my father was always told his mother was dead, but a birthday card revealed she was living in a mental institution

by Raj Das

The small, brown suitcase I found in my wardrobe as a child held a secret that would unravel a family history I never knew existed. With two silver latches and a squeaky wooden handle, it seemed like an ordinary suitcase at first glance. But the name inscribed on the bottom in pencil, Ada, was unfamiliar to me. When I asked my mother whose suitcase it was, she revealed that it belonged to my grandmother.

Growing up in the 1960s in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, I had no knowledge of my grandmother. My father, who had grown up without his mother, was taken care of by his paternal grandmother. It wasn’t until around the time of my birth that my father accidentally discovered the truth about his mother’s whereabouts. Ada was living in a mental institution.

I have fleeting memories from my childhood of waiting with my family for Ada in the foyer of a boarding house in Melbourne. I remember the tension in the air as my two brothers were scolded for their noisy behavior. Another memory I have is of Ada sitting in our lounge room, smoking cigarettes, her face devoid of any expression. Even as a young child, I could sense that something was wrong with Ada, but the full extent of her condition was unknown to me.

It wasn’t until later that I learned about Ada’s removal from her children and the reasons behind her institutionalization. As my father got to know her more, stories of her absence from his childhood started to emerge. It seemed that Ada’s sickness, brought on by her menstrual cycle, led to her confinement in the mental hospital for one week every month. As a young girl, this revelation filled me with a sense of foreboding about being female. But I soon realized that the explanation given to me was a lie, just one of the many falsehoods surrounding Ada’s situation.

My father, raised by his paternal grandmother and believing his mother was no longer alive, married my mother and started a family of his own. But fate had a different plan for him. When he received a birthday card redirected from his former address, signed by “Mother,” he couldn’t ignore the possibilities. He confronted his father, who finally admitted that Ada was indeed alive and living in a mental institution. Not only that, but he had been intercepting and hiding Ada’s letters to her children for over 20 years.

With the secret out in the open, my father made contact with the mental hospital and arranged to meet his mother for the first time in his adult life. Their reunion was bittersweet, filled with conflicting emotions and unanswered questions. It was the beginning of a journey for both of them to understand each other and their shared past.

As my father and Ada embarked on this new chapter of their lives, I joined them on visits to the mental hospital and outings to our family home. We slowly formed a bond, but the reasons for Ada’s institutionalization remained unclear. Left in silence throughout their upbringing, my father and his sister had little knowledge of their mother’s family history and the events that had led to her committal.

In an effort to understand Ada’s past, my father and I obtained her mental-patient files through a Freedom of Information request. They contained a wealth of information, from her original committal in 1936 to her death in 1972. We discovered that Ada was the youngest of five brothers and had married at a young age. Her occupation as a comptometer operator, a job typically held by women at the time, showed that she had completed specialized business training. However, with societal expectations placing married women outside of the workforce, Ada likely left her job when she married my grandfather.

As I delved further into Ada’s records, I discovered diagnoses, notes on trial leave, and experimental treatments she underwent during her time in the mental institution. The files also shed light on her final years as an outpatient at Carmel House. Ada’s photograph from her medical files stared back at me, her shoulders angled, her eyes distant.

The discovery of Ada’s hidden past not only revealed the truth about my grandmother, but it also opened up a deeper understanding of my father’s own history. We had to confront the difficult truths and secrets that had been carefully hidden for years. It was a painful process, but it ultimately brought us closer together as a family.

Ada never forgot her children, despite the years of separation and the stigma surrounding her mental illness. Her letters, intercepted and hidden by my grandfather, served as a testament to her longing and love for her family. The suitcase I found in my wardrobe, with its silver latches and squeaky wooden handle, became a tangible symbol of a hidden mother, longing to be known.

The complexities of Ada’s story are a reminder of the importance of empathy and understanding when it comes to mental illness. Society’s treatment of mental health has come a long way since Ada’s time, but there is still progress to be made. Ada’s story serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of family connections that can withstand even the darkest secrets.

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