other, but I did love you.