Article - Summer 2018

Diamonds

The stones, shimmering and precious, connect a writer to her generous, enigmatic mother

By Sheila Kohler | June 4, 2018
Photo illustration by David Herbick; iStock

When my mother died of a heart attack in 1984, she did not leave me, her only remaining daughter, her considerable fortune—money that my hard-working father, a timber merchant in Johannesburg, had left her. The inheritance amounted to 12 million rand, which in those days was worth about $12 million. (Since then, the enormous decline of the rand has seemed inevitable to me, without my mother there to prop it up.) The money went to her two sisters, her brother, and their children. There may have been a provision made for a love child of her youth.

At the time, I accepted the loss without acrimony. I supposed that after the death of my sister, four years before, my mother had been unable to feel the same about the daughter who remained. Also, her own family, which had always clustered around her, aiding and abetting her luxurious, hard-drinking, pill-taking ways, had taken care of her, particularly before she died, and naturally expected to be remunerated.

We had always been different in every way, my mother and I: my mother so small, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and olive-skinned, with tiny hands and feet. She loved fine clothes, fine food, jewelry. She wanted to dance, to drink, to sleep through the hot afternoons. She loved to travel. Her highest compliment was to say someone was “full of beans.” I took after my father, whose family came from Germany. I was taller, blonder, with light gray-blue eyes, and more interested in matters of the mind. From a young age, what I wanted to do was to write and to read. I was conscientious, diligent, and concerned for the world around me—Mother always feared that I might end up marrying a missionary.

She did, however, leave me her jewelry. It was sent to me some months after her death. I remember driving to the New York docks on my own to find this treasure, though other details remain hazy. Did I borrow my husband’s car? Why did I not take someone with me? Why was the jewelry not sent by air? Or by courier? Why by cargo ship? Was this the cheapest way?

Though my mother had died in March, on my youngest daughter’s 16th birthday, it was now midsummer, a hot, humid, airless day in New York. After driving around for a while down narrow streets, lost, as I so often am in a car, stopping to ask various people where to go, I parked in a sliver of shade and, upon entering a dusty barracks-like building, was met by a sudden blast of gloom and cold air. How could my mother’s precious jewelry have ended up in such a place? I wondered as I handed over my driver’s license to a customs official. Would the diamonds all be there? I presumed that the accountant, a Mr. Perks, had gone to the bank and packed everything up and sent it to me. I imagined him with his prim little mustache and his prudish air, carefully counting out the contents of the Craven “A” cigarette tin in which Mother kept her jewelry. It was he who had suggested, when I became pregnant at 19, that I go to England with one of my aunts and give up the baby for adoption.

My mother once said, “Come quickly when I die. Come before they rip the rings from my fingers.” But I had not been there when she died. When I called from New York, toward the end of her life, none of the relatives who clustered so eagerly around her in Johannesburg had suggested she was dying. When I asked one of my aunts if I should come, she said that my mother was perfectly comfortable and there was no need to rush. I had not held her in my arms. No one had held her in their arms. When my middle daughter, Cybele, and I flew out for the funeral, I learned to my eternal regret that my mother had died in a hospital attended only by an unknown hospital employee.

Eventually, the customs official casually handed me a small parcel wrapped in brown paper, as though it were nothing more than a packet of cheap sweets. I stood there gazing down at the thing in my hands, amazed that those South African stones within, which had been found so long ago in the Big Hole mine in Kimberley, had somehow managed to make their way safely to New York City aboard a big ship filled with great quantities of cargo. I drove home with the packet on the seat beside me, glancing at it from time to time to make sure it was still there.

When I opened the package, I found a neat list of the items, and the jewelry itself, still in that familiar home—the Craven “A” cigarette case. My mother had always kept the tin in her darkened bedroom, hidden in a drawer at the back of her kidney-shaped dressing table, with its frilled skirt and three-way mirror. There they now shimmered, Mother’s jewels, which she would thread through our hair, or slip onto our fingers and toes, while still in her nylon negligee, when my sister and I climbed into bed with her on bright Johannesburg mornings. These were the same stones we would see when our parents came into the nursery to say goodnight to us, in the blue evening shadows, my mother sparkling in her sequins, the pendant with its three large diamonds glimmering between her alabaster breasts.


 

Some of the best pieces of the jewelry came from my mother’s father, who had been a diamond evaluator at De Beers in the early days. I always wondered how a man in so modest a position had access to such fine stones. Were the employees given diamonds as bonuses? Was he a particularly skilled evaluator? Were they all acquired legitimately? Had he slipped a precious few into his pocket?

I remembered a story Mother told of one of the largest of the stones, the Cullinan, I believe, the Star of Africa, the uncut stone being, she said, well over 3,000 carats. The evaluators supposedly threw it around the office like a ball. It was a diamond that was given to Edward VII for his birthday and later cut into several smaller stones.

For a while, I kept all of the diamonds in the bank, including that pendant, a particularly rare blue diamond said to bring bad luck, and a large blue-white diamond pin. Eventually, I decided to sell the most precious stones at one of the large auction houses: the pendant, the blue diamond, the diamond pin, and a large fine yellow diamond. I asked Cybele to go with me to Christie’s. The offices were not far from the bank, and my tall, long-legged daughter, always energetic, suggested we walk the few blocks.

“Do you think that’s wise?” I asked.

“No one will suspect we are carrying jewelry!” she said, grinning and patting her many pockets. Looking at her in her worn blue jeans, old sneakers, and grubby orange anorak, I could only agree. None of my three daughters values appearances as much as their grandmother did—she who never emerged onto the street without her pearls, her high heels, her flowered hat, and her kid gloves. So we strode down the sidewalk side by side, my daughter carrying the precious stones in the pockets of her anorak, passing through the dangerous streets of New York.

At Christie’s, a neat, dark-haired man dressed in black greeted us. Shyly, apologetically, stumbling over my words, I dared to whisper, “We have some, well …”

“Yes, some?” he asked impatiently.

“Some stones we would like to sell,” I confessed. (I had been taught very young that it was bad form to ever mention money or anything associated with it.) The young man looked us up and down, sighed, waved us away to a bench, and told us to wait. He kept us waiting there for a long time. We sat quite happily, the diamonds forgotten, chatting. Cybele, who had recently married and had a baby, is profoundly deaf but an expert reader of faces and lips and an excellent listener.

Finally, the employee ushered us into a small cubicle. He stood staring, thin lips pursed, frowning with something approaching disdain, as my daughter fumbled around her pockets for the diamonds. “Well?” he said.

Cybele pulled the stones out one by one, like a magician producing rabbits from a series of small hats, and set them on the table before us. The skeptical employee now stood staring with his mouth agape as the scintillate, many-colored diamonds emerged. He looked at the stones and then at us in wonder.

He must have asked for some sort of papers or attestation of the stones’ provenance, but all I remember is the way his pale face seemed lit up by the light of the diamonds, the radical change in his demeanor (he was smiling now), and his sudden haste as he plucked up the stones with enthusiasm, and then ushered us quickly out of the premises. Not long afterward, they were sold at auction. I was not present, but Cybele was there, holding her own little girl on her lap, and watching the numbers light up on the board. The jewelry was sold for a sum that enabled each of my three daughters to buy or make a considerable down payment on a home.

I did not miss these stones initially. After all, I did have other jewelry that my mother had given me when she was alive. She would easily part with her belongings and was always happy to take us along on her extensive and expensive travels around the world. Besides, I had no occasion in my life as a writer and teacher of fiction to wear such extravagant jewelry. When I once wore one of the rings, an irate student in a writing class said something snide about the professor looking rather like a jewelry shop. After that, I never wore it to class again.


 

One summer evening in 1978, we had been sitting on a terrace in Sardinia—my husband, my three daughters, my mother, and I—the adults drinking gin and tonics and chatting amicably, listening to the cicadas sing. It was a place my mother would take the whole family to stay every August, escaping the South African winter, a beautiful whitewashed hotel with spacious rooms and brightly tiled bathrooms, sprawling over acres of rolling green grounds going down to the sparkling turquoise sea. Mornings we were all able to take the hotel boat to a long white beach and swim out safely in the warm Mediterranean, to eat grilled fish in the restaurant overlooking the gardens. During the warm nights, we would walk through the low hills with the scent of rare herbs in the air. I remember trying to teach my deaf daughter to sing “Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun,” as we walked in the gloaming through the hills, with me waving my arms around wildly to convey the different tones.

While the shadows of the gum trees lengthened, we all talked and sipped happily. I have a photo of us there, my tall, blond American husband, my three little girls, one blonder than the next, and myself as a slim woman in a white dress, my hair with its dark blond streaks catching the sun. My long legs are visible as I sit in a wicker chair beside my mother in her mauve frock, her diamonds sparkling on her hands.

Staring at the yellow and white diamonds on her ring finger, my husband, always sensitive to beautiful things, said, “Moses,”—he always called my mother Moses because of the way she laid down the law—“that is such a beautiful ring.”

I had always loved that unusual ring. I still have never seen one quite like it. My mother’s father had given it to her, his pet, whom he called Kitty for her soft hazel eyes. It had two particularly fine stones, which he had discovered and decided to have placed side by side, the white diamond setting off the brilliance of the yellow.

“You take it, darling,” my mother said, her dark eyes shining, and took the ring off her tiny finger and put it on mine, giving me a kiss on the cheek.

I wore it for many years. It was almost a part of my body; I would wear it all day, only reluctantly taking it off at night. I received many compliments on it, the most common one being, “He must love you very much”—this comment always accompanied by a suggestive glance and a complicit smile. I would shake my head and say it was actually my mother who had given it to me.

From time to time, I would have my hands manicured at a spa not far from our Manhattan home. The manicurist, usually a young Korean woman, would always ask before she massaged my hands with cream if I would like to take off my ring. “No, thank you,” I said every time, afraid of losing touch with this precious part of my past.

One afternoon, as the young woman was rubbing energetically at my hand, she looked down and asked, “What’s that yellow thing?”

The yellow diamond had come lose from its setting and had landed on the table, where her sharp eyes had spotted it. “My diamond!” I said, aghast, plucking it up quickly. Later, I would use this moment in my fiction, imagining various outcomes of the scenario. In reality, I thanked her profusely and gave her a large tip for her honesty, or her ignorance, and put the ring and the dislodged stone, wrapped in tissue paper, in a safe at the bank. I kept them there for many years, not trusting any jeweler to fix the ring, always afraid to lose the precious stones. They lay there in the dark unseen, unworn, unknown.

Recently, needing the money for a granddaughter’s college tuition, I took some of my remaining jewelry to a jeweler who had been recommended to me. He looked over the rings I’d brought, then unwrapped the yellow diamond and the white one still in its setting, and said, “These two are probably worth more than all the others put together.” So I sold him those two diamonds for what seemed a good price. When he handed me the check, I must have looked sad, because he asked me, “Are you not happy with the price?”

“It is always sad to part with the past,” I said, thinking of all those beautiful stones that my mother had once worn and given me with such generosity over the years, now gone forever. “But I am sure my mother would have been glad to pay a year of college for a great-grandchild.” And I remembered Mother handing me the white and yellow ring, with a kiss on the cheek, as we sat side by side, so different and yet ultimately so similar, both enjoying the sunshine of a summer’s afternoon in a whitewashed hotel by the sparkling Sardinian sea.

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