Edite's memories and reflections

Edite Melo went to the Preventory Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais na Tocha (HCRP) when she was about five years old. Until then, she lived in Pampilhosa with her grandmother, mother, uncle and aunt (her mother’s brothers) and cousins. The maternal grandparents residence was a large, hearty country house with oxen. The grandfather, already blind, had died of diabetes.


Before going to the Tocha, Edite remembers that “(…) my mother sometimes hid me outside her grandmother’s house, with the help of a friend.” But one day “(…) an HCRP car came to pick us up. They left my mother at the Hospital and went on with me – screaming, because my mother was not with me – for the Preventory. When I arrived, they introduced me to my brother, Hernâni, to see if I could calm down, but of course, there was no connection… I only knew about his existence at that moment!”



Hernâni was about seven years older than Edite and was born at HCRP in a previous hospitalization of his mother. Edite does not remember living with him during the time she was at Preventory, not least because, shortly afterwards, he went to the Professional School in Semide. 



The mother was also called Edite and graduated from the School of Nursing Dr. Ângelo da Fonseca, in Coimbra, even working in the old Hospitals of the University of Coimbra. Edite heard that her mother “occasionally fled the HCRP, and they were always looking for her and would not let her practice. So much so that Dr. Abel Lindo, a doctor here in Pampilhosa, said that he couldn’t work with her because they came to fetch her for the Tocha.” I also learned that her mother “(…) fled to Marinha Grande” and Edite supposes that “she also worked there, or that her father could be from there. But you have no idea! I also never knew if she and her brother were children of the same relationship, because the mother was single and didn’t tell her.”



When describing the mother, Edite’s voice shows the longing and affection that she still has for her: “Oh, my mother… My mother was very beautiful! In Pampilhosa everyone says she was the most beautiful girl! She dressed very well, always wore a hat and gloves. He was a very sweet person. Here on earth everyone liked her. She was a midwife, gave birth and did not bring any money, so people gave her potatoes or a pumpkin … Girls my age tell me that she pierced their ears with a needle and thread.”


At the Tocha, Edite felt that her mother “was always dying to see me.” She wrote to him or sent messages by the nurses at the Hospital, but Edite remembers bitterly that “the director came to the cafeteria and said: – Today there is mail! But she read us only what interested her and did not give us the correspondence.”



When they went to the hospital lobby “they told us to behave well” but when I got there I always cried “(…) as soon as I saw my mother, I couldn’t control myself. Then my mother would buy fruit, vanilla cookies and bananas for me to eat … but those things didn’t reach my hand.” In these meetings, Edite also reveals that it saddened her “not being able to have direct contact with her mother, because of the glass that separated them” and “not being able to say that I didn’t like being there, because I was not comfortable talking and telling her day-to-day… I always felt watched.” In all these visits, the mother gave her hope that she would go home and say: “It will be soon!” Grandmother Justina, “(…) who was also a very good friend of mine, also said to me: “Your mother will be fine and she will take you!” Edit “was always anxious about those words…”



But in 1971, when she was nine years old, her mother died and even today she doesn’t know what really happened. One of her aunts told her that: “She didn’t eat, that she had many arthrosis in her hands that in the meantime had been stunned… And that she thinks it was pneumonia…”



Edite says that at the Hospital “(…) when someone died, they didn’t go to the funeral. But when my mother died I locked myself up and told them I´m not leave if they didn’t let go. And said I was running away and threatened to kill myself! The director ended up letting me go to the funeral. She ordered some flowers, some kind of small marigolds and ferns from the field, they made a branch and I went. But I couldn’t look at my mother’s face…”



About three years later, the grandmother, who had also been admitted to the hospital, also died. Edite remembers: “It was in September and I was at the Gala’s Holiday Colony (…) it was only after some time, when I started to miss the visits and I asked, they did tell me the truth… I was very sad!”



Edite stayed at Preventory until closing, that is, until a short time after April 25, 1974. From his experience at Preventory she remembers good moments but “(…) feels she was not happy!” She liked the gardens and the greenhouse, “which were beautiful”, “the food, which was great.” She remembers with longing that when she was younger, in the playground, she spent her time playing and climbing the cedars while the vigilant maids listened to the radio soap opera – Maria.”



From the age of twelve she began to learn and participate in household chores – making beds, ironing, rolling clothes, mopping and waxing the floor and washing dishes. The tasks were done in groups and Edite confesses that she loved doing the dishes because “(…) the sinks were big and we all got wet… it was a joke and a joy!” Although she defines herself as a sad child, she had many friends and felt a lot of “hurt” for not having had the opportunity to continue some of those ties after leaving. She also mentions that she would like to have photographs of those times.



Of the employees, Edite keeps fond memories of the seamstresses, the cook and the nurses. According to her: “It was the only people who were good there. The seamstresses gave me stamps to write to my brother, when he was in Semide and he wrote to me too … But then, I don’t know what it was like, the letters didn’t always appear…” She describes that “the vigilant maids were abrupt to speak” and “(…) they all learned the same thing… I did not feel affection. And if I cried, they called me sissies! ” She mentions the existence of punishments and reprimands and recalls that shortly after arriving there, “(…) I was playing on the swing and said a bad word. I couldn’t have said that! But I was used to being with my grandmother and my cousins … I remember perfectly telling me not to say that blunder again, which was too big … But I had no idea … Even so, she hit me.”


She also has no good memories of a game they played after lunch – the wheel of silence. “There were two rows of children on each side, the vigilant maid was in the middle. Then they asked us to sing or play other games, but we couldn’t talk or laugh if they told us that we had to be silent. When we were careless, it was a problem!”



Regarding the School, Edite confessed: “(…) I detested the primary school, which was inside. The teacher was just hit the hand with a wooden ruler! And just entering the room, I was shaking soon. Once, I stayed there studying multiplication tables until night. I learned it, to sing, but then if they asked me in isolation, I no longer knew… The school marked me a lot in the negative, it was painful and difficult! ” Then she took the exam and went to the cycle in Cantanhede, and later to Figueira da Foz.



At sixteen “(…) it started to be said that the Preventory was going to close.” Edite was handed over to Uncle Manuel, who had been his tutor since his mother died. But Edite had no contact with her uncles and therefore “hardly knew them.” Uncle Manuel had also been hospitalized at the HCRP and the time Edite was at his home he remembers “(…) that he received nurses from the Hospital, who were still accompanying him. And “(…) from the Hospital, they gave him a grant of 100$00 for me to continue studying, but I didn’t want to!”



Edite’s brother was already there, as the Semide Vocational School had also closed. At her uncles’ house, she realized that her aunt did not like her, and knew that she did not get along with her mother. In Edite’s perspective, she had been “imposed there on my aunt, without her wanting… And although I felt that my uncle liked me… I felt mistreated, ending up being a servant there – I made meals for my cousins, had to get pasture for oxen… ”


For this reason, she found work as a domestic worker in Coimbra, where she was until she got married, at the age of 25. From that time he recalls that: “- They were great people and I owe them a lot… They were my salvation!”



In turn, the brother, who helped his uncle on the land “(…) also made his life and married. And when I had time off I went to his house. Unfortunately, he died early, in an accident, leaving three children.”



After leaving Preventory, Edite tried, several times, to obtain the phone numbers and addresses of his companions and friends from the social workers, but “they said that they could not provide them. I had so many friends, I lost everything and I was left with no one! ” The first years after leaving Preventory, Edite felt lost: “We left there with nothing… what little they could give us, which was the bonds, they did not leave! I don’t think they were interested in us anymore. When I came to the outside world I did not know what money was, everything amazed me, it was so closed that, outside, I realized that everything was very difficult and everything made a lot of impression on me! The way I saw people, girls went to matinees… They listened to music with freedom… I thought that was different… I found the world and life out there very strange!”

Then Edite went on with his life and started a family. It says: “(…) I buried the past, I tried not to talk about it too much and forget about Rovisco Pais for years.” On several occasions she passed the door of the Hospital, on the way to the beach, but did not enter. And, “as an adult I was several times at the door of the Tocha cemetery, where my mother and grandmother were buried and I couldn’t get in there… I get a really big squeeze… And I don’t even know where their grave was!”



In addition to the mother and grandmother, several members of the family were hospitalized or accompanied by the HCRP. Her grandparents had three more sons and a daughter. All the sons were admitted to that hospital and almost all were later immigrated to France after leaving. 


His uncle Augusto married at the HCRP and met the lady who “came to be his aunt” when he was also there. “And this aunt is the only one who is still alive, and it is noted that she had the disease, on her face and feet. The others always said that they did not have the disease, and had no marks on their skin. Only one of them had their hands held up.”


In this life path, despite “doing it by forgetting” Edite wanted to know more about the family and the mother in an attempt to fill the void created by prematurely losing her mother. She questioned her uncles several times about what they lived at the HCRP and asked them to tell her about their mother, but sadly says: “(…) they don’t tell things in detail.” The aunt remembers having been with Edite’s mother at the Hospital and going out on a bike through the pine forests, when they got a license to go ashore. She mentions that she learned a lot there, how to knit socks and make bobbin lace. But she doesn’t like to talk about it. And when Edite’s mother left, she was still there.”

Edite adds that the mother was also very good at embroidery and knitting and that she still has “a coat made by her, which she had offered her and a letter that the mother wrote to the director asking to stay with me!” She explains that “(…) everything that was hers and that was in her room at her parents’ house was sold by another aunt… I was left with no more memories of my mother!”


Now that she talks about it again, and remembers the past, she finds herself again wondering about various aspects, eventually sharing some reflections with which she tries to answer her questions. Is something she would like to understand why only she and her brother went to Preventory?


She knows that some cousins, children of her uncles who were also hospitalized, stayed with the other grandmothers and that these uncles stayed less in the hospital. And in an attempt to answer, she goes on: “maybe because my mother is single… My mother and grandmother never told me why we went there… And if I didn’t go, who would she leave me with? Because my grandmother also went to the hospital, a short time later … Maybe my mom didn’t want me to stay with my uncles … Maybe my mom thought I was better there … I don’t know, I have no idea! My uncles worked in the fields and had a lot of boys … She must have thought I was fine … And, I couldn’t speak either … I should certainly be convinced that I was fine! “


Edite sometimes approached Father Afonso to add information to his story, but the answer was identical: “- There is nothing to talk about.” Regarding the reluctance that she always found in sharing experiences, Edite believes that there is “A void in speaking … As if there was something to hide…”


In her opinion, there is still “stigma” and this is visible, for example, in the fact that she still has “a title”, they still say: “- You are the daughter of Edite’s nurse, who was interned at Rovisco Pais, of lepers…”And the same is true with the aunt.

In this reflection, Edite continues, sharing: “(…) because as much as one does not want to… The label is always there! People and children try to hide. And, in their perspective, that is why when they approach the subject they answer: “- This is not to talk about… I don’t want to know anything about it! And everything that was talking about the Hospital Rovisco Pais … It was not to be talked about! At the uncle’s house, they couldn’t talk. All family members said they didn’t have the disease, they always denied it, saying: – I don’t feel anything, they say that I have it! At work, they could not know that they had that disease. And they hid… Also, because of their sons!” Edite believes that it is because of this that she does not know most things, but it still costs her “to know almost nothing about my mother…”


In 2019, almost completing six decades of age, Edite returned to Preventory accompanied by several childhood companions, who meanwhile found her again. It was the first time since she left. On that occasion, they learned about the heritage hospital’s recovery initiative and requested access to the archives in the hope of soon learning more about their path and that of their ancestors.


From this visit to Preventory she shared the following: “I got there… I saw it so different… It becomes weird, but I missed what it was. How beautiful it was! My feeling is that it belongs to me too, that I have something there, that is a little bit of mine… It was my bedroom there… I know where the cafeteria, the laundry, I recognize every corner, although it is different, I look and see the old and I don’t see the modern. And she commented to her colleagues – here that rose bush is missing, and pointed out other details… I felt all that, closed my eyes and saw everything as it was when I lived there and remembered it again, inside and out… At that moment I realized that I forgot the rest of things… time had taken them…”



(Text based on oral testimony, in 2020, validated by the interviewee. Interview and writing by Cristina Nogueira – CulturAge)