Ove and Emil and winning a smile

A Man Called Ove has been on my list of hyped books to read for two or three years. I’d look at it when I visited the bookstore, nearly adding it to my pile. But then something always prevented me.

Then I saw that it was available as an audiobook through my library.

“What the hay?” I thought while clicking the borrow button.

I was entranced from the first moment.

Ove is a grumpy old man who just wants to go about his business. What’s his business? Well, if I told you, it might ruin part of the story for you and I’m not a spoil queen. But every time Ove tries to do his thing, he’s prevented by a spectacular cast of troublesome neighbors.

It’s a curmudgeon-turns-soft-hearted-teddy-bear-because-he’s-confronted-with-the-fact-that-he’s-needed kind of a story. A tale about how important community is. How much we need each other.

I enjoyed every single minute of it.

Ove reminded me of a man who lived in the retirement home I worked at in college. His name was Emil and he was a tough customer. At lunch he’d get upset because the food was either too chewy or too mushy. He’d complain that we didn’t break his crackers small enough. He’d complain that we crushed them to powder. He’d moan through dinner, sometimes even throwing his spoon on the floor in frustration (and the spoon only because he wasn’t allowed to have knives or forks anymore!!! Yikes!).

All the girls I worked with couldn’t decide if they were afraid of him or just hated him. Or maybe it was a little of both.

As upsetting as Emil often was, something about him made me sad. I asked my grandma about him (she lived in the same retirement community) and she said that in the three years she’d lived there, no one came to visit Emil.

Not once.

I decided that I’d get him to smile somehow. I wasn’t sure how, but I was determined that I would win a smile.

I’d slip him an extra pudding cup or sneak him a cookie before helping him get to his apartment after meals. I’d wheel his chair the long way to the elevator so he could see the goldfinches at the bird feeders.

Eventually, he stopped grumping at me. He started saying “please” and “thank you”. He even told me one time that I was doing a good job.

Every once in awhile he’d tell me about serving in the Polish Army in World War II or his wife who passed away years before. Sometimes he’d even tell me about his “good for nothing children” who “never visited”. Then he’d talk about how proud he was of them anyway.

Just like Ove in the book, Emil in real life warmed up a little.

The last time I saw Emil was before I took two weeks off for Christmas vacation. I wished him a good holiday and handed him a card with a candy cane taped to the front (all I could afford on my college student budget).

He patted my hand and told me I was special.

Then he gave me the slightest little smile. If I hadn’t been watching I would have missed it.

Three days after Christmas, Emil passed away.

I was absolutely devastated. Going to work after that just wasn’t the same. I missed Emil.

That was over twenty years ago and I hadn’t thought of Emil in a long time. Not until I gave A Man Called Ove a chance. If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought Fredrick Backman had used Emil as a template for his character.

While I listened to the story, it struck me that what made Ove’s life worthwhile was seeing the need others had for him. He had to live one day more just to help one of his pea-brained neighbors.

Then I thought about what it had been that Emil needed. It came to me right away. Emil needed to be seen. Seen for more than the angry old man. Seen for someone who was frustrated, yes, but for very good reason. Seen as a man who remembered the strength of his youth from the body of a man who could hardly wheel his way down the hall.

What Emil needed was to have his worth acknowledged.

We have Oves and Emils all around us. Hard-to-love folks who annoy us or grump at us or defy our ability to understand them.

No matter who they are, they need to be loved. They want to be seen. It’s important for them to be acknowledged as having a purpose.

It costs so little for us. Maybe a little time, a bit of effort, a space in our hearts. When we choose to recognize the worth of someone else we can never fully know what difference it makes in their lives.

We can only know the way it changes ours.

Photo by Alex Boyd

8 Comments on “Ove and Emil and winning a smile

    • Joc, you would have loved Emil, I think. He had all his war medals in his little apartment. I got to see them one time. He was SO dismissive of them, but I was super impressed. He was such a curmudgeon…but also very kind underneath.

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  1. Loved Ove and I am sure I would have loved Emil. I so enjoy anything that you write. I have often went out of my way to be kind to people who were not nice to me. When I am asked why, I tell others it becomes a challenge and I feel so good when I get that smile, thank you or a nod of the head. It shows that I have not become like them.

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    • Lois, it makes the world a much more pleasant place to live when we choose kindness — especially when it’s difficult. I’m glad you’re out there sharing smiles!

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  2. Thanks for sharing your experience with a “real life” Ove. It was because of your praise for the book that I picked up a copy and recently read it. You were spot on once again!

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    • Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Nancee! I used a little birthday money and got another of his books to read over the summer. I can’t wait!

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  3. Great post, Susie! I’m glad you got him to smile. Knowing you, if you couldn’t get him to smile, absolutely no one could! ~Robyn

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