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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Madloch

Melissa Velez-Girard

This is my mom’s favorite picture of her mother, Elba Luisa. The photograph was probably taken in late 1930s or early 1940s and my grandmother looks so beautiful in it.

I never met grandmother Elba. She killed herself when my mother was only 6-years old. She must have been severely depressed but was never diagnosed nor did she receive any treatment for her condition. She lived in rural Cuba and in her time mental disease was a stigma. Women had what was called “their responsibilities” and were expected to do “their job”. There was no room for expressing any weakness or asking for help. In this situation, not only she did not receive any support when she needed it, but after her suicide the family acted as if they were ashamed of her. Elba Luisa was erased from the family’s memory. Her name was never mentioned publicly or in private. Her photographs were never looked at. It was as if she never existed.

After Elba’s death, my grandfather remarried. His second wife, Estrella, treated his two children, and later also his grandchildren as her owns. I have considered her my grandmother. I learned about Elba’s existence and her fate only when I was 10-years old, and this discovery came as a shock to me.

At that time, I attended a Catholic school. There I was told that people who committed suicide were condemned to punishment in “hell.” The thought that this beautiful woman who was my closest relative was supposed to sufferer for eternity as a punishment for her sadness disturbed me deeply. It was most likely one of decisive factors for me to turn away from religion.

I think that I fully grasped the entire horror of Elba’s life and death only after my grandfather’s death, when I discovered her photographs. I studied them for hours and tried to understand her. All this “keeping it quiet” and “sweeping under the carpet” did not work! Instead, it deeply affected Elba’s children. I cannot even imagine what my mother and my uncle went through. Now, I can see everyone in my family in Elba’s face, and the resemblance is not limited to the physical features. What I see is “that look” – the look of depression, that runs in our family. My mother, my uncle, both my cousins and I, we all have inherited Elba’s condition. She is a part of us. Only after I realized that, I have understood my mother’s prolonged silences. Thankfully now we don’t have to hide it any longer.

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