“Come on, let her make a mess a little bit longer. She’s so sweet!” My godmother cheered me on as I demolished my birthday cake, feeding myself without the benefit of fork or plate, and shoving cake into the mouths of anyone who’d get close enough. My godmother shot a look at my dad, convinced of her victory over his unspoken disapproval. Everyone was laughing except him. It was another hazy day in June of 1972, hot and humid, when the jersey was in fashion and women wore flounced skirts.
My birthday party took place in Kralja Aleksandra Street. The house was too small for such a large gathering, and the guests spilled out into the dandelion-strewn yard. Nobody seemed to mind. Though chaotic, everything looked just the way that it should—if you didn’t consider the mess I was making of the cake.
“She’s five now, and this is the last time she’ll be allowed to do something like this,” my godmother said. Happy as I was with my powerful ally, I continued to poke around in the cream cake.
And then my father spoke, his deep clear voice filling the room. “Maria,” he scolded, “I’ve told you she simply can’t do whatever she wants, whenever she wants. She must learn to behave.” Dad clearly was not happy with my behavior. Even at my young age I could tell I’d overdone it.
There was tension in the air, sparks were ready to fly between Dad and my godmother. A clash was imminent. I looked up inquiringly, and his sour smile indicated that he was hesitant to administer punishment on my special day. My stubborn look and his frown were two whirling storm clouds which would produce lightning if they came into contact. It would be several years before the storm reached its climax.
Suddenly, with a deep sigh, he stood, gave my godmother a stern glance, and grabbed me up in his arms. He took me away resolutely to another room, as if to say, “This is my house and my child, and I will have the final word.”
“I warned you to stop,” he said, as he closed the door, still holding me in his arms. Then, he let me go.
My heart thumped with fear as I fell, feeling each fraction of a second as though I were a discarded toy tossed into a corner. I landed on a big feather pillow, over which my dad had dropped me. I felt as if I’d been thrown away like so much trash. My heart continued to pound—now more with sorrow than fear—as my father walked out of the room and slammed the door behind him.
In a few minutes he returned, and behind him, framed by the doorway, I saw the faces of all my concerned relatives. Dad picked me up and held me for at least half an hour. As I lay wrapped in his arms, I knew that he was no longer interested either in the guests or my spoiled behavior. He only cared that I not be unhappy. By the tears I saw in his eyes I knew that he was terribly sorry for what he had done.
“That’s the first and last time I will ever hurt you,” he said. “I swear.”
These were the words of a new covenant of love established between us. He admitted as much as he was putting me to bed a few nights later. It reestablished my sense of security, and total peace flooded my heart. I was happy again, and thankful for my parents, whom I adored. I soaked up the love offered by my dad. No matter what problems I might face in life, I felt sure again that I could rely on him. I closed my eyes and fell peacefully asleep.
But while I slept, ominous shadows squeezed through the cracks of my fairy-tale world. They mocked my carefree existence, and seemed to ask, “Will Daddy really honor the promise he gave you?”