My mother was not perfect. I remember the nanny who had taken care of us as small children saying, after my father had died, and my mother had asked her to leave, “These children would be better off in an orphanage!” I did not understand what she meant and put it down to her anger at being dismissed. She was probably referring to my mother’s drinking, the lack of discipline in the house.
Mother was remarkably permissive. I remember saying to her once, earnest child that I was, “You should give us some chores to do.”
Startled, she looked at me and said, “Chores? What chores?” This was apartheid South Africa in the fifties.
When I was ten and my sister twelve I asked to be sent to boarding school to which she reluctantly consented. “But I’ll miss you so much!” Though I was homesick and missed above all my sister who was in the senior school, I learned some discipline there which may have been my salvation.
In the holidays my mother would never ask at what hour we came home but only if we had had a good time, if someone had liked our dresses. Nor was she particularly interested by my report cards. It was sufficient in her mind, I believe, to be pretty, vivacious, and popular, and above all to have a good time.
She let me escape to Europe on my own ( did I want to escape her?) when I was just seventeen housing me with a French family of somewhat dubious morality. The grandmother, an impoverished baronne from the old nobility, having seen me naked inadvertently in the bathroom, said to her son, “Sheila has a very pretty body, you know,” while I blushed furiously. The son, fortunately, had other pretty bodies in mind.
When my mother died she left her grand fortune which she had inherited from my father, not to her remaining daughter but to her own family, her sisters and brother, a story I have written in “Love child”.
Yet despite all of this I believe my mother was a good mother. She was endlessly loving, generous, paying for splendid holidays in luxurious hotels, all the clothes we could desire, jewelry. She was truly the best grandmother to my children. She would step in when my own mothering faltered, as it did. I was determined to be much more strict. When I took away the security blanket in my ignorance she secretly provided a new one. She replaced the books I threw out, considering them trash ( Barbara Cartland!) with others the children could enjoy and become the readers they are today.
Above all she gave us a sense that our presence delighted her, that we were in ourselves, without any accomplishments, precious, that there was nothing we could do to destroy her love.
Both my older sister and I believed firmly we were the preferred one. I was certain I was her Pet, her little darling, and after my sister’s death her children told me that my sister was just as convinced she was the favorite daughter. Perhaps this was what was most important, this, and the sense of freedom she gave me which enables me to sit for so many hours absorbed in making up stories to share with others.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.