When I was seven years old, my Aunt Hazel, the youngest of my mother's sisters read me the first two chapters of “Jane Eyre” in the big green nursery with its black board across one wall, at Crossways, the house where my father had just died. You will remember how Jane is carried off unceremoniously and locked in the Red Room where she thinks she sees her uncle’s ghost.
It seems a strange choice of lecture for a seven year old, though my sister who was present was two years older than I.
It had a terrifying effect on me, one that has lasted all my life, and perhaps led me, too, to become a writer in an effort to render active what I had submitted to passively. Mr Reed, Jane’s uncle, in the book, like my own father just down the corridor from the nursery in the big bedroom, with the mauve velvet curtains, has died in this somber, silent room with its crimson curtains.Jane believes her uncle has come back to see if his wife, Jane’s cruel aunt, Mrs. Reed, has carried out his death-bed wishes and is taking good care of little Jane, his sister’s child.
I was terrified that my father might be similarly inspired, that his ghost might come back to make sure my mother was taking good care of my sister and me. This seemed a real and reasonable possibility, one that came to me in the night after the reading, when I lay in the dark beside my sister in the nursery and saw a glimmer of light burning in the bay window and was not able to cry out or move so frightened was I .
What was the origin of this thought? Had I overheard some critical conversation about my mother?
There were various times when the women in our entourage dared to make critical comments about my mother, despite the considerable power of the money she inherited when my father died . I remember the nanny, when our mother finally fired her, shortly after my father’s death, clacking the door behind her and firing her parting shot: “These children would be better off in an orphanage,” she dared to say. And I still see my aunt putting her head in the window of my mother’s Jaguar after a party and saying: “You should not drive with children in the car in the condition you are in!”
Perhaps I believed Father was watching out over his domain to make sure his fortune was spent wisely. My father, I was vaguely aware, from the large house and garden where we lived, the number of the servants and mother’s continuing travels to foreign lands, had made a fortune in the timber business and left his money to this much younger, less-educated woman whom he had married after divorcing his first respectable wife of many years. I remembered how my father would say, “Money does not grow on trees” and go out into the gloaming of the garden at twilight to check that all the taps had been turned off. Would he come back to see if the taps were left running?
As for this fortune, though my mother always told us as children that everything she had was ours, she did not ultimately leave it to her one remaining child. It went to her sisters and her younger brother and their families. What would my father’s ghost think of this? What, above all would my father have thought of his elder daughter dying so violently, the mother of six children— without a father to protect her from an angry Afrikaans surgeon, and wife- battering husband?
Thus my sister's ghost and my father's came to haunt my life. Both these ghosts seem close to me, my sister particularly watching over me as she did in the garden of our home where we wandered as children. I have written of her and her life repeatedly in fictional form, and recently in a memoir. As so often happens with a book particularly with non-fiction there are those who have responded favorably, sharing their own tragedies and thanking me for what they call my courage and honesty.
Some have objected strongly to my book. I have had letters from some of my sister’s children who protested at the public airing of the private linen of their lives. In fact one of my sister’s daughters has told me in strong words that her mother would not have wanted me to write this book.
What would my father’s, my sister’s ghost say? What would she have wanted me to do? My intention here was not to hurt anyone but rather to give voice to my silenced sister, and with her all the women or men who have been or remain in her dangerous position, someone killed thirty five years ago on a dry night on a curve in the road, her battering husband at the wheel. My aim was to make people aware of the danger of this situation.
Yet what right did I have to tell this story, where her dead father is not able to tell his my niece asked. Why was I not able to move on? To forget and forgive? Why do these ghosts still come to haunt me? This question comes up repeatedly at readings of my work. Have I now, with the catharsis of writing this memoir, of writing down the truth as I see it, put all my ghosts to rest: my father’s, my mother’s, my sister’s? Well, the answer as you can see by this essay is no. Surely our ghosts, our memories of our past, of those we have loved and lost, are what we have of most precious. They are the only known parts of our lives. We cannot know the future or interpret the present moment. Our ghosts give us our identity, help us to know who we are. Above all, they give us our ability to reach out to others, to love.
Sheila Kohler is the author most recently of a memoir "Once we were sisters" published by Penguin.
"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte. Penguin Classics