Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island - Regina Calcaterra (2013)

13. Beacons of Light

2004 to 2012

FOR CHRISTMAS 2004 I treat myself to what I’ve wanted my whole life when a small package arrives in my mailbox. The return address reads:

State of New York

Department of Health, Vital Records Section

When I step inside my kitchen and hang my coat and bag over a chair, I gently open the envelope.

It’s my birth certificate.

My complete birth certificate.

The first time I’d ever needed to retrieve my birth records from the Islip town hall was in high school when I applied for my first job, at Rickel’s. Viewing my birth certificate as a teenager, the mere few “vital statistics” it displayed did nothing to surprise me . . . in fact, it would have struck me harder if all the details had been filled in. What I saw then was my residence at birth—Lindenhurst, which my meeting Julia revealed is the very same town where the entire Accerbi family resides. The certificate listed in which hospital I was born, the presiding medical doctor, the date and time of my birth; and of course, next to the space for Mother it listed:

CAMILLE DIANE CALCATERRA

But the line next to Father had been blank. At age thirty-eight, for the first time ever, the facts of my existence are all here. Next to the line reading Father is typed in bold, perfect letters:

PAUL ACCERBI

Paul fought long and hard to hide our connection . . . but in the end, he signed the court’s judgment, stating his awareness that we are father and child.

The next day I take both birth certificates to the framing shop in my neighborhood and choose a bold, red matting. “I’d like this birth certificate to go here,” I explain to the gentleman behind the counter, placing the original in the top box, “and this one to go”—I put the new one on the bottom—“right here.” When the frame is finished, I call Camille. “Now I just need to find the right spot to hang it,” I tell her.

“I know where,” she says. “Here.”

“At your house? The whole point is to keep it just for me. Besides, you have a house full of kids. Your walls are covered enough.”

“Not at my house, Gi,” she says. “I mean here, in Suffolk County. Why don’t you just do it? Make the move, come back home for good.”

Where is this coming from? I spent my childhood trying to get out of Suffolk County. Why would Camille believe I’d want to move back? Given how intent she always was to break away from our past, I never would have expected that she’d be the one to find her happiness on Long Island. Of course, the people with whom I share the deepest connections all live there, but it is still the place where all the hurt in my life took place. The smallest stimulus—a certain bar, an old gas station—triggers memories of Cookie; her torment, her smell, her constant reminders that nobody wanted me. So many of the towns were locations where I came and went swiftly, pushed into a random family’s house then swept out again before it ever had the chance to feel like mine.

My three other siblings have also not returned. Rosie’s been in Utah since she graduated from college and Norman and Cherie live near each other in Pennsylvania. Of all the places I’ve thought of settling, Suffolk County may be the last spot on earth I ever imagined myself calling home.

But Camille is persistent. “Maria asked me yesterday: ‘Mom, what’s the longest Aunt Gi has ever lived anywhere?’ ”

“But Camille, Long Island is not exactly—”

“Long Island is home. I have the same bad memories you do, Gi. But the kids are growing—they want you around at their games, their plays . . . you’re our family. When we didn’t have anything else, we had each other.”

Through all the turns and transitions my existence has taken . . . Camille, Frank, and their kids have been the only constant in my life. Even so, constant shifting has remained more comforting to me than consistency . . . which is why, when I run into Todd Ciaravino one afternoon in August 2006, I’m confronted with yet another situation that calls me to stretch out of my comfort zone. I’m between meetings, exiting a shoe store in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. Just then, Todd walks by and meets my eyes. We take each other in for a moment before we break into smiles, both polished in suits. “What are you doing here?” I ask him.

“I had a meeting upstairs.” We exchange a few niceties, and then cell phone numbers, and by the following month we’re back together as an item.

Embracing what Camille has been encouraging me to do, I agree to look at properties in Suffolk County, taking plenty of time to explore the North Fork of Long Island. It’s much more low-key than the Hamptons, which sits just across the Peconic Bay, but with its rolling farmlands, peach orchards, and picturesque vineyards, I’m increasingly convinced the North Fork is a place I could see myself planting permanent roots.

Todd’s with me in the fall of 2006 when I view a small cottage on the North Fork with a backyard view of a creek off the bay. The shoreline and blue sky remind me of the beach landscape in Saint James where my siblings and I frolicked as kids . . . and I know it’s meant to be mine when it dawns on me how aptly its little hamlet is named: New Suffolk.

The realtor tells me the house has been on the market for years, and admittedly it’s not hard to see why: As soon as we pull up it’s clear the whole structure needs a lot of TLC; and from the fireplace mantel to the bathtub the décor is an unappetizing shade of pink . . . but I turn to Todd. “This is it,” I tell him. “The bones are all here.” I watch him examine the framework and grasp onto my vision. “Can you imagine what I could do with this place?”

In January 2007, I close on the house and move in with my two cocker spaniels. Todd spends the weekdays at his place in Brooklyn and drives out on the weekends to work on the rehabilitation and helps me overhaul the landscaping, even installing a fence for my dogs.

On warm weather weekends, Camille drives over with her two youngest girls, Danielle and Christina, and we all walk with beach chairs and towels to the shore. As the girls ride their boogie boards and bury each other in the sand, I mention my latest idea to Camille. “I’ve been thinking . . .”

“Yeah?”

“What if we throw a party here for Norman’s fortieth? He could take the bus from Pennsylvania and I’ll pick him up in the city. I’ll try to get in touch with Rosie—”

“Gi, let’s take things one at a time. Sure, see if Norm’s up for it.” The next day we team up on the phone and talk him into taking a week’s vacation and spend it with us near the beach, just like old times.

We’ve tried to bring our family together . . . slowly . . . but Rosie’s made it clear that she’s determined to stay independent from us. According to the annual phone conversations we have, I know she’s still married, now with three children whom I’ve never met. My perpetual, raw wound is not being able to witness my baby sister as a warm, tender mother.

In 2008 I set up a Facebook page and begin hunting through social media sites so I can keep up with Rosie’s life from afar. I read comments she’s written about her children’s schooling and have seen a picture that I knew had to be her daughter Alexis: She’s the exact image of little Rosie.

In January 2009, I’m stunned to receive a message on Facebook. Rosie says she feels isolated being so far away from all of us. She says she’s realized that as her older siblings, we really did our best to protect her, and she wants her children to know us. “Can we try to work on us?” she writes. She’s finally ready to bring her siblings back into her world.

I read Rosie’s message to Camille over the phone. “Camille, I want to fly her out here. It’s been more than fourteen years since she’s been to New York, and that last visit was really strained.”

I hear Camille thinking it over. “Let’s see if she wants to talk.”

I send Rosie a private message and tell her to give me a call.

“Gi, I miss you guys,” she says, choking up with tears. “I know that I’ve kept my distance, but I don’t like that you’re not in my life. I want to be a part of our family again.”

Crying, I respond: “We want you with us too, sweetie. We always have.”

We talk once a week for the next month, then we plan for her to fly out for a long weekend in late March. I park my car at JFK and walk into the baggage claim. She’s grown even taller since I last saw her, and she stands out among the women around her. When she turns to me, her face lights up so that even her eyes smile. Then I can see she’s welling with tears, and I wrap my arms around her.

I wheel her suitcase to my car and when we’re both in and buckled, I take her hand and don’t let go. As I’m driving, I keep looking at her to make sure she’s really there. She smiles at me, still with moist eyes: I’m here.

I set her up in my guest room. On the nightstand is a vase with dried hydrangea, cut from one of my plantings the previous summer. Camille comes out to my house to spend the night, and on my couches the three of us cozy up and talk throughout the night.

This is when Rosie reveals that she’s never known about my difficult history with Cookie, or that Cherie and Camille suffered, too—she thought she was the only one whom our mother tortured and despised. Rosie doesn’t remember seeing me beaten the time before we were all separated, or ever. “Those memories didn’t stay with you, did they?” I asked.

She shook her head, trying to place some recollection. “No.”

“Good.”

We give the past only a part of our weekend, and the rest we spend catching up on each other’s lives, when Cherie and Norman join us. I share with them that I’m thinking about throwing my hat in the ring for the November 2010 election for state Senate. “The incumbent’s been in office for more than thirty years . . . I’m sensing that the people here want a change. I know it’s a long shot,” I tell them, “but everything I’ve done up to now has been a long shot, too.”

I BEGIN MY campaign early and run hard, knocking on residents’ doors to chat with them about what issues in the district they’re most concerned about. I stop only to enjoy a week in August when Rosie; her husband, Bobby; and their three kids arrive to spend a week at my house. For the first time, Rosie’s daughter and two sons meet their aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Seeing mia bambina as a wife and mom is positively magical. Our entire family goes for long walks along the water, and my neighbors pause from gardening and lean forward in their Adirondack chairs to take in the sight of us. “You got a permit for that parade?” they shout. When I count, there are a dozen of us walking down the road, chatting arm in arm and laughing.

I run a campaign that covers almost half the terrain in a very large county until supporters of my opponent challenge my eligibility to run. They assert that I’m not fit to run because I spent time living in Pennsylvania where my law firm was located and I testify that indeed it was an insignificantly small period where I represented the State of New York as a plaintiff in a global corporate fraud case and spent much of my time working and living in New York anyhow. I’ve spent nearly all of my life living in New York State, and my return to Suffolk County has cemented it: This is home.

After I’m removed from the ballot in August 2010, I tell Todd I need some time to decompress and regain my privacy. For a few days, I shut myself in and lie on my floor asking: How did I get here? Why did I fight so hard for this? There are so many battles in my life that are so much more worthy of my energy.

When Todd suggests we get away for a vacation. I realize there’s only one place to consider: Utah, to see Rosie. Todd books two tickets for Labor Day weekend, and because it’s off-season, we stay in a large hotel suite in Park City where Rosie and Bobby bring Daniel, Brody, and Lexi to go swimming, and we all wrap ourselves in luxurious white robes to watch silly movies and order a dozen things from the room service menu. I tell Rosie how I’ve been watching Lexi in wonder, recognizing the exact mannerisms she’s inherited from the little girl her mother used to be.

On the flight home it hits me how I have more than I ever expected I’d be blessed with: a legal career with a noteworthy law firm that makes it possible for me to make a difference in the world, the whole truth about my biological background, and an unconditional partner who’s always along for the ride, who loves my independence, who supports my every adventure and drives me to go even further.

And now I have Rosie.

A year later, in 2011, I’m eager to embrace politics again when I’m introduced to Steve Bellone, the Democratic candidate for Suffolk County Executive. After Steve is elected, he asks me to join his administration as the chief deputy executive.

I voice my hesitation, telling Steve, “If I accept this position, I’ll need to resign as a board member for You Gotta Believe—an organization that actually gets older foster kids adopted so they can avoid homelessness or worse. They have a contract with the county and that could be a conflict.”

Steve assures me my job helping him run Suffolk County will even better position me to impact the lives of foster kids. “With the county’s resources, you can help lots of homeless kids,” he says. “And you’ll still be supporting me in the day-to-day operations of the county.”

I start my new job as the chief deputy executive of Suffolk County on January 1, 2012. Eleven days into the new position, at the end of a senior staff meeting, one of my colleagues asks whether I read this morning’s Long Island Newsday. “Regina, you’ve got to read this,” she says. On the front page is a profile of Samantha Garvey, a seventeen-year-old student at Brentwood High School on the southern shore of Suffolk County. Samantha has been selected as a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search—she’s one of three hundred students up for the most prestigious high school science award in the United States. The challenge is that she lives in a homeless shelter with her family.

When her family was forced from their home, their pit bull, Pulga, was put in an animal shelter. According to the story, the Garvey family is as worried about Pulga’s being euthanized as they are about how they’ll find a home.

I go back to my desk and call the shelter where Pulga has been placed. I tell them confidently, “I’d like to give you my credit card to get the dog into a boarding home where it’s certain she won’t be put down, please.” She can stay in the boarding facility until we address the family’s housing needs.

By one o’clock that afternoon, a dedicated team of county employees indentifies the only vacant house the county owns and they put a plan in place for Samantha and her family to move into it within two weeks. When Steve announces that Samantha will have a home again, families, businesses, and contractors in the community contribute their energy, furniture, and labor. The county workers who work with Steve and me help us with renovations and setting the house up for the Garveys’ move-in, and my ten-year-old niece Christina accompanies me on a shopping trip to decorate the home.

I save all the news clippings that feature Samantha’s family . . . and Pulga. Christina and I pick out frames for the news clippings, a pup-inspired welcome mat, dog bowls, and a leash for Pulga. We hang the leash on a hook near the entryway and, remembering how as a child I’d push it out of my mind anytime I wished for family photos on our walls, Christina and I place the frames with the news clippings throughout the house. That afternoon, when Steve gives Samantha and her family the keys to their new home, in just one short month I see the rewards of my career and the power of government and community.

I work from January through the fall focusing primarily on Suffolk County’s budget, but one morning in September, I’m pulled away from work after I read texts sent from Camille’s second daughter.

Danielle Grace

7:13 a.m.

Aunt Gina, Mom had a stroke! She’s in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Please call!

7:35 a.m.

Aunt Gina, where are you? Please call!

I call her older sister, Maria.

“Aunt Gi, Mom had a massive stroke. She was paralyzed when the paramedics took her away. We’re driving behind her ambulance to the hospital. Please hurry.”

I leave home and drive the forty minutes to Stony Brook University Hospital, where Maria meets me in the doorway of the waiting room. “She’s just had a second stroke,” she says . . . and by the time Cherie arrives moments later, she’s experienced two more. Our forty-eight-year-old sister—a mother of five—has just experienced four strokes. “You’re a very lucky baby,” her doctor tells her. “No one this young has the strokes that you have and regains all their cognition and function the way you have.” Surrounded by Frank, their five kids, and Cherie and me, Camille’s body takes a few days to recover from paralysis. Just before the following weekend, she’s released and sent home.

As a birthday gift, I buy her fresh exercise clothes, sneakers, and a heart monitor so she can bein to strengthen her heart, which was weakened by the strokes.

A FEW WEEKS later, I take an afternoon off from work to honor the only other passion that has ever pulled me away from my career: my family, which is growing again. No longer a baby, but still full of unconditional love, Camille’s son Frankie is getting married. Cherie, Rosie, Norman, and I are there to celebrate his marriage and support Camille, who is now well enough to walk her eldest son down the aisle . . . and to dance at the wedding. From the dance floor she catches my eyes and waves me to join her as the DJ cues up a special request: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Rosie, Cherie, and Norman follow me out and the five of us huddle in tight and sing to one another with all our hearts.