The first time I fell in love was the day my baby sister was born – round the corner from London’s Harley Street on a chilly February day. I was 10 years old and it was a few months before I started my 7-year stint at an all-girls boarding school on the coast.
Of course I wasn’t there at the actual birth. I was staying with my aunt – who was really a second cousin. We called her “Auntie” out of respect since she was closer to my mother’s age.
My father was at the clinic and when he called my aunt to tell us the good news, I remember asking him a specific question – “what is she like?”
My father was a man of few words and even fewer emotions – very much the hard-working disciplinarian. A civil-servant, dedicated to his craft of diplomacy and foreign policy. I never heard anyone call him by his first name. Not even my mother, who called him “dear” or “darling” around us. To others, he was either Your Excellency (when spoken to) or The Ambassador (when referred to).
Back in the 1970s, after school and before dinner time, my siblings and I had a few hours of freedom when we could run around the garden and play freely or maybe watch some Scooby-Doo. But the moment we heard Daddy’s car at the gate, everyone was at full attention. Everything had to be in place. Everybody too – even the grown-ups.
Dinner had to be ready and the dining table set – in case he was hungry; the house had to be tidy; the children had to be quiet and well behaved – seen and not heard. In fact there was a ritual for me. I had to be on hand in case Daddy needed to send me to do something for him – like bring him a glass of water. The glass of water could never be brought to Daddy by hand. It had to be brought to him on a tray – and handed over with my right hand and never my left – a cultural thing. As it happened, I was left-handed so remembering not to use my left hand was quite a task.
Incidentally, my father had been left-handed as a child which was frowned upon so as a child, he was forced to learn to write with his right hand. Fortunately, this never happened to me.
I remember one particular day when I had been summoned to get a glass of cold water for my father. I was rather under the weather that day but I had managed to find the right glass, fill it to the appropriate level (about half an inch from the top), and place it on a tray. I walked over to serve my father his glass of water. He sat in his armchair, his face buried in the newspaper. The needle on the record player scratched out some happy Doris Day tune as I concentrating on the task of not spilling a drop of water. When I was right in front of my father, I gingerly removed the glass from the tray with my left hand and extended the glass to him. I was completely oblivious to my faux-pas until I became aware of the weight of the glass still in my hand and looked across at my father’s face.
He was staring at me with a strange expression. The newspaper hadn’t moved and he didn’t say a word – just kept staring at me. I was perplexed. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I looked at the glass – it looked fine. I thought I was using the right hand – but confusion was now filling my mind. I felt my heart racing and had no idea what to do next. Doris was telling me que sera sera …
Before I knew it, my mother had swooped in, taken the glass from me (with her right hand of course) and handed it to my father. He didn’t take it immediately but eventually did. My mother said something about me not feeling too well and ushered me upstairs to lie down. I fled.
My father was not someone whom I associated with the word love. However, I didn’t feel I was lacking in being loved. I didn’t know any different. I assumed all fathers behaved the same way with their children. Maybe it was because my mother somehow made up for it. She never spoil us though, and she certainly disciplined us when we misbehaved, but I knew she loved me. She showed it in many ways – and I felt it. Neither of my parents grew up in homes where people said “I love you”. It simply wasn’t done.
My baby sister was my mother’s fifth and last child and was delivered by cesarean section. It was a rough pregnancy for her – especially since she was almost 40 and at a time when women were rarely having babies that “late” in life. There was a 5-year gap between my younger brother and my new baby sister and I was very excited about this baby.
I was 4 years old when my brother was born and I really wanted to carry him and walk around with him and hold him close to me the way I saw my mother and aunts doing – but I wasn’t allowed to. My mother said I was too little and had to wait until I was at least “as tall as her shoulder”. Of course, by the time I was that tall, my brother was no longer a baby – and he wouldn’t have let me carry and cuddle him even if I wanted to!
So now here I was at the “mature” age of 10, feeling like a grown up. I was old enough to hold a baby and I simply couldn’t wait to hold the baby that was coming. We didn’t know yet if it was a boy or a girl.
On that February morning, I was extremely excited and could barely contain myself. I kept asking my aunt to call the doctor to find out about the baby and she kept telling me that we would have to wait for the call. When the call finally came, my aunt spoke for quite a while on the phone. I didn’t have an iota of patience so I kept tugging at the chord of the receiver squeaking – “is it a boy or a girl? Is it a boy or a girl?” Eventually, with a smile on her face, my aunt said “It’s a girl!” Then she passed the phone to me.
For some reason, I was expecting to hear my mother’s voice – but instead, I got my father on the phone. So I said the only thing I could think of – “Good Afternoon, Daddy – what is she like?”
He was quiet for a while and I didn’t know if I had said something wrong. My mind was racing. Didn’t I greet him correctly? Had I been rude? What was wrong? A moment or two passed. Then in a voice that I didn’t recognize, in a soft tone, overflowing with emotion, he said “she is… beautiful…”
In that moment, in that very moment, I understood so much. In that moment, I understood that my father had feelings and that he could love. In that moment, we were connected. In that moment, without even seeing her, I had already fallen in love with my baby sister!
I was never able to have children of my own – but over the years, I have come to realize that from the moment my sister was born, my maternal instincts were born too and I have always held her in my heart in a way that a mother would. Not by choice, but my instinct. And though my father is no longer with us, I will always cherish the moment I realized for the first time, that he must have loved me too.
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