Essays - Summer 2016

The Other Woman

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

By Sheila Kohler | June 6, 2016
Stocksy/Milles Studio
Stocksy/Milles Studio


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.

Now we were in Sardinia, where Mother would come every August to join us, escaping the South African winter. She stayed in this splendid hotel, with its whitewashed buildings looking onto the white sand and clear turquoise water of the Cala di Volpe, or the Bay of the Foxes.

My husband and I and our three little girls were living in Paris at the time, but we had built a sunny summerhouse on the hill behind the hotel, on this island D. H. Lawrence wrote about in Sea and Sardinia.

It is a windy island. The winds have different names here according to their origins: the sirocco, which comes from Africa, the mistral from the South of France, and various others that blow three, seven, or 12 days at a time. The winds carry the mysterious and seductive smell of wild herbs, which, we were told, Sardinian sailors could recognize in the dark and know that they were near their home. For centuries, the island had been remote and wild, inhabited mostly by fishermen and sheep farmers who fought over the bare, infertile ground, building stone walls between their properties, until the Aga Khan passed by in his yacht in 1962 and fell in love with it. He bought up coastal land near Porto Cervo and built these grand hotels and a few secluded villas on the hillsides.

Now my mother said, “Watch out he doesn’t go off with your money, my dear,” referring to my husband, who had recently announced, to my great distress, that he had fallen in love with another woman.

“Oh, Mother!” I said impatiently, for I was still desperately in love with my husband, still hoping he would leave his young mistress, Martine, as he kept promising to do. “I’m just going to go and say goodbye,” he would call from the window of his green Porsche, before going back to her once again.

She was blond and 20, with a little scar on her upper lip, which made her even more attractive, he had confided to me. Of Russian origin, my husband believed in sincerity. “I have to tell you the truth,” he said. He was torn between the two of us; he had developed ulcers, he said.

“I love you both so much! I don’t know what to do!” he wailed, walking up and down and pulling at his golden locks. He seemed to me a character out of a Russian novel, all of the Karamazov brothers rolled into one. On some days, it seemed we were all caught up in some Russian tragedy; on others, an Italian opera.

The children and I sat at the window in the evenings and listened to Madama Butterfly or Rigoletto, watching for my husband to return. He would come home very late, striding in purposefully on his long legs, looking around the rooms of the townhouse in Paris, finding fault with my housekeeping.

He, himself, was always impeccably dressed. He had had special drawers made to keep his fine shirts, which came in all the colors of the rainbow. In a large photo of him, which I had proudly displayed on the grand piano in our Paris living room, he wears a hat with a wide brim, to hide his thinning hair.

A tall, handsome, brilliant man whom I had met in Rome when I was 18, he returned to America, where he was still a student at Yale, and I followed. Occasionally, I would slip into lecture halls in the half dark to hear his famous French professors: Victor Brombert or Henri Peyre talking about Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif.” He had taught me, I felt, what I knew about life. I could not imagine it without him.

Mother finished her drink and looked around for the white-uniformed waiter, whom she had once struck with a fly swatter because he had a fly on his bald head.

“Well, that’s what happened with your father, when he fell in love with me,” she told me. I stared in amazement. “What do you mean? He was still married when you met him?”

She nodded and took a sip of her drink.

“But I thought the first wife died!” I exclaimed. This was the story that had been told to me and my sister—that my father’s first wife had died some time before their wedding.

My mother said, “She did die, but six months after we were married. It was difficult moving into Crossways and taking the first wife’s place.” She smiled shyly at me, opening her dark eyes wide.

I saw Mother anew in the role of the other woman, the mistress, coming into the grand Johannesburg residence, Crossways, with its many servants and its tennis court and swimming pool and golf course, a big square house designed by Herbert Baker, the British architect who was so influential in South Africa.

I thought of my mother’s favorite books: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, about the dead wife who lingers on in the imagination of the new one at Manderley, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, with the first, mad wife still rampaging in the attics at Thornfield.

Thus Mother, too, was part of this old myth, found in a plethora of popular and not so popular fiction, the myth of the second wife, who dislodges the first and takes over the grand domain. My mother’s younger sister Hazel had read me the beginning of Jane Eyre when I was seven years old. It was part of my childhood, my imagination, long before I was to write my novel Becoming Jane Eyre, based on Charlotte Brontë’s life and her own love for a married man, her Belgian professor.

Now I imagined my mother at my own age and 20 years younger than my father, standing uncertainly before him and looking at him with those soft hazel eyes. I realized, suddenly, that I had seen a photo of the three of them in my mother’s photo box. They are standing on the Place Vendôme in Paris, my father smiling jovially, arm in arm with a substantial lady, the wife, in a wide-brimmed hat, and on my father’s other arm my slim, girlish mother, smiling so seductively, just as she smiled at me now.

I thought of Mother’s wedding photo, too, which I had seen and wondered about. Why is she not wearing white? Why is her head bare? She wears a suit that looks dark in the black-and-white photo, her hair not covered by any veil and parted in the middle. She is standing on the lawn at Crossways, where I was born, holding a small bunch of flowers, with my father beside her, smiling proudly. He wears a double-breasted suit, and looks pleased with himself, the master of this house he supposedly bought for a song years before, from a mining magnate down on his luck. Now he was to live there with this beautiful young woman who had in all probability been a housekeeper or perhaps even a companion or nurse to the first wife and would tend to the latter when she lay dying.

“The money, when your father died,” Mother said, “all came to me, and not to the first wife’s family or even your father’s own family.” She lifted up her glass to the waiter, her blue diamond glinting in the fading light of the evening. “So, you see, you should be careful this doesn’t happen to you.”

But of course I was not careful. How could I be? Like du Maurier’s narrator, I was also obsessed with this other woman, whom my husband had met at work. She, like him, worked for a magazine. Once, I believed I caught a glimpse of her with my husband in the street near the Invalides. It was a gray day, and the street was misty, as it so often is in Paris, the dome of the Invalides hovering mysteriously in the background. I was with my eldest daughter, who looked up at me and said, “You’ve gone all white, Mummy!” I clutched her hand to steady myself, afraid I might faint, and hurriedly turned in the opposite direction.

There was no direction I could walk, however, where I did not see her. In all the beautiful streets of Paris, I kept catching glimpses of her. Every young blond woman who passed by me was the young blond Martine, clacking by in her high heels, swinging her slim hips seductively, her long hair fanning out behind her in the fine breeze.

How could I forget her? She was part of me now, a part of my own fantasies, my own desires. She was my mad wife in the attic whom Jane could dislodge only after a great fire, which consumed the wife and maimed Mr. Rochester at the same time. She was part of my own madness, my anger, my rage at my subservient position as a woman. I, too, was half in love with this other woman, as the narrator of Rebecca seems to be, this woman with the little scar on her lip that made her so much more vulnerable and attractive. I both hated her and identified with her. I wanted to be part of her.

Though I did, over long painful years of watching my husband come and go, gradually learn something. Ten years later, my husband, who had left Martine by then, came home late one evening. I was lying in bed, waiting for him, reading Dickens’s Hard Times. I looked up from the pages of my book and said, “If you are going to see your mistress, why don’t you stay for supper with her as well?”

He said, “How did you know!” His face crumpled up like that of a naughty child who’s been caught. He then sat down on the bed and confessed. I was less interested this time. “Spare me the details,” I said.

A second love affair with another young woman who had almost the same name as the first was just too much, even for me. Lightning does not strike twice in the same place.

Also, my children were older and more independent, which gave me more freedom to come and go as I wished. The two elder girls were about to leave home, one for university in America, the other for boarding school. I decided to take the youngest with me to New York, where I was to acquire a master’s degree in writing at Columbia and begin my career as a writer.

The sunny white house in Sardinia, with its splendid view of the turquoise sea and its mysterious smell of wild herbs, was sold. My mother died a few years later, just after I had met my second husband, a Jewish psychiatrist, in New York. Perhaps in some strange way I was fulfilling Mother’s early fantasies, her dreams. Mother, when she died, was still relatively young, in her early 70s, but having mixed too many gin-and-tonics with too many tranquilizers in her lonely life, she succumbed to a heart attack. She did not leave her fortune, my father’s fortune, to me, her one remaining child. She left it to her own family, her brother and sisters, and also to an unknown heir, another woman—the child from her first marriage down in Kimberley, where she had stayed with her three maiden aunts for nine months, all those years ago.

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