Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island - Regina Calcaterra (2013)
12. A Child at Any Age
Winter 1998 to 2003
SITTING IN THE parked rental car, I turn up the heat and rest back to absorb the details of the panorama in front of me. The weeping willow in the front yard is the first thing that catches me; its huge, sad branches swaying in the early February chill. My eyes wander to the chain-linked fence encasing the property when a memory comes rushing at me: I’m tiny, standing on the inside of the fence, giggling madly as a boy much bigger stretches his fingers through the metal triangles and tries to tickle my belly.
Shifting my gaze to the garden, I fix on a statue of the Virgin Mary sheltered by a ceramic clamshell. Vibrant flowers bursting in pink, orange, and yellow surround her—a contrast to the brown lawn and bushes that are dry and barren from the winter. I take in the breadth of the house; how ordinary it is: yellow shingles and weathered wooden shutters with nailed-in plastic cutout images of horses and buggies. I notice the cracked cement of the driveway; the neglected trees and bushes that are years overdue for trimming.
I exit the car and cross the street slowly, ignoring my nervousness in order to open the chain-linked gate and walk the broken path to the front door. This close to the flower beds, I see that the clusters of silky color are artificial bouquets stuck upright in the frosted soil. I step toward the front door—protected by an exterior storm door framed with Police Youth League and Jesus and Mary decals. Jesus’ face is plastered on stickers representing every phase of his life, and as I move to open the storm door, the inner door suddenly opens. A woman shrunken by age appears. She’s wearing a flowered knee-length day dress, slippers, and a tightly sprayed white bouffant. “Regina?” she asks.
“Yes. Hello, Julia.”
She opens the door and moves to me on the porch. I stay still while, with wide eyes, she examines me—first my hair, then my face and my clothes . . . then finally my hand as she takes it in hers. Suddenly, her small frame opens, her arms stretching in an invitation for me to walk into them for a hug. I freeze: it’s almost too much to take in. By the look on her face, it’ll be devastating for her if I refuse, so I fix my arms around her in a political hug—a guarded non-embrace. For a moment we remain this way—Julia, breathing me in; and me, telling myself it’s safe to soften to her affection. Finally, she moves away but keeps a gentle hold on the sleeve of my coat. “Go on, dear,” she says. “Please, make yourself at home.”
Passing through the front door to the living room, I look in at the worn carpeted steps leading to the second floor. It’s as if I’m outside of myself, watching a movie of this moment: I recognize all of this place. I know what lies up those stairs—three bedrooms and a yellow bathroom. My eyes move toward the dining area with its oval table and the plastic-covered chair they used to sit me in, propped up on phone books and pillows so I could reach the table. If I walk through the dining room, I’ll find the kitchen, with a yellow and brown linoleum floor, a small stove tucked in the corner, and the large window above the sink where I used to bathe. I’ll also find the door to the fenced backyard whose knob was always too high for me to reach, and the interior stairs that lead down to a carpeted basement with two small couches that I remember well: That’s where my sisters and I used to sleep at night.
Julia escorts me into the kitchen: still yellow and brown. “I baked you crumb cake,” she says. “Would you like a slice? Some baked ziti?”
“I’d love some crumb cake, please,” I tell her. This moment is surreal; awkward, yet so familiar.
“You look like him, you know.”
I pause for a beat. Would she refer to my father so plainly?
“You look like Pauly. When your grandmother held you, she told Pauly that you looked just like him when he was a baby. I think you still do! Those Accerbi features. He’s your father, you know. You said the crumb cake, right?”
Is this really happening? “When did Paul’s mother hold me?”
“When you were here—you and your sisters lived here when you were little.”
I knew it. This is the Happy House, and it was our home. I think of asking Julia whether I can use the phone to call Camille, but I don’t even want to take a breath that could risk derailing our conversation.
“I’ve been thinking about where to begin, so I guess I’ll start at the beginning: with them dating.” She sets the cake in front of me and I edge it to the side, more enticed by the revelations that are lingering than the cakey cinnamon scent rising from the plate. “Cookie and Pauly dated,” Julia says. “God, I remember my first impression of Cookie: her striking dark eyes, white skin like milk, and those two adorable little girls. Pauly dated a lot of girls after he and Carol divorced, but he wouldn’t bring them all around here,” she says. “But sure enough, he brought your mom a few times. Pauly has another daughter, you know, from his marriage to Carol. So you have another sister, and two nieces—I think they still live in Alaska.”
“How did we end up here?”
She stays silent a moment, then reaches out for my hand. “Frank—that was my husband, Paul’s older brother. He died ten years ago. See, Frank already had three kids from his first marriage but his wife died giving birth to the third, God rest her soul. Then we had three more, and Frank worked full-time to support us all. But, you know, for a family of eight, we needed more income. So I watched other people’s kids while they worked. Parents brought their children to me either by references or they’d find me in the Pennysaver ads.”
I look at her hand, still on mine. With carefully chosen words, Julia explains she hadn’t seen Cookie for over a year and a half after she and Paul stopped dating. “So I was . . . surprised, we’ll say, when she responded to one of my ads asking for day care for her three girls. The first morning, she shows up with little Cherie and Camille by her side, and she hands me this sweet baby girl—you had just turned a year old. And she says to me, ‘I’ll be back after work.’ So after about ten days of bringing you girls, Cookie appears on my stoop . . . and I’m just staring at this suitcase she’s carrying. ‘It just has some of the girls’ toys,’ she says. ‘It’ll keep them occupied during the day.’ That Cookie, I’ll never forget it: She smiled and told me, ‘Have a great day!’ Then as she’s waltzing toward her car, she calls over her shoulder, ‘Oh, by the way, Regina is Pauly’s baby!’
“With you in my arms, I’m standing on the porch calling out to her: ‘Cookie, wait!’ But she ignores me and just pulls out of the driveway. I remember wondering how she could be so detached from these kids, you know? These three beautiful little girls. After she left, I went inside and opened the suitcase, and what did I find? Not toys. Oh, no. I found clothes . . . and cockroaches.”
I look away. “She’s disgusting.”
“I slammed the case closed and put it out at the curb. Then for the next eight hours I fumed, ready to lay into her when she returned that evening. But even by the time Frank got home, you girls were still here. She never returned. I told Frank, ‘You call Pauly and your mother,’ and immediately they both came over. As soon as Paul walked in, he saw your two sisters and said, ‘What the hell are these girls doing here?’ Then he looked to his mother, who was holding you in her arms. She said, ‘Paul, this child is your baby.’ Pauly turns to me and says, ‘Get rid of these kids!’ Then he turned around and left the house.”
So all the years as a child, when I wondered whether my father existed, he knew I existed. “But you didn’t get rid of us?”
“No. We ignored Paul—the whole family did. There was a right thing to do, to take responsibility for you . . . and he refused to do it. And, so, soon the weeks turned into months and the months turned into a year, and nobody knew where Cookie went. We finally turned to Suffolk County social services and asked them to just give us food stamps to cover the costs of our food. And instead of helping us, what does social services do? They demand we turn you girls over to the county for placement in an orphanage or foster home.” She rubs her temples, then places one hand, resting on her wrist, on the table. “Frank resisted. He told them he was not going to turn over his niece and her two sisters to complete strangers so you all could end up in an orphanage. All we needed was food stamps, no money. The county refused.” She leans back in her chair, resigned. “That’s when it all became a big mess.”
Julia explains that she and Frank hurried out of the social services’ office, and the social workers asked when they were bringing us back. “Frank hollered over his shoulder, ‘Never!’ I thought he’d have a heart attack. A couple of days later, three social workers and the police showed up on our doorstep and demanded we turn you over. Frank clutched you so tight that it took two social workers to tear one arm at a time off of you, while the third took you from him.
“Your Uncle Frank never saw you again after that,” Julia says. “He was devastated. He always wondered what happened to you and your sisters, and finally he came to accept that he was never going to see you again. Then—out of the blue—you wrote him in 1983. When we got your letter, he opened it, thinking it was for him, then he realized you wanted him to hand it off to Pauly. He called Pauly and read it to him. ‘You son of a bitch,’ Frank says, ‘you get over here and talk about this. I am your brother. Let me help you do the right thing.’ When Pauly arrived, Frank told him that he knew full well that you were his daughter, that he had to take responsibility for you and get you out of that foster home.”
“So what did Paul do?”
“Pauly? Not a thing, honey. Such a shame. My Frank . . . a decade he’s been gone and I just could not bring myself to go through his papers. Finally, before last Christmas, I knew it was time to go through them. That’s when I found the envelope. Pauly took that letter”—my stomach flips in excitement to hear Paul had cared to keep that much—“but your uncle Frank held on to the envelope all this time. He refused to throw it out. So when I found it, I knew he held on to it so that one day he could contact you . . . let you know the truth. I guess you could say it was for him that I reached out to you. Frank always wanted to right this somehow.” She looks at me softly, almost apologetically. “I was worried. It’s been sixteen years since you wrote that letter. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to find you, but when the letter didn’t come back, I knew you must have gotten it.”
Julia goes on to tell me that she’ll answer any questions I have under one condition: No one in the Accerbi family can know who I really am. “I’ll tell them you and your sisters were some of the kids I used to watch back in the sixties.” She leans forward. “Regina, please understand: If the Accerbis ever find out what I’ve done by getting in touch with you, they’ll disown me. We’re a close family, you know? Just promise me you’ll keep all this to yourself.”
I nod and scoot my plate of crumb cake toward me. “I promise.”
Julia rises from the table and walks out of the kitchen, holding on to the same banister that I used to hold when I was a toddler. When the bathroom door shuts behind her, I wander around the kitchen, then drift into the dining room, over to the head of the table where I remember perching myself to look out at the backyard, where I remember Julia throwing birthday parties for her kids with streamers, balloons, and piñatas. On the dining room table is a personal phone book with each entry carefully handwritten. I look closer at the open page, A: Accerbi. Then scroll down the page until I see it:
Paul & Joan.
From the side pocket of my handbag I pull out my address book and pen and write quickly, checking their phone number closely. When the floor creaks behind me, I turn to see Julia standing there. “I see you found what you came for.”
“I did.” I smile. “Thank you.”
“I’m not feeling well,” Julia says. “For years I haven’t been well. My body gets bloated and it gets difficult to sit or even to breathe. I need to rest,” she says. “But I want you to come back and see me soon, please—bring your sisters with you, Regina. I’d love to see them again.”
I meet her at the foot of the stairs and kiss her cheek. “Thank you, Julia.” Just as I push out of the front door, two middle-aged women open the gate and head toward the house. I shoot Julia a look and she steps in to introduce me. “Regina, these are my daughters: Yvonne and Darlene. Girls, you might remember Regina. She was one of the girls I used to watch. You remember her sisters, Cherie and Camille?”
“Me Too!” Yvonne says. “We called Camille ‘Me Too’ because every time Cherie asked for something, Camille would say, ‘Me too’!”
I smile, remembering the old moniker my sisters used to use. “Yes,” I tell them. “Camille was Me Too. It’s nice to see you both.”
I put the keys in the ignition and let out a deep exhale, giving myself a minute to take it all in. This was the Happy House. It really exists, more than one of the last pieces of a broken, puzzled childhood: also the home of my family. I have relatives. It crosses my mind to drive around once more and stare at the house, but instead I head straight to Camille’s.
“Camille, I remembered everything,” I tell her. “The linoleum in the kitchen, the Mary statue outside.” As I relay the details to Camille, together we reach our conclusion: It was after being taken from the Happy House that we ended up at the home of the Giannis’—the Bubble House. That’s when we were finally taken to the Glue Factory and I encountered Cookie for the first time.
“So what are you going to do with Paul’s information? Anything?” Camille says.
I’m busy collecting my thoughts. This man—now, almost certainly, my father—rejected me twice, and I refuse to let him do it again. I need time to develop a rational strategy: Either I will inform him that I know that he is my father, or compel him to take a DNA test. Either route requires extremely thoughtful processing. “I’m at peace, surprisingly. For now, this is enough.”
“Well, good, sweetie.”
Besides, for Julia’s sake, I need to tread cautiously.
On my drive back to Manhattan, something else clicks: the screen door with the Jesus stickers and the Mary statue on the front lawn; the ceramic Jesus heads hanging on the wall not too far from the ceramic plate of Jesus and the bronze cross of Jesus. Something about all of the Jesus images weighs on me as I try to recall why they seem so familiar. Instead of taking my car back to the rental agency, I drive straight to my apartment, find a parking spot, and run up the five flights to my apartment. “Camille,” I huff into the phone in excitement, “Julia had images of Jesus all over her house, from before you even open the front door. When did I begin to carry the Baby Jesus figurines everywhere?”
“When you were a toddler,” she says, laughing. “Now we know where they came from.”
A few weeks later, in late February 1998, Camille receives a phone call from Norman in Idaho. “Mom’s been diagnosed with cancer,” he tells her. “They told her it can’t be cured.”
I have hope that in Cookie’s suffering she accepts responsibility for all the pain she inflicted on us and will finally ask forgiveness rather than point fingers. Still, I know there’s no way I can actually forgive her . . . not for what she did to me, but for what she did to Rosie.
CHERIE AND CAMILLE pay for Cookie to fly in from Idaho, hoping finally this woman will try and redeem herself before her death. “Good luck. I’m not sticking around for this,” I tell Camille, opting instead to join the Irish guy I’ve been dating and his family for the holidays in Dublin.
On January 1, 1999, I call Camille’s house to wish her a Happy New Year. In response, she tells me that Cookie refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing during our childhoods. “Nothing’s changed, Regina, but we knew better than to hold our breaths for an apology. You’ll be back in New York the day before Cookie’s scheduled to go back to Idaho. Don’t you think saying good-bye could give you some closure?”
Apparently Cookie told my sisters that everything we believe happened to us was in our imaginations. “I did a fine job raising you girls!” she said. “Look how well you turned out.”
Disregarding her denial and my loathing of her, I indulge Camille by seeing our mother one last time. My siblings and their kids crowd around me and my sister’s dining room table as I share pictures from my Ireland trip. Cookie sits in the living room, watching television by herself.
“Gi,” Camille says, “it’s getting late. Should Cherie and I get you to the rail station?”
“Sure.” I close my album slowly and kiss each of the kids good-bye. After I put on my coat, I turn and whisper to Camille: “Just a minute.” In the living room, I leave a wide space between myself and the recliner where Cookie’s sitting, knowing that distance from her is the only thing that has kept me both physically and emotionally safe. Wearing a blue flannel shirt, black stretch pants, and a scowl, she slowly meets my eyes. The TV’s reflection flashes off the lenses of her huge, shaded eyeglasses. “Good-bye,” I tell her. It comes out cold and flat. When she responds with silence, I nod. This is all I’ll get. Cherie opens the front door, and Camille and I exit with her.
When the three of us get to the train station, we all break down in tears. It’s a cry of anger for our mother’s failure to take responsibility, for the unfairness of having had no say in choosing who brought us into this world . . . and for our relief knowing that soon she’ll be gone, for good.
IN THE SPRING of 1999, I receive a call from Camille at work. “Gi, I have some wild news for you. It’s something that you’d think could never happen to Frank and me.”
“You . . . won the lottery?”
“No! Think of the thing that wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“Yes! We’re having another baby!” I feel her beaming on the other end of the phone. In 1996, Frank was diagnosed with a cancer that the doctors said would affect their ability to have any more children. Camille stayed with me in Manhattan while her mother-in-law took the kids so that Frank could receive treatments at Sloan-Kettering.
“But after the cancer, the doctors told you it wouldn’t be possible to have more babies.”
“Well, God thought differently,” Camille says. “We’re expecting Baby Number Four in October.”
As Camille’s belly blossoms, so does my relationship with Julia. I receive handwritten notes from her at least monthly, and anytime I travel from Manhattan to Long Island, I make a point to see her. We’re both discreet in keeping our relationship from her daughters and her extended family, but Julia’s genuine interest in my life has prompted her to become reacquainted with Camille. On holidays and birthdays, she sends letters and cards to both her and Cherie.
In October 1999, Camille delivers Danielle Grace. The birth of a baby girl is a good excuse for all of us to celebrate, made even sweeter thanks to the fact that of the seven children in the family, five are boys: Frankie and Michael, who belong to Frank and Camille; and Cherie’s three sons, Anthony, Matthew, and Johnathan. Finally, Camille’s daughter, Maria, will have another little girl to grow up with.
With every new life that enters our family, more and more joy abounds. Silently, there’s a satisfaction inside me that Cookie can never be part of it: We don’t know how long she has, but it’s clear she will not outlive this decade. In November, a month after Danielle’s birth, I find myself with an irresistible urge to write Cookie a lengthy letter. Don’t ever deceive yourself into believing that you should be credited for our achievements, I tell her. Despite the odds and your attempted influences, we’ve prevailed. Many women can give birth, but that doesn’t make them a mom. To us, you’re just Cookie.
Norm reports back that he began to read the letter to her but she told him to stop after the first paragraph. He also informs us she’s made a last-minute switch from being Mormon to American Indian because she believes it will be better for her after death.
Thanksgiving passes and Norman shares reports of Cookie’s imminent demise. “I have only one wish,” I tell Camille. “I pray she will not pass on December sixteenth.”
Camille looks at me curiously.
“December sixteenth is Julia’s birthday.”
By now, Julia and I have grown extremely close and I don’t want her special day of the year to be spoiled or overshadowed by my mother’s death. But of course, in the early morning hours of December 16, shortly after one A.M.in Idaho and four A.M. in New York, my phone rings.
“She’s gone,” Camille tells me.
We sit on the phone in silence, letting it all sink in. The chapter of our lives that we’ve waited so long to close is now over.
I take the day off from work and Camille picks me up at the rail station. Without discussing our plan, she pulls onto the highway and we both know where we’re headed. We drive out to Saint James General Store—past Wicks farm stand, where we used to steal apples, and King Kullen, where we used to sneak our meals out of the store beneath our clothes. We drive past the Glue Factory apartment, now a Sal’s Auto Mechanics, where we spent the longest time consecutively as a family. We head to Saint James Elementary School, where we wander the back grounds . . . and we finally end up at Cordwood Beach—the place we used to play for hours, writing our names in the sand, hunting the rocks for clams, and picking fistfuls of onion grass for our dinners.
Arm in arm, my sister and I walk the beach, saying nothing. Under the gray December sky, we look out at the Long Island Sound to where the floating dock once was anchored; to the broken stone house that we used to climb on.
“She did one thing right,” Camille says.
“She gave us each other.”
The lives Cookie gave us were only etched in sand; able to be erased and written all over again . . . better, with meaning. We’ve all made our stories into what we wanted for ourselves.
Standing side by side on the cold beach, there’s just one thought keeping Camille and me from feeling total completion: Rosie. She doesn’t want us to be a part of her life or to know her family.
Rosie got married and gave birth to a son, but by the time we knew about any of it, all the momentous events had passed. Occasionally, she mails Camille and me photographs, in all of which she’s clearly a loving, doting mother . . . but on the rare occasion the photos are accompanied by a letter, the communication is all very matter-of-fact. Everyone here is fine, she says. Hope you’re great. She wants us to be aware that she’s adjusted well as an adult, but she doesn’t want us to be present for it.
In December 1999, a colleague tells me he’s venturing into Times Square to ring in the new millennium. “You used to work for the City, right?” he asks. “What’ll be the best way to navigate the streets?”
I call someone whom I heard now works as the special assistant to the NYC police commissioner: Todd Ciaravino, the handsome, stoic aide to Giuliani whom I knew from my years at the comptroller’s office. After sharing the layout of the security route, Todd remembers my burgeoning golf hobby and says it might be nice to hit the driving range at Chelsea Piers when the weather warms up a little.
Todd is sensitive to my guardedness—unlike other guys I’ve been attracted to, he’s consistent, mild-mannered, and kind . . . not at all overbearing or arrogant. Instead of what so many former partners and people from my childhood promised—You can trust me—Todd shows me he deserves my trust. He looks out for me, and coming from the same field, he doesn’t give me a hard time about how busy my work keeps me. By late spring, we’ve entered potentially-serious-romance territory when Todd begins traveling with the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign. At the same time, I’m transitioning from my position on Wall Street back to working with the public sector and, as a hobby, I begin to appear on Fox News, supporting the Democratic presidential ticket. By August, our courtship, pleasant and passionate as it is, ends . . . not due to our differing views on politics, but because of how committed we both are to our careers.
It’s another intense undertaking that distracts me from my split from Todd: It’s now two and a half years since I first visited Julia in February 1998, and the more I see pictures of Paul and his brothers, the more convinced I am that he is my biological father. For years I’ve been emotionally prepared to learn the truth, but now I’m also in a financial position to pursue paternity litigation if he chooses not to amicably resolve my request for DNA.
I SPEND EARLY August researching Paul’s address online to find that he now lives in the U.S. border town of Blaine in Washington State. In addition to determining where he lives, I also study Washington’s paternity statutes and map out what my next steps will be if he rejects my request for a paternity test. I advise Julia that I plan to contact Paul.
“Given what I’ve done by forming a relationship with you,” Julia says, “please let me make the connection.”
When a couple weeks go by, I estimate he’s ignoring me . . . or researching potential legal steps. In late August I receive a phone call. “You should know that you are causing my wife and me deep anxiety,” he says. “I’m experiencing heart problems, and your so-called curiosity could be making it worse.” This familiar response from him confirms to me: yes, he’s got a lawyer. The first argument the defense would make in a case like this is to advise the opposition at the outset that they’re inflicting emotional distress. “What is it you want?”
I respond that my intentions are pure, that I only want to know if he’s my father. “I don’t want any support,” I assure him.
Then he reveals what he’s really worried about. “If I admit that I’m your father, it will be a long and painful process for us all if the State of New York tries to sue me for back child support.”
“Paul, you won’t have to pay New York State back the money it cost them to keep me in foster care,” I explain flatly. “Even if New York does that now, they certainly didn’t have such a law in place when I was in foster care as a child. Also, just to appease any concern you have about why I’m contacting you: I do fine on my own. I don’t need any money. I just want to know if you’re my father.” I also want him to know that I know that he’s my father—to face the fact that he left me to be brutalized as a child simply because I’d come from him. Of course, as a teenager, I’d hoped to track down my father so that I could actually have a relationship with him, and in my twenties, I wanted to show him how well I’d turned out . . . but now, I just want him to acknowledge his failure to take responsibility.
“I have to go, Regina,” he says. “Now’s not a good time.”
The next day he calls me twice at work, but I’m with clients both times. Then he calls a third time, and again I’m unavailable. He leaves me his fax but not his phone number, so I have no way to call him back and actually carry on a conversation. When I want to speak to him I have to fax him or wait for him to call me, so my correspondence is in writing but his is all verbal . . . another strategic move by him and his lawyer to keep the upper hand.
Then I finally get a fax back, not from him, but from a Wayne Teller, Paul’s lawyer. I fight to steady the paper in my shaking hands as I read that Paul no longer wants me to contact him and his decision is final. Then to ensure that I never contact him again, his attorney ended the letter by stating if I fail to comply with his request and contact Paul again that I will be admonished for violating Rule 4.2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Camille is angrier than I am. “What on earth does Rule 4.2 even mean?”
“Rule 4.2 restricts an attorney from ever contacting someone who is represented by counsel. Even though I could be his daughter, I’m also an attorney. He’s threatening to bring charges of professional misconduct against me if I ever directly contact him again.”
“So he’s used your achievement against you,” she says. “How unfair, Gi. No good would have come from meeting him anyway.” We both know she’s just trying to comfort me. “What are you going to do now?”
“I have to try to find a qualified paternity lawyer in the State of Washington who’s willing to take my case . . . and it won’t be easy. An adult has never successfully sued another adult for paternity before, only minor children have been permitted to sue for DNA. So whoever takes my case must not only be qualified to fight this battle, but also has to really believe in my case.”
“I believe in your case,” Camille says.
The simplicity of her statement arrests me. In this moment, it’s clear: My sister is the only person who has always stood by me, no matter how extreme the scenario. “You do?”
“Yes. You, me, Cherie . . . all we’ve ever wanted is to know who we are. Who we came from. At least Vito and Norman stuck around long enough to see their kids born, but we three have never even seen pictures of our fathers. I know you and I came from two different men, but I want to know the truth for you as much as you do. If Cookie couldn’t help us figure out where we fit in this world, then we have to find out for ourselves.”
She’s put it perfectly. From where I get my strength to where I get my eyes, all I want is to know. But searching for the right attorney and convincing him or her to take my case will take some time. In the meantime, Paul will think that this letter has ended our connection forever . . . but I’m not finished.
I start by contacting members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in Washington. I leave messages for dozens of them, but only receive a call back from the secretary of one. Her message is clear: Never before in Washington State has an adult sued someone they thought to be their father for paternity. “However, there is one lawyer that may consider a case like this. His name is Ralph Moldauer. He used to represent kids suing their fathers for paternity, but he now represents a professional sports team on the defense side.”
I laugh. “A professional sports team?”
“Well, sure,” she says. “Every professional sports team usually has at least one paternity lawyer on speed dial.” I chuckle at the perfect sense this makes. “Let me get you Ralph’s number.”
By early January 2001, Ralph agrees to take my case, not because he needs another client, but because he feels the proof I have regarding the probability of Paul being my father is so strong and my story so unique that I have a shot at success . . . although over and over he cautions me that this has never been done before in any of the fifty states. “I’m willing to represent you,” Ralph says, “but for your sake, let’s not get our hopes up.” I understand Ralph’s need to manage my expectations, but it’s increasingly clear he’s as invested in this case as I am. I also sense that there are two possible reasons he’s so intent to bring it to the court: He thinks my case would be an opportunity to create precedent for other adult children, or out of humanity he wants to go after Paul for what he failed to do when I was a child.
In late January 2001, Ralph writes Paul’s lawyer, requesting that we avoid litigation and that Paul merely takes a DNA test. In response, Paul’s lawyer says that both Mr. and Mrs. Accerbi find my attempts to contact Paul quite upsetting physically and emotionally and that I have no legal grounds to bring suit; and if I do, that I can expect an “aggressive counterclaim for abuse of action, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” As I’ve presumed all along, from that first phone call back in August, Paul’s been planning to countersue me if I bring a claim for paternity—this is why he keeps playing the “physical and emotional stress” card.
“It’s a measly swab test!” I tell Ralph. “Just a second.” I rise from my desk to close my office door so as not to disturb my coworkers. Taking the phone again I tell him: “There’s nothing invasive or physically stressful about this!”
“Regina, I spoke to his counsel,” Ralph advises me. “Paul is ready to fight hard if you proceed with a paternity claim. Our problem is that this is a case of first impression. You have absolutely no other case in the U.S. to rely upon, so if you sue him for DNA, he will argue that you are using the courts to harass him. Trust me, this is exactly how it will go. Do you follow?”
“Yes. Keep going.”
“The good news is, it’s likely his counterargument will be dismissed since you have proof that you tried to resolve this outside of the courts. I can’t promise that he won’t be successful and demand that you pay his attorney fees and additional damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress. And consider, on top of this you only have affidavits of your sisters and foster mother that reiterate what your deceased mother has told you. If Cookie were still alive, at least she could provide an affidavit claiming that he was the father . . . but she’s dead.”
Dammit. I never thought I’d have any reason to wish that my mother were still here.
“So your failure to obtain an affidavit from someone who can confidently state that your parents had a sexual relationship around the time you were conceived is problematic.”
He goes on to explain what I already know: Paternity tests are DNA tests. The taking of someone’s DNA, regardless if it’s by a blood test or a simple mouth swab, is protected by the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure and the right to privacy . . . However, an exception to the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment is made if there is a compelling government interest for the courts to rule otherwise. The courts will make exceptions if a crime has been committed or a child is in need of support, so that if there is a father, he’s to be held responsible for the costs of raising that child.
“Regina, you’re an adult in your thirties and it’s going to be hard for us to demonstrate that getting Paul’s DNA is necessary to your well-being,” Ralph says. “But the one argument we have going for us is that the Washington State paternity law does not define what a child is.”
“Well, we’ll see. But it seems to me that whether you’re five or thirty-five, you are still someone’s child. It appears that the legislature left the door open for an adult child to bring a paternity suit.” He pauses, then says, “The only piece that’s missing is an affidavit from someone alleging that there was a relationship between your mother and Paul Accerbi at the time of your conception. Regina, if there’s any way you can secure that, we’ll be on better footing.”
For the past six months, since Paul and I first spoke in August, Julia finally let everyone know who I actually am. Since I’ve met with various members of the family over the past three years, I sense that they view me as a self-sufficient, independent, decent young woman who simply wants to know the truth about who she is. When they invited me to their most recent family holiday dinner, the Accerbis seemed to completely understand that I’m not seeking financial support of any kind. And as I told them about my past contact with Paul, they understood that I tried to avoid litigation and making my plea part of the public record.
Now that my pursuit has taken on a life of its own, I drive to Long Island on a Sunday afternoon to make my request: “Julia, my lawyer says we need to submit an affidavit written by someone who was witness to Paul’s relationship with Cookie. Is that going to stir conflict between you and the Accerbis?”
She wrings her hands gently in her lap. “No honey, in fact, I think they’ll be supportive. Regina?”
“You know you’re welcome to call me Aunt Julia . . . don’t you?”
“When we’ve finally gotten the truth, I promise that you will be my aunt Julia. Right now I don’t want to do anything that could jinx this case.”
“Okay, honey,” she says. “That’s fair enough.” She sends me home with a week’s worth of home-cooked dinners in tightly sealed Tupperware and stacked in a grocery bag.
The next day, I call Ralph. “I’m planning to fly out to Seattle and meet you,” I tell him. “Now that we’ve got Julia on board, this case is looking more promising. It’s outcome will impact my life forever so I need for you to be able to put a face on the plaintiff you’re representing.”
It’s February 28, 2001, when I land at the Seattle airport. I take my carry-on luggage and head straight to the front of the airport. On my way to the taxi line I stop to view a map of the city to get a sense of the direction the taxi driver should take . . . and suddenly, as I’m studying the route, I feel unsteady. My body sways, and I try to grasp onto the nearest column—am I so overwhelmed that I’m about to pass out? But as I lunge for support, I see the whole building shaking and people running outside with their luggage. “Bomb! Bomb!” they cry, and I join the crowd that’s running out the door.
I stand there, watching the airport’s security staff climb up poles to see the damage around the airport. “It was an earthquake,” one announces, and the chaos quiets down to a murmur.
Two hours later I finally climb in a cab and head to the city of Seattle. We ride in silence past remnants of the earthquake, clocking in at 6.8 on the Richter scale. The driver turns up the radio, where a reporter states this was a victimless quake. “The city built its infrastructure to withstand an earthquake of this magnitude,” we hear, and with a sense of relief, I reflect on the irony: it’s a shaky day all around. There will be aftershocks. And I trust that no matter how it works out, when it’s over I’ll still be standing. I’m just content that I’ve gotten this far.
The next morning Ralph and his assistants greet me in their boardroom to discuss our legal strategy.
“Regina, there is more at risk in bringing your case than just how it will turn out for you,” Ralph says. “Since this will be a precedent in Washington State and a case of first impression for other states, if the courts determine that a child is not a child at any age, but a child is anyone under age eighteen, you have closed the door for any other adult children to bring a successful paternity suit.”
I rest my elbows on the table and take a moment to think. “I understand, Ralph. But this law has not been tested before because the burden of proof is high. But with all of our affidavits—Julia’s, my sisters’, my last foster mother’s, and mine—combined with the fact that Paul never denied having a sexual relationship with my mother, we are well prepared to prove that I am his child and compel a DNA test.” While we both are comfortable with the facts, I understand that he may actually have an additional concern; his credibility as a highly reputable paternity lawyer will be tested. “I’m confident that you would not be taking my case if you didn’t think that we had a fighting chance to convince the court that I am his child. A child should be a child at any age when it comes to knowing who their father is.”
Ralph calls me. “Your case was filed with a judge in Whatcom County where Paul resides. The court hearing is scheduled for early summer.” Once I receive the briefing papers that Paul filed with the court in June, I’m eager to read what his defense to the action will be. With his pleadings in hand, I quickly skip through the section titled “Background,” which is usually the defendant’s view of the facts. I go straight to Paul’s defense.
Through his attorney, Paul argues that since I am an adult, my asking for a DNA test is a violation of his constitutional right to privacy and freedom against unreasonable search and seizure. He goes on to argue that, as a result, I should reimburse him for his court costs and attorney fees for even bringing this case against him. His argument is exactly what I expected.
Carefully I begin to read the pleading word for word:
The petitioner is a 34 year old female . . . licensed attorney . . . who resides and practices in New York . . . The respondent is a 66 year old retiree residing in Whatcom County, Washington, is married and resides with his wife of 34 years . . . suffered a heart attack in 1986 . . . and is under the care of a cardiologist . . .
I chuckle at the inclusion of his heart ailments. He’s prepared to file a counterclaim against me for intentional infliction of emotional distress by bringing this suit. When we first made contact, Ralph explained that Paul’s emphasizing how this case could affect his health would flop because the DNA is taken with a simple swab test—nothing invasive or extraordinarily stress inducing. Then I read the first three lines again, then again, and again . . . I’m thirty-four years old, and he’s been married for thirty-four years.
He married his wife while my mother was pregnant with me.
While I was an infant, Cookie left me with Frank and Julia so Paul would be forced to face what he did. That was Cookie’s revenge; her twisted way of informing him that they’d parented a child together.
The brutal episodes I suffered as a child at the hands of an emotionally unstable woman were caused by the heartbreak my father put her through.
On June 7, Ralph calls me with news. “The Whatcom County Court judge ruled in your favor and ordered that Paul submit to a paternity DNA test.”
Not surprisingly, four days later Paul appeals.
The oral argument before the Whatcom County Superior Court judge is scheduled for August 3, 2001. At this point I cannot afford to fly out to Seattle for the hearing as I’m saving my funds for the starter co-op I’m about to purchase in Manhattan. I also need to set aside more money for additional litigation costs: Whoever loses this appeal will seek to get it overturned on a higher court level.
Ralph calls me after the hearing and tells me he’s not very optimistic that this judge will rule in our favor. “The judge implied that he doesn’t want to rule on whether a child is a minor or a child is a child at any age in cases of paternity,” Ralph says. “He understands that such a ruling would have substantial legal reverberations. He said this is something better decided by a higher court.” A few weeks later the judge dismisses my case.
I have two more options: an appeal to the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington; then, if we lose there, onto the Washington State Supreme Court. Ralph warns me about proceeding and the impact this will have on others . . . and of course on my bank account. “But, Regina, I’ve got to tell you, I have confidence in your facts. We still have a chance here, but it will take a year until the hearing is scheduled and the court issues a determination.”
“Good,” I tell him. “I want to appeal.” I just need to know.
I remember a verse I once spotted that Julia had highlighted in her Bible: The truth will set you free. I’ve never been able to forget those words. Even when it hurts, it’s more empowering to know the truth than to stay blind to it. Once I know the truth—and once Paul knows the truth—I’ll be finished. In my life I’ve found that you can’t let something go until it’s really over and it’s never really over until you learn the truth.
The morning of September 11, 2001, I’m serving as an election monitor in Queens for my old boss, who’s campaigning for mayor, when the poll workers alert me that a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, the second tower is hit.
That afternoon, with all the bridges and tunnels that lead into Manhattan closed, I can’t return home. I drive east toward Camille’s, where I watch news coverage of the attack and begin to grieve for those who perished and the impact all this will have on our country. A few days later, Ralph calls from Seattle. “I just wanted to hear that you’re safe,” he says. “I’ve been trying to get through for days.”
I wait for him to mention that maybe Paul’s lawyer reached out to him to check on me. “No word from Wayne Teller?”
Ralph lets me down easy. “No.”
I nod, as though he can hear my deflation through the phone. Paul Accerbi hasn’t even checked to make sure I’m still alive. I take a deep breath, reminding myself of my strength: I’m doing this for me—to know for certain that he’s my father.
In the Spring of 2002, in our written appeal, Ralph argues that the trial court erred in dismissing my action and that the statute as adopted by the State of Washington back in the mid–1970s does not restrict paternity suits to minor children only.
Then, of course, Paul reiterates his defense: He should be awarded Fourth Amendment protections of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. The oral argument before the three-judge panel was held in May 2002, but Ralph warns me it could be another six months before the court makes its decision.
In late October I receive a fax from Ralph. It’s the cover page of the decision from the Washington State Court of Appeals in Seattle. On the cover sheet are two key words:
Reversed and Remanded.
Holding my breath, I flip to the next page where the decision is written by Judge Grosse, with the two other judges, Applewick and Baker, concurring, making the decision unanimous:
Under the Uniform Parentage Act establishing a father-child relationship does not depend on the minority of the child. A child has a constitutionally protected interest in an accurate determination of paternity. The statute and [this] case preserve the right of child of any age, who alleges sufficient underlying facts, to seek a determination of the existence of a paternal relationship. . . . The inclusion of the phrase “at any time” shows the intent of the Legislature. In adopting the Uniform Parentage Act, the Legislature balanced the interest of the child against those of a putative parent. While Accerbi’s right to privacy is an interest affected by an order compelling DNA or blood test, that right is not absolute. The State may reasonably regulate this right if it has a compelling interest. The privacy invasion of a DNA test is minor. Even if it is determined that Accerbi is the father of Calcaterra, there are admittedly no child support issues, and he can disinherit Calcaterra if he so chooses. Accerbi’s psychological well-being does not outweigh the interests of a child.
I’m thrilled it was a unanimous decision, but I reserve any urge to celebrate. The fact is, this isn’t over. I know Paul’s next move.
Six days later, his attorney confirms my prediction when he files his appeal to the Supreme Court of the State of Washington. Ralph tells me his counsel was merely repeating their earlier arguments. He also tells me that the Supreme Court rulings in Washington allow the prevailing party to recover court costs.
“Ralph, you mean if I win in the state Supreme Court, Paul will have to reimburse me the nine thousand dollars it cost me to bring this case just so he could take a twenty-five-dollar DNA test?”
“Not quite,” he says. “The court cost is the actual filing cost that accompanied your appeal. In this instance, it would just be $414.71. If you lose, you have to pay that to Paul; and if he loses, he has to pay that to you.”
Seven months after Paul’s appeal in June 2003, the Washington State Supreme Court rules in my favor. They keep the appellate court decision in tact that compelled him to take a DNA test and issue an order that Paul reimburse me for $414.71. Again, I don’t celebrate—he could still appeal to the Federal courts . . . and he still needs to take the DNA test.
He chooses not to appeal. Through July and August 2003, Paul resists paying the $414.71 as ordered by the court. I agree to compromise: Rather than seek another judgment against him, I agree that if the DNA test comes back negative he won’t have to pay me . . . but if it comes back positive, I expect a check for the full amount. Through his attorney, he complains that although I won the court case, he shouldn’t be forced to pay the twenty-five-dollar DNA test fee. “Regina is the one seeking Paul’s DNA,” Wayne Teller emphasizes. So in another effort to move the DNA testing forward, I agree to his request.
A few weeks later, in September 2003, I receive a letter from Genelex, the lab that compared our DNA. I race up to my apartment and rip open the envelope. The letter reads:
Paul Accerbi is not excluded as the biological father of Regina M. Calcaterra. 99.64% probability of paternity.
I collapse into a chair at my kitchen table and cry—jubilant, elated tears.
Paul Accerbi is my father.
My father is Paul Accerbi.
I lived through three and a half decades of anxiety about the abuse I received from my mother, why she hurt me over and over and over . . . why she tried to break me. Now I finally know: It really is because I was Paul’s daughter.
In this instant the parts of me she damaged can finally begin to heal with this single word of certainty about my life. Paul Accerbi knows that I am his child, and he knows I know that he abandoned me. He can never deny that again. It’s over.
Before I call Ralph, there’s a more pressing phone call to make. I dial the Happy House.
I hear her voice tremble. “Yes?”
“I just got the test results. Paul is my father . . . and, more important, you are my aunt.”
When I arrive at her house to celebrate that night, the phone rings. “It’s Paul’s brother, Sonny,” Julia says. “He wants to talk to you.”
I cradle the phone against my ear. “Regina, it’s your uncle!” he says. “When can you come visit so I can share the family’s heritage with you?” The inflections in his voice sound just like Paul’s. I make plans to drive to Sonny’s just ten minutes from Julia’s house when I leave that evening.
“What now?” Julia asks me. “Will you go see Pauly?”
“Right now, no. We’re both too heated from the litigation battle to want to see each other. He still has to sign a document so the court can officially record that he’s my father. Then I can amend my birth certificate.” I’m finally going to put Paul Accerbi’s name in the box that’s been empty my entire life.
Christmas week I receive a check from Paul’s lawyer—
$414.71, minus the $25 cost for the DNA test.