I can't exactly say why certain moments stick out clearly in my memory and this observation is especially true of those remembrances that deal with the early years of my life.
In an old album there is a faded photo of me wearing a little blue coat, tiny red bows adorning my hair in pigtails as I stand in front of a fountain in Bogotá, Colombia. To get there from where I lived in Panamá, I took my first plane ride with my parents at the unripe age of two. My first memory ever comes from this trip. I am being lifted into my mother's lap as she points out to me the clouds in a blue, blue sky. There is no sound in my mental movie reel, nothing before and nothing after - just that one, brief and blurred moment - a lift into her embrace, her finger pointing and fuzzy whiteness against a blue background.
Fast-forwarding to the age of six, I distinctly remember packing my favorite lunch box with my most precious Barbie in her best dress and matching shoes. I had debated whether to fill the remaining space with my second favorite Barbie or an apple. I was about to march into my parents bedroom in order to tell them I would be leaving their house for good! I didn't want to go to bed at eight o'clock every night and my youthful act of emancipation seemed quite clearly the only course to follow. My mother and father had been watching television in their bedroom and at my decisive farewell, I remember them looking at each other in a silence ripe with their internal communication. If I was set on going my mother said, then they would do nothing to stop me. They would miss me, but I had their permission to leave. What would they do with my toys and room? I asked. Your sister will likely get them.
Without a single tear or voiced protest they kissed me goodbye and remained watching the TV. For my part, I marched down the stairs to the front door in utter confusion and I was so upset at having this unforeseen outcome be the result of my ultimatum, that in a fury, I banged the front door shut with all my might. I knew they hated that. The neighbor's cherry tree half-way down the block was as far as I got before the darkness scared me and the worry set in. My second best Barbie in my sister's destructive little hands? I simply couldn't bear it and this was what turned me back towards my home. My mother told me later how she and my concerned father had followed my progress down the darkened street peeking from the window of their bedroom. For a moment there, it had seemed to them that I was going to go through with it after all and my father was about to go after me when they saw me turn back.
Years later, I found myself seated at the dinner table of Mr. Ingemar Lundberg. He was not only the Swedish consul to Panama but also the father of my dear friend Carin. I was tearing into Mrs. Lundberg's exquisite Marañon tart when I heard my father softly correct a pronouncement about Panamanian legislative districting that Mr. Lundberg had just made. At thirteen, I cared nothing whatsoever about the subject but to my subsequently attentive ears, I heard my father easily and engagingly explain what is an otherwise extremely boring subject. In a few minutes, I observed the awakening admiration in Mr. Lundberg's eyes, it mirrored my own. That was the first time I ever saw my father as something other than just my father.
In his long and exemplary life, my father has been many other things than just a family man and my mother's husband. He's been a horse jockey, an apprentice tailor, a classical music radio presenter. From budding political activist he turned into a well-known politician in Panama, became a respected lawyer, a professor of Law at our state university, a founding member of the Panamanian diplomatic corps and a consummate diplomat. Amongst his many public titles he's a three-time Ambassador and twice, he's been named Under-Secretary of State for my country. All of his career he has parlayed out of a love of learning and an intractable integrity that many, even his opponents, recognize.
I am hard put to summarize in this post the many wonderful lessons I've benefited from by being my father's daughter but foremost in them is his egalitarian respect for others. My father knows by name and greets with equal effusiveness the boy that packs his bag at the grocery store as he does the many more prominent persons he deals with in his life. His facility to engage cordially with people is not something I have inherited but learned. There is one fundamental component to this lesson and that is politeness above all else. I have come far with just this one teaching and believe that the best and most memorable of my acquaintances stem directly from it.
Another lesson is that there is no other way but to march forward. Presented with moments of extreme adversity throughout his life my father has always been a warrior. His intrinsically optimistic personality is the fount from which he has drawn to survive many difficult moments and, on the occasions where I have been in a similarly difficult place, I have mentally invoked his ability to rally forth as a shining example in the face of my own weakness.
If I can say one last thing about my father and about how he has influenced my own personality so profoundly then, I must not omit to mention his love of family. My father loves quietly and deeply and there are no greater loves in his life than my mother, my sister, myself, and now my son, the extension of his blood-line. What this knowledge has given me is priceless and almost impossible to explain in just a few words. So many good things flow from it - my self-confidence, my constant desire for self-betterment, the loyalty and love I extend to others, the honesty of my dealings. He has loved me so well and selflessly that I, in turn, know what it takes to do the same.
Many are the days I have wished we did not live separated by so much distance - he and my mother in Panama, I in Houston with my husband and child but today especially, I wish it most. It is his birthday, he has turned 71 and I am not there to celebrate with him. Instead, I am writing him these words hoping he will read them and know how much I pride myself in being his daughter, how very much I love him. Te quiero papi, feliz cumpleaños.
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