Chronicle Ruth was more than a maid

In the house where I grew up in Härjedalen there was a maid. Her name was Ruth and she was twenty something when she came to our family. That must have been 1951 or 1952. I was three or four years old.

We had moved to Härjedalen from Stockholm. The maid was an emergency solution. My two siblings and I grew up with our father. Our mother was not present. So we needed a maid.

Now my sister tells me that Ruth has died. It was not unexpected but still it moves me. At the age of 80 she passes away. I have met her a couple of times after we left Härjedalen. The last years she lived on a meagre pension and with increasing ailments. Now and then I have tried to help her out. The last time I saw her she came and listened to a speech I gave. She sat in the front row and paid close attention to what I said. Afterwards she gave me a hug. Then she walked away on stiff legs. She was in Gothenburg to bury a relative.

After the news of Ruth’s death I have gloomy dreams as well as recollections of memories that I thought were long gone. When I wake up in the dark I see her in front of me: how she is riding her bicycle towards me on Fjällgatan in Sveg. Often I stood in a window and waited for her. Now, after such a long time, I realise that I was worried that she would not come. One woman had already disappeared from my life, my mother. I did not want to lose another.

I think about how important she was to me. In a very clear memory, which affects all my senses, I remember how she picks me up and gives me a hug with her warm hands. She was around 20 years old, had her own younger child at home and took care of our home as well. But the most important thing for me was, I think, that she cared for me; that she gave me tenderness and, perhaps even, love.

When I now try to imagine my earliest childhood without Ruth, a soundless curtain is lowered in front of me. Relatives who have also passed away remain in the dark, but Ruth Nilsson stands out. I experience something that I should have told her a long time ago. What I am really trying to do right now is perhaps to write a letter to Ruth. When it is too late. Or perhaps I have already done that by not forgetting her, or sending her my books?

I have a lot of memories. Right now, when I am writing this, I remember something from between 1956 and 1960 when Real Madrid won the European Cup in football five times in a row. We did not have a TV set in our home then, but Ruth did. One spring evening I took my bicycle to where Ruth lived beyond the hospital. I wanted to watch the final that was broadcasted live. I do not remember Ruth’s husband, a friendly bus mechanic, or their daughter Kerstin. But Ruth is sitting next to me in their sofa bed. Their apartment is not very big. A guitar on one wall, tapestry, a cuckoo clock. However, they had a TV set. On the left part of the black and white screen I watch a player, Gento, dressed in white charge forward at a tremendous speed. Nevertheless, Ruth who sits by my side, with the warmth form her body is more important than Gento, who at that time was among the top players of the world. A 50’s Ronaldo.

When the game was over and I rode my bike home. I remember that I understood that I have two homes. Without Ruth my existence would not be possible. She does not sleep at our house. But she belongs. Exactly which words I used I do not remember. Nevertheless, 60 years later, the meaning was clear to me.

Today I can state that Ruth gave me a lot of the self-esteem that all children need to become whole human beings. What we today call “ to be seen”. I am very grateful that while she cooked our food, made our beds and vacuum cleaned the house, she also found the time to pick me up from the floor now and then and give me a hug. Hugs which I can still feel. Perhaps I should say that Ruth proved to me that the most important an adult can do, the essence of adulthood, is to provide those growing up with self-esteem and make sure that everyone is seen.

What I am writing here is nothing new. But it is important. We live in a Sweden where too many children grow up without this self-esteem, without being picked up from the floor. It is not how a decent society should be. So, I am very grateful to Ruth. She replaced my mother in a brilliant way. In my life, she is one of the most important people- I cannot say it in a simpler, more truthful way.

Maybe, everyone should ask himself or herself: who am I important to, who do I pick up from the floor?

Henning Mankell

The chronicle was published in the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten February 26, 2013.

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