THE BLOG
07/31/2014 12:24 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

A Lesson In Forgetting Social Classes

"I don't see a war between the rich and the poor. Everyone got something, but who got the most? The fact is that more poor people came out on top. I think some people don't like it when they find themselves seated next to a housekeeper or a secretary on a plane."

-- Dilma Rousseff on July 28 during a debate at Folha de S. Paulo

This sentence reminded me of a poignant episode I experienced three years ago on a flight back from a vacation in Rio Grande do Norte. I'm not much of a talker on planes, but halfway through the flight I found myself sharing some laughs over a TV show with the woman next to me. The laughter brought us together, unleashing a conversation that lasted the remainder of the trip.

The woman, in her 60s, said this was her first plane trip and the first time, after many decades living and working in São Paulo, that she had gone back to visit her family in Currais Novos, a small town in Rio Grande do Norte, a small state in the northeast of Brazil.

Recently retired from a job as a housekeeper, what impressed her most in that small town was the enthusiasm she felt: "There's a party every night, nobody sleeps," she said, smiling from ear to ear.

She told me she lived with her son and daughter, who were both in their 20s, college graduates and financially independent (facts she was very proud of), in a small but comfortable home in the greater São Paulo. She busied herself with odd sewing jobs, but nothing very serious. "I do this because I like being busy," she said.

The conversation kept flowing as easily as if we had known each other for a long time, when suddenly I understood why. That simple yet wise woman, who despite all of the daily hardships, was happy with life and herself. She reminded me of Maria da Gloria, who worked as a housekeeper for my family for many decades.

Maria came to our home shortly after I was born in 1967. There, she settled among an upper middle class family: the father, a lawyer; the mother, a homemaker; and four children, two boys and two girls. At the beginning, we lived in a townhouse in Pinheiros, later in an apartment in Jardins, an upscale neighborhood in São Paulo.

When Maria arrived, Mia, the cook, had already been working with my family since my mother was 15. And, although they were completely different from one another, both became a central part of the family.

It was with Maria, not my mother, whom I liked to study. She was very fast, and all I wanted was to get it over with quickly to go play, listen to music, or read. I would go to her room, sit on her bed, hand her my notebook and, in a matter of minutes, she reviewed the multiplication tables and checked my knowledge of history, Portuguese, or geography. It was all about memorizing things, so I always answered without missing a beat. Thanks to Maria's help, I always got good grades and never needed summer school (except as a teenager, during an existential crisis when Maria wasn't around).

When I was about 15, Maria married the family chauffeur, a handsome and vain man who prohibited her from continuing to work as soon as they left the church. She went away for a few years, moved to a small town, went through hard times, and some years later, after her husband got ill, she reclaimed her right to be independent.

At first, she went back to work for my sister Celina. But when I was 29, as soon as I got back from a stint in London, I moved into my first apartment in São Paulo and asked her to work for me.

So we shared a strong bond for another 15 years. She knew me better than anyone else and did not mind my serious, at times slightly harsh, attitude. She knew it was only skin-deep. I told her she was in charge of running the apartment: "I want nothing to do with it, tell me how much it is and I'll give you the money." And so she took care of everything.

When her two children, a boy and a girl, finished high school, I convinced my father to pay their college tuition. Eduardo majored in business administration, and Marina in physiotherapy.

Because Maria had serious cardiovascular problems, I tried to make her quit smoking, but she kept sneaking a cigarette. I even took her to a top specialist, who warned her about the dangers of smoking, but it was all in vain.

Since I was concerned about Maria's future, I paid for her ​​health insurance. And thus, time went by -- she was always there, constant and unfaltering, despite her increasingly heavy and swollen legs. When she turned 60, Maria went into retirement, but wanted to continue working.

One day she was hospitalized. Her daughter gave me daily updates, but as I was very busy leading the hectic life of a journalist, it took me a few days to go visit her. On a Sunday morning, I woke up early and went to the hospital in Santo Amaro. I found her in great spirits, with a smile on her face; she seemed to have overcome the worst of it.

At night, I got the dreadful phone call. Maria had suddenly worsened and died. She was 63. I had lost my faithful squire, the one I could trust 100 percent. I'm sure she knew that she could also trust me.

The dialogue with the lady on the plane happened about two months after Maria's passing. After a delightful 90-minute chat, capped by an amazing full moon showing itself through the airplane window, I realized that that meeting had touched me deeply.

"Maria sat beside me on this plane," I thought to myself, looking at the seat next to me during a pause in our conversation. When the plane started descending in Congonhas, my eyes filled with tears. I landed in peace, a contrast to the chaotic city all around me. I was happy to have had one last meeting with Maria da Gloria, a woman I missed so much, albeit in the skin of that other dignified woman.

The Brazilian Labor Party is not my default party of choice. I believe that the economic and social progress made in Brazil is the joint achievement of our young democracy and the members of the Brazilian society. But thank you, Dilma, because your sentence allowed me to recreate that wonderful experience over the skies of Brazil.

Follow Otávio Dias on Twitter: www.twitter.com/OtavioLDias

This article was translated from Portuguese and was originally published on Brasil Post.