Looking back on my life with my mother, what was the most damaging, perhaps, was the silence that surrounded her illness. She woke so cheerfully, early in the morning, full of what she would have called “beans.” She dressed beautifully, pulling on an elaborate corset, panting a little in the South African heat. “Get me a glass of soda water, Pet,” she would ask me as I sat in her shuttered bedroom and watched her dress, fascinated. She was already thirsty at an early hour.
After breakfast she would sally forth in her flowered hat and gloves to go shopping which was her principal occupation. She bought mainly clothes for herself and for her family. She had hundreds of pairs of beautiful small shoes. She prided herself on her small hands and feet. By lunch time she was a little weary and knocked back a few frothy beers before removing the corset and lying down for a few hours for her siesta in the hot afternoons.
Only in the evening did the drinking begin seriously, sitting out on the terrace in the gloaming, waiting for dark.
No one ever mentioned my mother’s drinking. If she fell from her chair, someone picked her up. If she dozed off with a cigarette in hand, our servant, a tall dignified Zulu who was strong and silent would put out the cigarette, lift her gently, and carry her up to bed.
As she got older she mixed pills with the alcohol and carried a small suitcase filled with them when she traveled. She surrounded herself with people who flattered and suborned her habit, and she found doctors to prescribe her pills.
I remember an aunt of ours saying once, as my mother set off with us, driving our car, “You shouldn’t drive with those children in the state you are in.” But this was a rare occasion and brought opprobrium on my aunt. With my father’s fortune, which he had left her when he died, my mother was able to control the world around her but not her own illness which eventually killed her, as a relatively young woman.
My sister and I watched all of this bemused. Our mother was a strange puzzle, frightening at times as she seemed absent or someone else. I think this loss of identity in her moments of drunkenness was the most frightening thing to us. But she would come back to us so generously, filled with joy in our presence, heaping gifts on us, perhaps in an effort to repair.
We did not understand what was happening as children or even as adolescents. We were sent away to boarding school and eventually to Europe. We saw little of our mother. We knew she loved us, but we were powerless to help her, or so we believed. Until the end she kept up the appearances and left us in silence to face our remorse and guilt.
This silence that surrounded her addiction, this mystery was also her gift to me. All the questions about her life and her loves led me to write about her, to try and find the source of this mystery. I have written about her again and again and particularly in a book called “Love Child” where I was able to follow her path in my imagination and find all the love for her that I held in my heart.
With thanks to Winsome who has written so beautifully about her mother.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.