Maryam spent the first eight years of her life shuttling between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. When she was nine, I married her father– her birth mom was not active in our lives– thus becoming her step-mom, and so she added the United States to her yearly route. The wonders of the West included cats that lived in people’s houses, yard rats with bushy tails, dozens of TV channels, her first bicycle, and chocolate chip cookies.
She had never tasted real, homemade chocolate chip cookies until my mother made them for her during our second annual visit to the United States. She adored those tawny discs of sweetness spotted with velvet peas of chocolate, and she helped me make them in our own Riyadh kitchen later that year. One cool, January day, when she was twelve, she said, “Let’s make chocolate chip cookies today!”
“I’m sorry, honey I’ve got to go out. Sharon’s driver is coming for me —no time to bake.”
“I’ll make them myself!” She had never done so. alone. “I can read the recipe, Mom. I can read it!”
Maryam grew up speaking Arabic, not English. When I became her step-mom, I did not set out to teach her English. She simply listened to her father and me, and began repeating our greetings and everyday words. Her knowledge of spoken English grew exponentially, but her reading knowledge developed at a more leisurely pace, by picking out letters on signs, labels, doors, boxes and bottles— the same way I started reading Arabic.
When I returned, I was relieved to smell fresh, lovely cookies. “Look, Mom!” She had just pulled them out of the oven, and hadn’t cleaned up the mess yet. I complimented her success, and together we began cleaning the kitchen. I noticed the soy sauce on the counter, and asked, “Oh, Sweetie, why is the soy sauce out?”
She looked at me quizzically. “I put it in the cookies!”
“What?” I shrieked.
Her face dropped. “Well, don’t you put that? I’ve seen you! It’s in the recipe. Isn’t that the vanilla?” Then I understood, and laughed.
That small, brown soy sauce bottle resembled the vanilla bottle. Even the English labels on both bottles were yellow, and the bottles sat on the same shelf. Maryam had concentrated so hard on deciphering the recipe, letter by letter, that she forgot to read the label on the bottle. She grabbed the bottle she thought she had seen me use.
The cookies tasted wonderful, without the slightest hint of either soy sauce or vanilla!