Article - Summer 2018


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

Photo illustration by David Herbick; iStock

By Sheila Kohler

June 4, 2018


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?

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Sheila Kohler is the author of many works of fiction, including The Bay of Foxes, Dreaming for Freud, and Becoming Jane Eyre. Her latest book is a memoir, Once We Were Sisters.. The recipient of many awards, she teaches creative writing at Princeton and Columbia universities.

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