Malvin, determined to raise the children in a religious household, sent Papi to a Yeshiva school, an Orthodox Jewish Seminary. I imagine her calling out from the kitchen door in a pleading voice, “Mendi’le, please make sure to finish your Torah studies before sundown.” Perhaps, he preferred to spend time at the family store attending the register with his dear uncle Sandor, who taught him business strategies. Later on, Sandor would provide access to the capital needed to open up a textile company in Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina, with three of his surviving cousins.
“When we got married his friends told me, ‘How good that you are married, now he’s not going to have his periods of sadness’. That sentence stayed with me, vividly.” Mami said.
I pressed on, “When was Papi’s first depression?”
“Perhaps the first significant time began with a period when he didn’t want to go to work and get up from the bed. I didn’t take it too seriously, I thought he was tired and was working too much. We went to see a doctor, not a psychiatrist, and he recommended taking a vacation. So, we did.”
Looking a bit flustered she continued, “This is difficult for me to say.”
“This was the first period when he was impotent. But all was seen as the consequence of tiredness, right?”
My throat was dry. I didn’t want to make any sudden moves that could alert her that this topic was off-limits.
“So, we went on a cruise,” Mami continued, “and we had a fantastic time, we felt that he was cured, and everything was going to be ok. We had such a great time that I got pregnant with Karen.”
I was born two years after my sister, Karen. Did they go on another cruise that got Mami pregnant with me?
“When did he begin taking medications?” I asked.
“At first, not too many, but later on, more and more. It was after a very long depression.”
Mami continued. “By then, he was seeing a psychiatrist, and was told he needs rest to recuperate his strength, and nobody should disturb him. The door was closed, and he stayed in bed for weeks.”
“When was the first time he entered a psychiatric hospital? Was I six?”
“No, that was later hospitalizations.”
I’ve held on to a memory. I was six years old. The family stood in the antechamber of my parent’s bedroom suite, in a semi-circle. Mami, Papi, and my siblings, thirteen-year-old Dany, eight-year-old Karen, and me. It was not Shabbat’s eve when we usually congregated. Papi’s lips were sticking together with yellow crust at the corners. I forced myself to avert my eyes but with no success. I saw his mouth moving but the words weren’t reaching me until Papi’s accented Spanish broke my spell, “Gaby’le dear, here’s a book you can read on vacation. By the time you finish, I’ll be back.”
It was The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde, the story of a beautiful prince who after living and dying in his privileged walled-in castle, the city leaders build a gold-plated statue of him with sapphires for eyes and place it outside the castle walls, at the city’s center. All of his life, the prince spent inside his bubble, never curious to see beyond. For the first time, he was seeing life outside of the castle with its share of hardships and felt powerless. One day, a swallow bird, on her way to warmer climates, stops at his feet. She feels a teardrop on her feathers and looks up to see that the prince is crying. An alliance is formed. She agrees to help the prince by peeling away his gold-plated skin, one-by-one, to distribute to the city’s poor until all the gold is gone, even his sapphire eyes. The prince’s broken heart is the only thing left. Both bird and prince die.
“Gaby, I need to stop now. We got to a period that it’s very difficult for me. I can’t keep talking about this.”
“Every time we get to a point that you are beginning to feel something, you stop!” I replied annoyed.
“To feel? I haven’t done much else for 30 years! This was my every day, minute by minute!”