Essays - Summer 2016

The Other Woman

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A mother’s devastating secret, and its many reverberations, present and past

Stocksy/Milles Studio

By Sheila Kohler

June 6, 2016


That evening, as I remember it, my mother and I were sitting out on the red-tiled hotel terrace in the shade of the eucalyptus trees. We were probably drinking gin-and-tonics and listening to the sound of the wind and the cry of the cicadas, when she told me something surprising.

With her lovely dark eyes and soft white curls, my mother was still slim and attractive at 60. She was wearing one of those tight-fitting knit dresses she was fond of, in a pale mauve, her favorite color. As usual, she wore her diamonds on her small, delicate hands, including the big blue one that was supposed to bring bad luck.

My mother was a mysterious woman with many secrets. She had announced, when my sister and I were 14 and 12, that she had something important to tell us. If she didn’t tell us, she said, she was afraid that someone else might. Mother sat us down in the dining room of our Johannesburg flat and announced solemnly that she had been married long ago, before she met our father.

Who were you married to? we asked, aghast. To a Jewish man, she said. She had met him through her father, who was in the diamond business in Johannesburg. They had eloped. Not approving of her choice, her parents rushed after her and, as she was under 18, were able to annul the marriage.

Astonished as we were, we found the story romantic and exciting, and we begged for more details. Mother would tell us nothing, however, except that the young couple had gone down to Kimberley, the diamond town in the Cape, where they took refuge with her three maiden aunts who lived there.

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Sheila Kohler is the author of 10 novels, three collections of short stories, and a forthcoming memoir called Once We Were Sisters. The recipient of many awards, she teaches creative writing at Princeton and Columbia universities.

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