Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island - Regina Calcaterra (2013)
11. The Happy House
Summer 1988 to January 1998
WITHIN DAYS AFTER Cookie flies back to Idaho, my grandfather begins to notice that things around his house have gone missing. There are pots, pans, dishes, silverware, blankets, towels, photo albums, my grandmother’s jewelry, and even her nail polishes and makeup that he can’t seem to find. I presume he’s suffering some kind of grief-induced memory loss.
“Regina, Cookie made multiple early morning trips to the post office to send packages to Rosie because she was home alone,” he said.
“Gramps, Rosie moved in with one of her teachers more than a year ago. Cookie doesn’t even have guardianship of her anymore.” That’s when he and I put it together: Cookie pilfered his things while he was grieving.
After Rosie’s teacher took over her guardianship, my baby sister was able to begin her healing . . . but Camille and I took quiet note as Rosie made choices to leave her past behind—and that included shutting us out. Rosie never said it, but we sensed she blamed us. No matter how we fought for her well-being, nothing we did could ever be enough when Cookie was the opponent. As much as it destroyed us to see Rosie cut off communication with us, we understood. We’d failed her. We’d grown up always one bad decision away from homelessness and poverty. We’d tried to raise each other when we were just kids ourselves, sharing everything we had . . . which was never very much. Rosie needed us to save her, and we tried, but we couldn’t, because when you live on the fringes of society with no resources, you have no voice and your complaints are easily ignored. So for now our relationship is wrought with an undercurrent of resentment and frustration. For Cherie, Camille, and me, adjusting to the world meant growing farther away from the pain we experienced as kids. For Rosie to do the same, she had to grow far away from us and closer to the people in her community who were finally able to protect her.
ONE BY ONE, my friends begin to transition into work: Some take jobs at banks on Wall Street or at Manhattan advertising agencies or in federal law enforcement. Jeanine and her boyfriend, George, as well as Sheryl and her beau, Thomas, are hinting at their pending engagements. I take a job at Bruno’s, an Italian restaurant, working all shifts. Every day during my breaks, I scan the classifieds for a job I feel passionately about.
Unfortunately, the only openings at places even remotely dealing with public policy are for typists. Of all the courses I took in high school and college, not one was for typing. No matter how I calculate it, there’s no possible way I can learn how to type eighty words per minute—with a stopwatch and no mistakes—all by myself. Still, I take the train to the interviews in Manhattan, a place that’s romancing me more with every ninety-minute ride on the Long Island Rail Road.
After a few failed interviews, I figure out a way to pass the typing test: Because I’m allowed to practice on the same script and the same typewriter I’ll be using for the test, I take my time to type the script with no mistakes . . . then I place it under my typewriter. Then I roll in a blank sheet of paper, and after the timekeeper starts her watch and leaves the room, I switch out the practice paper with the perfect script. Finally, I get a second interview for a typist position at the New York Junior League, a prestigious organization for young women that works on nonprofit causes. It’s perfect.
I show up for the interview in a dark suit and white blouse with dark, low shoes—conservative and easy to foot around Manhattan. I enter the fine-carpeted cherry lobby, ready to dazzle my future boss with information on the statewide policy issues I worked on during my internship at the Senate and my solid letters of recommendation. But when they ask me to take a typing test under the watch of a timekeeper, I know how this will end.
I type a total of thirty-two words in one minute, with twelve mistakes. Then I thank them, grab my bag, and bow my head to quickly leave.
In August I’m called to interview for a position as an advocate for the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. They are located in Jackson Heights, Queens, in the shining new offices that have been converted from the old Bulova watch factory. I take the Long Island Rail Road to the Woodside station, where a shuttle equipped for wheelchairs picks me up and drops me off in front of the EPVA’s office.
Smelling the fresh construction, the prospect of entering this bright building morning after morning adds excitement to my steps heading toward the EPVA’s lobby. There I’m greeted by my potential bosses—all quadriplegic or paraplegic men in wheelchairs who were disabled during their service in the Vietnam and Korean wars. During the interview they tell me they need to fill an entry-level position with someone who can advocate on their behalf on the local and state levels. “We need someone who won’t have a problem making trips to Albany and traveling across Long Island on our behalf,” one explains. “You’ll need to go to the capital at least once a month.” They then go on to tell me that most of their funding comes from a greeting card manufacturing plant they partially own in New Hampshire and that, as a nonprofit, they don’t have the opportunity to pay decent salaries.
I nod. I knew I could continue waitressing in the evenings and on weekends to supplement my income. “This is perfect,” I tell them. “I have contacts up there, and I’m familiar with the time and perseverance it takes to get something passed. Plus, I have my own car.”
The gentlemen glance at each other with raised eyebrows and promise to review my résumé, my letters of recommendation, and my references. The next day, they call me, offering me the title of an associate advocate for seventeen thousand dollars a year, with benefits. I have no concept for what seventeen thousand will get me, and I don’t really care. The only important thing is, I’ve got a job.
I’m fully aware that this is another step toward main-streaming—doing what my peers are doing, regardless of how different my background has been from theirs. After a few months of commuting ninety minutes each way from the Petermans’ to my office, I move into the dark, barred-window basement apartment of a Tudor home in Forest Hills, Queens, with my college friend Reyne. “This place is a firetrap. You couldn’t get a room upstairs?” Cherie says when she comes to visit. I know it’s not fancy, but it’s all I can afford, and the location is convenient for the travel my job demands.
The disabled veterans group sends me to Washington and all around New York State. I advocate publicly and passionately for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights act whose purpose is to remove barriers, societal and structural, for people with disabilities. What inspires me most about this act is that, in its true spirit, it provides opportunities for those who have been held back from mainstreaming and living independently. Every time the phrase self-sufficiency is bantered about in lectures or legislative sessions, my commitment grows stronger with the realization that my fight for others to maintain their dignity is exactly the same fight I’ve known all my life.
While lobbying for the veterans in Albany, I meet Alan Hevesi, the Assembly chair of the committee for People with Disabilities, who, as I learn through friendly banter, happens to also live in Queens. Alan is a professor at Queens College and appears genuinely concerned about the development of young public servants. In 1989, when he decides to run for the position of comptroller, the chief fiscal officer of the city, I volunteer for his campaign. Every night for weeks, I stick stamps on envelopes and hand out literature at subway stations during rush hours.
Alan loses the race, but to prepare for his next run, a small group of us band together to organize the RFK Democratic Club, a new political clubhouse, to attract volunteers. I’m designated the founding chairperson . . . and when Bobby Kennedy Jr. joins us at the club’s dedication to his father, I begin to see the payoff of being part of a campaign that is categorized as a long shot.
In April 1991, after two and a half years working for the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, New Jersey Transit recruits me to assist in developing their statewide plan to make their public rail and bus systems accessible to people with disabilities. I spend my time on buses and trains from Queens to Newark, studying how to write a plan to the federal government on behalf of a state agency . . . and it grows clear that, as my career flourishes, I’m going to need a significant understanding of the law.
Every morning, on the walk from Newark’s Penn Station to my office a few blocks away, I glance over at the construction site for Seton Hall University’s new law school building. Day by day, for months, I see the shadow of a building rising slowly behind the train station. When it grows possible to observe its form—all white, steel and glass—I stop by their admissions office and pick up a brochure explaining their unique program called Legal Education Opportunity (LEO). The LEO program is affectionately known as an “affirmative action boot camp,” the admissions officer tells me, and it runs all summer to prepare its students for the possibility that they’ll be accepted into Seton Hall’s law school. The brochure explains that, unlike other institutions that require both a competitive LSAT and GPA, Seton Hall’s LEO program considers students with either one or the other. The catch is that applicants need a strong personal story explaining why they couldn’t excel in both requirements.
It’s only for half a second that I waffle, wondering if being twenty-five makes me too old to begin four years of evening law school when most law students my age are already applying for first-year associate jobs. Still . . . the thought of holding a law degree feels like it could be in reach, if I just had an opportunity to prove myself. After writing a personal essay explaining my less-than-stellar GPA, I kiss the envelope for luck and submit my application.
In spring of 1992 I’m accepted. Affirmative action boot camp begins in June.
At the LEO orientation, the law school dean explains to all seventy-six of us that, while it’s unlikely any other law school would have accepted us, Seton Hall sees something in our stories that shows promise. “But this program is going to take an extraordinary commitment from you,” he says. “I need to make it clear that for us to accept you is a risk—law school rankings are based upon many things, including how many students pass the bar examination the first time, and by definition, you’re here because you failed in one of the two indicators that result in high first-time bar passage rates.” He explains that only students who achieve at least a B in the affirmative action boot camp will be admitted into law school . . . and in August of 1992, I learn I made the cut.
I stay full-time at New Jersey Transit and pace myself for a twelve-credit load every semester, grabbing a coffee and a sandwich for dinner from the law school deli before my six o’clock class four nights a week. When class gets out at nine thirty I take the train from Newark to Manhattan’s Penn Station, then the subway and the bus back to Queens. By midnight I’m in bed, knowing the next day will look the same. Some nights, as I’m drifting to sleep, I’m jolted awake by the thought of Rosie. Nothing else has ever compared to the depth of emptiness my heart holds for her. Sure, I’ve mainstreamed professionally and socially . . . but emotionally I’ve never healed. I’ve stifled the reality of the emotional scars that I’ve spent all of my young adulthood ignoring.
The more I learn about policy and the law, the more excited I become to immerse myself in the world of politics. After the half-decade I’ve dedicated to advocating for the rights of the physically challenged, I’m ready for a change. In 1993, the same year Rudy Giuliani runs for New York City mayor, Alan runs for city comptroller . . . and this time, with the support of the field operation that we cultivated over the past few years, he wins.
Alan places me on his transition and inauguration teams. The first few months into his new administration in downtown Manhattan, I work with fierce intensity while juggling law school in Newark. “You’re one of the only people I know who never takes no for an answer,” Alan tells me as he designates me as his director of Intergovernmental Relations, charged with passing his state and city legislative agenda. As far as title and responsibility go, they’re as thrilling as they are daunting for me—a twenty-eight-year-old law student managing a staff and charged with implementing a New York City–wide elected official’s legislative agenda. We successfully secure the passage of ten state laws.
MY PROFESSIONAL SUCCESS gives me the courage to reach out once again to Paul Accerbi . . . something I haven’t tried since I was sixteen, twelve years ago. If I can overcome strong and powerful opposition in state politics, maybe I can convince Paul that I’m a decent young woman who just wants to know who her father is. But this time, rather than writing from my foster home, I take a business card and attach a note extolling my academic and work credentials. I mail it to Julia and Frank Accerbi. Please kindly pass this along to Paul, wherever he may live, I write.
One week later, Paul calls me at the office. “If you have lived without a father for twenty-eight years, I see no reason why you would need one now,” he says.
“I feel my age is irrelevant, Paul,” I tell him. “I am someone’s child, and believe I am your child. I want to respect your space, and I’m just hoping that you could take a DNA test so I know for sure if you’re my dad. I want nothing from you, really—just to know.” I take a breath. “After the test, I promise: I will leave you alone.” I give him no clue that I’m holding back tears, fearing to tell him the truth: I really do want to get to know him . . . but if I share that, his reaction would only be worse.
“Oh, first you’re pressuring me for answers and now you’re demanding my DNA? I am not taking a DNA test!” His voice crashes through the receiver like thunder. “My life and my decisions are none of your business. Every time you come around you create problems for me! Do you hear me? Never, ever contact Julia or me again.” He hangs up.
Immediately I dial Camille.
“What did you expect?”
“I don’t know. I know what I wanted, but I expected him to be open to a DNA test. He can see that I am a well-adjusted person—I want nothing from him, except to know the truth.”
“Gi, he has run from the truth his entire life. He’s right, you survived twenty-eight years without him, and you don’t need him now. Let it be. You’ve got so much to be proud of and even more to look forward to. Stop looking back. It’s over. It’s all over. You need to move on.”
Burying rejection is something that’s become one of my strengths . . . and with that I vow never to consider contacting him again.
WHILE WORKING FOR the comptroller, I’m constantly interfacing with the most important leaders in New York City, including Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his staff. I look forward to these interactions, not just because they force me to step up and perform at my highest ability . . . but also because the mayor has a young, handsome, stoic-looking aide who’s caught my eye. Like me, Todd Ciaravino takes his work very seriously. The catch? We’re on opposite sides of the political aisle—me, a Democrat who works for a Democrat; and Todd, a Republican who works for a Republican—and our bosses are always pitted against each other in a political war. I watch Todd from afar, taking note that when we do get to chat, he remains aloof and mysterious—he doesn’t see me as the ass-kicking young hotshot I like to think I am. That summer, I spend my weekends with friends in Newport, Rhode Island, and Fire Island—a barrier island that protects Long Island from the Atlantic Ocean. I also plan a trip to Utah to visit Rosie in her new home state after she graduates from Idaho State University.
I arrive with my arms full of gifts and ready for hugs, but from the beginning, our interactions are cool and mechanical. This is characteristic of the handful of visits we’ve had since Cherie, Camille, and I put her on that plane back to Idaho a decade ago, so I arrived bracing for it . . . but that doesn’t make it any easier. I’d exhausted myself with hope, imagining this trip to Utah would be a breakthrough.
Admittedly, part of the ill feeling she’s harboring I brought on myself: During law school and especially after I graduated in May of 1996, my work has been my clearest priority. It’s the one place where I’ve been successful. When I found out I passed the New York State bar examination, I was finally satisfied and able to put all of my energies into advancing my career. In addition to getting laws passed, Alan’s put me in charge of organizing citywide task forces—one of them being a mission to identify leading representatives in the many cultural communities around New York City. When Alan asks me to, I also set up the Immigrant Task Force. “But I’ve never worked on immigration before,” I tell him.
“There’s a lot you’d never tried before you got here, but you always find ways to figure it out.”
Then, in 1997, when a neighbor of Alan’s in Forest Hills calls him, he and his assistant Jack wave their hands fervently for me to come into Alan’s office and he sets his phone on speaker. “Go ahead, Gerry,” he says, mouthing to me: Listen.
“I’m getting on a call with the White House at three o’clock,” the woman says. “We’re going over immigration issues, and I need someone who can really help me zero in on the leaders of the different ethnic communities in New York.”
“I have the perfect person for you,” Alan says. “I’m going to send over Regina Calcaterra.”
I fold my arms. What are you getting me into?
“ ‘Gerry?’ ” I ask both of them. “Who was that?”
“That was Geraldine Ferraro,” Alan says.
I sink down in his visitor’s chair. “You want me to help Geraldine Ferraro?”
Geraldine Ferraro: the former congresswoman and vice presidential candidate. I call Camille, who tells her kids to holler Good luck! in the background. Then I think of calling Rosie to tell her, but am worried she’ll think I’m as absorbed as ever in my work.
Alan tells me that the call at three o’clock Geraldine has is with President Clinton’s New Americans committee. “She’s a big supporter of mine, Regina. All you have to do is fax her a memo, then go down there and walk her through it. Give her all the data she requested. Anything extra you know about these ethnic leaders, include it. We have two hours. I’ll put you in a cab so you can meet her at her office to go over the list.”
“Meet her?” I feel sweat break out of the pores in my scalp. “Alan, I can easily do that over the phone.”
Alan looks at me sternly. “Regina, get in a cab and go over to meet her. This opportunity will never come again.”
Spring flowers blossom on the trees along the route our taxi takes from our office across from City Hall straight up toward SoHo, to Lafayette Street. Geraldine Ferraro’s office sits on the top floor of a quaint redbrick building with a black awning over her son’s restaurant, Cascabel. As her no-nonsense secretary eyes me from her desk, I begin outwardly perspiring. The harder I focus on controlling my rising nervousness, the harder it exits my pores. I breathe inconspicuously, deeply in and out, and begin counting to calm myself, watching Geraldine through the glass window into her office. Inside the sunny, warm-toned room she moves about assuredly and with grace, her voice rising only once on the phone.
It hits me: meeting Geraldine Ferraro is like meeting Amelia Earhart.
Geraldine is a woman who’s blazed trails in the face of the barriers women in politics—and in society—have faced, paying no mind to the thousands of critics who wanted her to fail. She persevered, believing that fighting and being defeated would be better than not fighting at all; but here she is, right in front of me, wearing a soft peach-toned turtleneck scented with something close to Chanel, pearl earrings, and a smile spread across her perfectly proportioned face. “Regina,” she says. “Please. Come in.”
Finally able to focus on our work, I’ve ceased my sweating episode. After a few minutes of going over the list together, Geraldine leans forward over her desk and asks me: “Regina, would you mind staying and participating in my call?”
“Your call . . . with the White House?”
“Yes. I’m just thinking—you seem much more comfortable discussing the individuals on this list than I am.”
I try to think of some reason I need to run back to the office, then I remember Alan’s words: This opportunity will never come again.
She directs me away from her desk to the couch in her sitting area, taking a seat across the coffee table in a sturdy armchair. She never strays from the balance between warmth and strength, which is evident when she gently suggests, “You should really do the talking.” Early in the call she introduces me to the White House staff and I follow her lead, finally at ease, picking up the tone of her can-do stoicism. I’m in awe as the folks in Washington defer to her, because it’s understood to everyone in her presence that even without a hint of condescension, Geraldine Ferraro knows more than you do. For the twenty minutes I’m questioned on the roles of the black, South Asian Indian, and Middle Eastern leaders in New York, Gerry offers assuring nods—at one point, even a wink.
After the call, she rests her arms on the chair she’s sitting in across from me. “Regina,” she ponders, “I think I could use your help on something.”
I perk up, pretending I’m not completely spent.
“I’m working on a book about my mother. She was the daughter of an Italian immigrant who made a lot of sacrifices to provide my brother and me a chance to mainstream as Americans.”
Mainstream?! I want tell her. I’d say you’ve done more than mainstreamed! Instead, I politely lean forward with my hands in my lap. “Yes, Ms. Ferraro?”
“Please,” she says. “Call me Gerry.” Gerry speaks about her mother, Antonetta—dropping phrases like widow after my father’s death and worked as a bead maker in the South Bronx . . . but in my head I’m watching a movie reel of Gerry’s many extraordinary achievements: She built a strong family with her husband, John; she rose to become Queens Assistant District Attorney heading up the Sex Crimes Unit. She became a U.S. congresswoman, and in 1984 became the first woman to be nominated as a vice presidential candidate for a major party. I tune back in when she says, “This is where I need you, Regina: I plan to dedicate the last chapter to present-day female immigrants by highlighting the sacrifices they’re making to give their children a chance at opportunities that wouldn’t be available outside of America. You’re so well-versed speaking about present-day immigration. Can you help?”
I nod slowly, in disbelief that Geraldine Ferraro is asking me to assist her in a book—any book!—not to mention, it’s about her mother. I float out of her office and, too dazed to hail a cab, I walk the near-mile back to City Hall in my heels. Surely, by the time I arrive there, she’ll have called and said, “Never mind, Regina! I’ve found a bright young scholar to take this on; someone with a sane mother and a normal upbringing!”
When Alan meets me at the office door, indeed he says Gerry has called. “Nice work,” he tells me. “Sounds like you made quite an impression.”
Instantly the work is a comfort, the familiar feeling of being busy giving me a sense of structure and security. When I graduated law school a year ago, I had more free time on my hands than I’ve ever had in my life—the first time I’ve just had one full-time job without waitressing, attending law school, or working on political campaigns on the side. For the next six weeks I spend my nights up to my elbows in the immigration research, feeling soothed by the work, and finally producing a summary and outline based on my vision for Gerry’s last chapter. I return to her office and hand over my file, which she accepts with a kind smile.
Then, a week later, she calls. “Regina, do you mind coming down to my office again?”
My stomach sinks. My heart pounds. I slide from flats into the heels under my desk and hail a cab, directing him to Lafayette Street.
“I’ve decided that since this book is to be about my mother, that it should begin and end with my mother.” Gerry’s tone and face are kind, but matter-of-fact. “I’m no longer going to use the content you provided.”
I nod, trying to swallow the lump of tears building up in my throat. I knew that, eventually, this is how it would end. “Look, Gerry, I’m just grateful for the chance to have worked with you.”
“Well, not so fast,” she says. “I still need your help. I’m writing a story about an Italian immigrant, but I’m also finding that I need to tell the story against the backdrop of the Italian immigration movement and the progression of Italians into American society. That piece, I don’t have. I need your experience on immigration.”
“Gerry, see . . . the problem is that I am only familiar with current immigration patterns—not stories from the past. Plus, even though, yes, I am Italian”—in my work I always need to finesse this next point—“I’m not fully aware of my heritage. I’m afraid I just can’t be useful at this point.”
Her face grows firmer, subtly frustrated at my resistance. “Yes, Regina, actually you can. It’s going to take some research on your part, but I’m confident you’re up to it. In fact, I’m so confident that I would like to pay you for your research,” she says.
“Oh, Gerry.” It comes out halfhearted, almost a plea to be cut loose. What if I let her down? “Please,” I tell her. “Your confidence in me and the opportunity to work on something so deeply personal to you is payment enough.”
That night before I go home, I stop at the New York Public Library. I scan the microfiche and take out every book I can find on Ellis Island and Italian immigrants in New York, including The Madonna of 115th Street and Beyond the Melting Pot.
My contribution to Gerry’s memoir, Framing a Life, puts solid punctuation on this era of my work for the city. I’ve far exceeded my own expectations . . . and it’s time to move on. With Alan kicking around the idea of running for mayor in the 2001 election, I’m hesitant to stay with him the four years until then. It’s a danger to be out of law school five years without ever having practiced. My law degree is my single most worthy credential, and also my safety net—even if other opportunities aren’t available, there are always jobs in law . . .
. . . but only if I start using it.
While eagerly waiting for the release of Gerry’s book, I begin to look for a job where I can actually use my law degree and also make a higher income. I know this means leaving New York City politics. I’m thirty years old, living with roommates in my third Manhattan apartment. I’ve spent my whole life sharing cramped, compromised spaces that don’t feel like mine; and most of all, I need to begin making enough money to stop deferring payment on my law school loans. The public sector could never pay me enough for rent, living expenses, and a hundred and fifty thousand dollars of law school loan debt.
When I can force myself not to get wistful for a connection with Rosie, even my family situation has grown well adjusted and normal. Camille and Frank now have Frankie, Maria, and Michael, and Cherie and her new husband have Johnathan and Matthew—all of whom I couldn’t love any more if they were my own. I spend my holidays with them and they join me in the city for Christmas or to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. On weekends, I carve out time to see friends, movies, and Broadway shows. Nicer days are spent in Central Park, running or Rollerblading. Sundays are my favorite: I drink coffee in bed and read several papers from cover to cover.
One Sunday morning close to the holidays in 1997, I’m in bed reading the paper when the phone rings. Expecting to hear Camille’s voice on the other end, I pick it up. “Hey.”
“Regina, I have some mail here for you.”
“Addie?” She usually only calls on holidays and birthdays . . . but her voice sounds curious, or startled; somehow strained, trying to hold back.
“Okay, well just send it to me. It’s probably junk.”
“I don’t think it’s junk . . . in fact, I think you may want me to open it now. It’s from a Julia Accerbi—it looks like a Christmas card.”
“Well, open it!” I tell her. “What are we waiting for?” I hear the envelope rip open, then Addie begins laughing. “Regina, you won’t believe this: Her Christmas card is from the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association.”
“Are you kidding?” I laugh. The EPVA’s main source of revenue was through selling greeting cards. “She probably paid part of my salary while I was there!”
“Now that’s irony,” Addie says, giggling. “Okay, she writes—are you ready?”
“ ‘To Regina,’ then the printed message reads, ‘With the old wish that is ever new—Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, too!’ ”
“Yes—my goodness. She signed ‘Love, Aunt Julia.’ ”
“Aunt Julia? Addie . . . are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure. I’ll pop it in the mail to you today, you can look at it yourself.”
Both when I was sixteen and twenty-eight, I wrote to Paul at Julia and Frank’s house, and neither time did I get a response from them, only from Paul. So why now, after never having contact with me, is she suddenly showing interest? Maybe something happened to Paul that she wants me to know about. Or maybe she just wants me to know the truth. Aunt Julia. How do I suddenly have an aunt Julia?
“Regina,” Addie interrupts, “are you there? What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Will you just send it to me? I’ll call you in a few weeks for Christmas.”
Everything about the card is both intriguing and odd, but there are two points that stand out in particular: First, it was sent to Addie’s home—my old foster home—where I haven’t resided for close to a decade. Anyone with a shred of knowledge about my life would know that. Second, how did she not mention her husband, my supposed uncle? I dial Camille, the only other person on earth who could know what this means to me.
“What do you think this is about?” I ask her.
“I have no idea,” she says thoughtfully. “Do you think Paul died? Or maybe this woman is sick and she wants to tell you something before she gets worse. Whatever it means . . . tread carefully, sweetie. I know you’re excited, but this could take you to a place that you’ve already moved past. You could end up really hurting.”
It’s too late: I’m totally sucked in. “It’s not like I went and opened the door, Camille. She did. There’s something going on that I need to know. How about this: I’ll write her back, rather than call her.”
“Don’t mention Paul until she does—let her bring him up. And don’t question why she signed the card ‘Aunt.’ ”
“Because you may scare her away. Just let her know how well you’re doing and give her your new address and phone number.”
“Oh, come on, Camille. Why don’t I just call her, instead?”
“Because, Gi, when you’re not getting truthful answers, you can be a little . . . abrasive.”
“Ha!” She knows me too well. “I like to think of it as assertive . . . but you’re right.”
“Just write her first. Take it slow.”
By the time Julia’s card arrives several days later, matching Addie’s description to the dotting of her i’s, I’ve already worked on several drafts of a letter to her, which I’m planning to fold inside a Christmas card. Although there’s so much I want to know, I keep my message simple: My work’s going well, I’ve adapted to be happy, normal, and successful. I know better than to ask the big questions: why she signed it Aunt, why she sent it to my foster home, why her husband’s name wasn’t listed in the card, and why she’s writing me now.
A month later, I receive a letter back from Julia, this time sent to my Manhattan address:
Received your card and was so glad to hear from you. I often think of you and your sisters. Regina, any time you want to come to visit me, you know you can. I knew that you had to get my card because it did not come back.
I’m so glad you made something of yourself. I’m so happy for you. I don’t know if I told you that your uncle Frank died. It’s been pretty hard for me since he’s gone. I do wish you and your sisters would come to see me. Let me know ahead of time and I would make a meal for you all.
How are your sisters doing? Did any of them get married? Regina, I’m so happy for you. I know life was not easy for any of you girls. There’s so much we could talk about. Lots of luck in your job. I hear from Pauly every so often. He’s still in Florida.
Please come see me. I’ve been having a little trouble with my heart. When you reach a certain age everything falls apart. Good luck again and please get in touch with me. Take care.
I reread the letter several times, too experienced in disappointment to hope I’m seeing it all correctly. She referred so casually to Paul; she explained why Frank’s name wasn’t on the card . . . but how does she know my sisters? Why is she so plainly signing the card Aunt Julia and referring to her husband as Uncle Frank? The letter’s postmarked from Long Island . . . why is she just now getting in touch with me when, minus my three years at college upstate, the farthest I’ve ever lived from her is ninety minutes away in Manhattan?
I call Camille and read the letter out loud. “So, come on! What do you think?”
She pauses, then cautiously puts this forth: “Maybe we stayed with her when we were kids.”
“Camille, I have zero recollection of staying with this woman. Julia: Does that sound even vaguely familiar to you?”
“Gi, maybe this is the place I remember that had the willow tree and all the kids.”
“When you were really little.”
“Maybe Cookie and Paul were just deadbeats, and so Julia and Frank took us in—”
“Gi, it’s possible that this Accerbi is no relation to Paul.”
“But she mentioned Paul . . . and why is she calling herself my aunt?”
“We probably just called them aunt and uncle, and that’s how she’s signing her letters. Plenty of our foster parents did that. That is the only logical explanation—Gi, please don’t get your hopes up.”
I pause. “She wrote her number in the card. I’m going to call her and go out there.”
“How will you get there?” Camille asked.
“I’ll rent a car in Manhattan and drive.” Ninety minutes is nothing after waiting thirty-one years for answers. “Then I’ll come to see you afterward and fill you in on what happened. Unless, of course,” I prod gently, “you want to join me?”
Camille sighs, considering what to do for my sake, but already I know her decision. She has no desire to revisit our past and has worked hard to create a new existence with Frank and their kids. Once in awhile I can get her to join me on my melancholy drives to Saint James Elementary School, Cordwood Beach, or the Saint James General Store. I try to remember how we frolicked at these places, how they provided our only space to be carefree kids, but Camille remembers what an older sister would: the turbulence, the abuse, the starving, and the heartache. We were a hapless group of savvy street-smart kids trying to build a home out of nothing; and just because I may get some answers about my past doesn’t make Camille excited to go there, too. “You go,” she finally says. “With three kids, I have enough going on. She wrote to you—go see her. Then come here afterward.”
“Okay. Love you, sweetie.”
“Love you, too, bug.” She pauses. “Regina?”
“Remember what I said: Please be careful.”