My mother-in-law left this world and a huge void in the lives of those she loved and who in turn loved her, at 09.15 on Saturday 2 January, 2016. The previous year her life had been slowly winding down but she kept us guessing anyway. She had several periods where she seemed so poorly that it looked as if she was on her way out and then, several days later she was sitting up commenting and making remarks that made the family laugh and feeling relieved that she was going to be around for a while longer.
She didn’t have an easy life, far from it. She never learnt to read or write, lost one eye when she was very young, her parents divorced around the same time and she never saw her mother again as she died not that long after, she buried two husbands, several children, lived through the Second World War, the War of Independence, the years of terrorism here in Algeria, several frightening earthquakes and the big flood and landslide that roared near her home and decimated so much of her area. She also brought up 5 step-children and was cheated out of two inheritances, one from her father and one from her first husband. And for the 29 years I knew her, she was calm, contented with her lot, never lost her sense of humour, loved her own home and was the center of every family gathering.
When I met and married my husband I had absolutely no idea of how things were done in Algeria, and how much the women, especially the mother and the sisters, are involved in the choice of wives for their sons and brothers. I cannot imagine how she must have felt when my husband returned to tell her that he was getting married…not only to a complete stranger…..but a foreign, non-Muslim one at that. I might as well have been French for all she knew! When I first met her two years later on my first visit to Algeria, not for even one minute did she give me any inkling that I was not whom she would have chosen for a daughter-in-law, but instead she and the family welcomed me and made me feel at home and tried to accommodate me as much as they could. Many years later after we had moved here, at an engagement party, the women were talking about how they had chosen their daughters-in-law and she commented on how well she had chosen hers, when my daughter piped up and reminded her that she hadn’t chosen me. She replied, that it was true….that she thought she had lost her son, my husband, but….that I had brought him back. Being a mother now and especially having a son of 23 years old which is about the age her youngest left to travel to England for the first time, I cannot imagine the number of sleepless nights she must have had. When my son wanted to travel to Bejajia which is about 3 hours drive away to stay with friends, a few years ago, he was instructed to ring me when he got there, every day he was away and before he left to drive back!
I could not communicate in any meaningful way with my mother-in-law except with the help of a third person (despite the fact that she proudly would tell everyone that we could communicate fine! So I must have obviously been nodding the right nods in the right places!), but I didn’t need to understand Algerian derja to feel the love she had for me, and which was reciprocated. Many times when we visited I would get the children to ask her questions about her past, and they were so enthralled at the stories of her life and a time long gone. Once one of my husband’s nieces asked him how she lost her eye, he told her to ask me……because I was the one who got all the information out of her!
Soon after we moved to Algeria, my husband and his brother and wife and niece visited my mother-in-law and sister-in-law one Friday. When my husband returned he was laughing at something she had said - ‘I feel sorry for Evelyn’. When my husband asked her why on earth she felt sorry for me, she answered ‘because she doesn’t know how to rule you’. After living here a while I had some inkling of what she meant. Algerian women may seem docile and unquestionably obedient to outsiders, but everyone knows they really rule the roost….by all means necessary at their disposal! My mother-in-law never saw me getting angry with my husband, losing my temper, and so just assumed I was a doormat, one for whom she felt very sorry! She did try her best to urge me to be a bit more assertive, but I’m afraid these efforts went right over my head, not necessarily because I’m thick (there are those unkind enough who might dare to differ!), but because I didn’t need to learn ‘to control’ him….we had learnt to rub along together fine over the years, and neither of us was one for airing our dirty laundry in public. I remember one time when my husband and I were visiting and the adhan for the dhuhr prayer called out. She turned to me and said ‘you’re going to lose him to Younes again’. Younes was the Imam in the mosque across the road, with whom my husband had many a long chat after the prayers were finished. It never bothered me as often these chats were based around the religion of Islam and made my husband happy, unlike other conversations that brought him down. My husband and sister-in-law started laughing together and then my husband explained to me that my mother-in-law was trying to get me to do what she normally did – shout at him and tell him to not delay after the prayer chatting and to come straight back! I think after a time she realised I had a backbone and could manage fine on my own, but it was always nice to know that she ‘had been looking out for me’!
Before we bought our home here in Algeria, we bought a car first in order to get around, and when my husband drove it to show his Mum, she admired it and then said ‘but Evelyn won’t be happy until she’s in her own home’. The first time I ever drove here in Algeria was when my husband had to go to England for 3 months, and I can still remember how nervous I was about driving the children all the way into to visit their grandmother and aunt for the first time ever. I was amazed at the reaction of my mother-in-law - she just kept on kissing me and saying ‘you don’t need him (my husband) now, he can stay over there, as you can manage fine without him’!!!! Another time I climbed the 156 or so steps up from one part of Bab El Oued to the area in which she lived, and when I came in the door I was red faced, breathless and had the shakes for a glass of water. My two sisters-in-law were laughing at me but my mother-in-law told them off saying that I wasn’t used to those steps…….nothing at all about her two daughters who not only came up those stairs on a regular basis and who were older than me but often carried kilos of semolina!
Another time she and my two sisters-in-law and my husband’s sister-in-law came earlier than expected for coffee so I made a quick impromptu lunch which included pasta salad. One sister-in-law was not too keen on cold pasta while the other was ok as she had had it in England but as neither of them were great pasta eaters anyway, they only had a little and ate the rest of the food instead. My mother-in-law, though was another story – she told me that she would eat pasta hot or cold, with sauce or without sauce….any way it came! And then she went into raptures later over my doughnuts, she just made me feel such a success!
She never received anything from her rightful inheritance from her first husband and her stepmother ensured that she received nothing of what was rightfully hers from her father’s estate. She remained in contact with her half-sister and half- brother, and her step daughters from her first marriage, and she treated her step sons as her own sons throughout her life. Once her half-brother said that he remembered that time when she came with her little girl looking for somewhere to stay and how helpless he felt when his mother sent her away as he, himself, was still young. He also commented on how part of the land he owned belonged to her. For her part, the past was gone, she had what she needed and she was content with it and she didn’t want anything from anyone, but just good relations with everyone.
I brought my two sons and my daughter to see her and she was now too weak to sit up so she just lay on the divan which they call a ‘canopy’ here – she lay with her back to us so I thought she was sleeping and left her alone until I was leaving when I leaned over her and told her who I was and that I was going, she picked up her head and turned to give me a kiss and I knew she was aware that it was me. That was the last time I saw her as she passed away 6 days later. I thank Allah for blessing me with such a wonderful, kind and supportive mother-in-law who, in so many ways, has been an inspiration to me.
It is a testament to her that her grandchildren from her step sons (her step sons had since all passed away) and her step daughters (only one of whom is alive and is very unwell) as well as her own grandchildren and great grandchildren all attended her funeral along with her children, her daughters and son in law, her sister, her nieces and nephews and neighbours, past and present.
As my daughter, Sarah, summed her up so beautifully and so aptly ‘And how few of us on our deathbed can be as certain as she was that everyone loved her and would pray for her, because she never wronged anyone, and she always forgave those who wronged her.’
May Allah have mercy on the beautiful soul of ‘Mani’, forgive her all her sins, make her grave wide and spacious and grant her Firdous. Ameen.