Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island - Regina Calcaterra (2013)
5. Failure to Thrive
November 1980; 1971 to 1974
MS. DAVIS AND the driver have set the mood with a stiff silence from the front seat of the car. A quick glance from Camille puts me more at ease, but when I turn to look out the window again, the trees and houses grow fast out of focus as tears collect in my eyes and drop down my cheeks. Social workers usually have a sixth sense; almost the ability to hear tears fall . . . but when Ms. Davis keeps her eyes locked on the road in front of us, I know she realizes that we’re too old for the “This is all for the best” speech. At this point in our foster care career, we know it’s not.
We’re separated again, and it’s because of me.
Because I told.
Until now, we’ve only ever been put in foster care for slips—for committing tiny errors that gave away our situation. By now, Norm, Rosie, and I have learned that we’re stronger together than apart. We’ve sharpened our instincts and it’s kept us together for six solid years, from the time I was in third grade. When I use my sleeve to wipe my eyes and nose swiftly and in silence, Camille reaches across the seat and gently sets her hand on my shoulder. We both understand that our years as a family will probably end today.
As the driver makes a right off Middle Country Road,
Ms. Davis finally turns to face us. “You’ll be at this next placement for two weeks,” she says, “until we figure out another home for you both.” For you both. Does that mean Camille and I might get to stay together for good? Ms. Davis explains that this temporary foster family has had kids coming and going for more than twenty years, and they’ve decided not to foster children permanently anymore. But when they heard we were teenagers who lived in the same school district that they did, they agreed to take us until social services found us a new home. I prop my elbow against the car window, partly to block my ear from Ms. Davis’s next topic. Through half a muffle, I hear her say:
“This family didn’t want young children.”
Why would she say that? As if it’s not excruciating enough to think of Rosie and Norm on their own—most likely holding each other, sobbing inconsolably, their eyes focused in terror out the car windows, completely unsure of what kind of questions to even ask the social workers.
What did I just do?
Within ten stifling minutes, we pull into the driveway of a tidy, red ranch house sitting on a manicured corner property. Camille nudges me out of the backseat and we edge around to the trunk to unload our Hefty bags. We follow Ms. Davis to the porch, keeping our eyes to the ground all the while. When I look up to the stoop, I’m met by the gaze of a blue-eyed, blond-haired lady, very proper and petite. She appears to be near fifty. Her forced smile turns to a look of horror, then a gasp escapes from her mouth. I suppose this is the first time she’s ever met a walking white Ethiopian with cuts and bruises covering her face.
Ms. Davis gestures for Camille and me to stand next to her. “Girls, this is Addie Peterman. You’re welcome to call her Aunt Addie.” I stare at the clean cuff at the bottom of Addie’s pants, at her shockingly white Keds sneakers. It takes all my will to stop from blurting, “Why don’t we call you what you are to us: Mrs. Rent-a-Kid.” I always hate this Foster Mommy Dearest baloney.
Addie opens the front door, a wreath and a lace curtain hanging from its window. She leads us inside and I gawk around the living room. “Don’t touch anything,” Camille whispers. As far as foster homes go, this is one of the nicest we’ve seen.
Addie looks down at our feet and I understand this is polite-lady code for Please take off your shoes. My feet leave imprints across the fresh-vacuumed nap of her carpeting. Addie’s décor is a quintessential 1970s housewife motif of gingham fabrics and lace; scalloped edges and spindle legs; braided rugs and silk floral arrangements. She leads us down the hall, suggesting for Camille to set down her bag while she shows us into my room.
I rest my shins against the Hefty bag, taking it all in. Addie’s generosity with her space does not melt my numbness to her home, nor does her domestic perfection. What’s the point? I’ll only be here two weeks. A floral wallpaper covers the walls, which are lined with bookshelves and a single bed (that includes both a mattress and a box spring), a dresser and a closet. Next to the bed is a white vanity desk that makes me imagine sitting down with a stack of books and some homework, until my eyes scan up to the huge mirror that’s hanging over it:
On second thought, why don’t I avoid mirrors for now.
There’s also a window—complete with a lock and actual shutters, the wooden accordion kind, for privacy. When Addie leads us into Camille’s room, we find her space is just as Cottage Country–esque as mine, only a little bigger. I raise my eyebrows at my sister. Nice, but let’s not get too comfortable.
After Ms. Davis tells us she’s posted her number on the pad hanging next to the yellow wall phone in the kitchen, Addie instructs us to make ourselves at home while she prepares dinner. I head back into my bedroom and plop my garbage bag on top of the flowered quilt before it dawns on me that my luggage will dirty the bedding. I take in the delicacy of the patchwork comforter, along with the matching pillowcase covering a cushy pillow.
If Addie thinks she’s being generous with all these drawers and the closet space, I’d like to inform her how ridiculous it feels to be finished unpacking in two small armloads. In the bottom of my bag I find my other three possessions: One is a picture of the five of us when Rosie was just a baby, in which we’re all sporting matching T-shirts from Lake Havasu, Arizona. Then there are my two Jesus statues. The first is a plastic Baby Jesus from a Nativity scene. The other is the translucent Lucite head of the adult Jesus on the cross. I hold both my Jesuses and tap my finger against them, pondering which surface is the most polished for their display. I turn when Addie walks in and nods toward my hand. “There’s a church two blocks away, if you’d like to go and observe,” she tells me.
“Your religion,” she says. “You’re Catholic, I take it?”
I glance down at my Jesuses. “Not sure. I don’t go to church.”
She eyes my figurines and looks back at me, confused. Now I get it. I jump in to clarify my position on God and religion for this clueless woman. “If there was a God, he wouldn’t let bad things happen to little kids.”
Again her face moves from softness to a look of horror. “Regina, God does not do bad things to little kids—bad people do!”
We look at each other in silence for a moment. I raise my eyebrows, waiting for her to dare say more, before she turns on her heels and huffs down the hall.
I’m strategizing the moment I can put Addie in her place when my stomach rumbles from the smells of melted cheese and toast grilled in butter. Camille comes to my room and says it’s time for dinner. “You think I can bring it in here?” I ask her.
“I already asked,” she says. “She wants us to eat in the kitchen.”
Addie’s husband, Pete, is seated with his back to the wall, facing the room while Addie buzzes around the kitchen, placing plates on the table. We join Addie, Pete, and their foster son, Danny, who’s clearly annoyed we’re here. It’s no accident that the seat I scoot into is the one that’s closest to the front door—anybody pushes my buttons, I’m outta here! As she sends the bowl of steamed broccoli around the table, Addie fills us in on the house rules. “Regina, your curfew is seven thirty every night,” she announces. That sounds fine—besides the library, where else would I go? Then she adds, “And we don’t approve of your having any boys in the house.”
“Boys?” I laugh. “Look at me, I’m less lovable than a punching bag. Besides,” I mumble, “I’m only thirteen.”
Addie freezes and looks at me. In silence, Pete places his wrists on the table. “That doesn’t matter,” Addie says. “You’ll turn fourteen in three days, and the rule here is that there’s no dating until you’re sixteen. We’ve had that rule in place for all our foster kids and our three daughters, and it’s worked out very well.” Then she looks at Camille. “We know you have a boyfriend.”
Camille places her fork quietly on her plate, as though she’s been caught sliding their good silver into her pockets.
“Tell him there is a curfew of nine o’clock for you, and he has to come to the door to pick you up and drop you off. No horn-honking in this neighborhood.”
Ouch. One for Addie.
Then she goes on to discuss food distribution. “I’m on Weight Watchers,” she says, “so please, hands off the dietetic food.” Camille and I look at her blankly: Has she seen the size of our waists? We nod. No problem. We’re probably the only two teenagers on all of Long Island who aren’t trying to lose weight.
“And since there will always be someone at home, you won’t need a set of keys.” I nudge my knee into Camille under the table, and she nudges back hard: Here it is! The key conversation. Foster kids never, ever get keys. The phrase There will always be someone at home is to be translated as Being Rent-a-Kids, you are guilty until proven innocent, and we assume that almost certainly you are thieves who cannot be trusted. Addie tells us if there’s ever no one home, the porch is a safe place for us to wait. It’s a really pretty porch, too, I want to gush insincerely, but I stuff my grilled cheese into my mouth instead.
Addie tells us she has three grown daughters, Paula, Prudence, and Penny. I keep filling my face with grilled cheese, finding it hilarious all their initials are P. P. Two of them clean houses in a business with Addie every morning and the third is a nurse. They’re all married, and they’ve all decorated their homes just like Addie’s. As she says this, it’s clear she’s restraining herself from beaming.
She tells us how she and Pete met when they were teenagers and married right out of high school. Pete’s frame is short and strong, and he’s made a career as a contractor and carpenter—in fact, Addie says, he built the very house we’re sitting in. This reminds her of the remaining house rules. Whatever Pete wants to watch on TV is what we all have to watch. Who cares? I want to say. I’ll watch anything on cable. We have to clean our own rooms and do our own laundry, which is no bother to me. “You mean you have a washing machine?” I ask.
Addie looks at Pete and folds her hands in her lap. “Yes, dear. And a dryer, too.”
“Then why don’t we just do all your laundry while we’re at it?” I ask her, looking between the two of them. “It’s no problem.”
She dabs the sides of her mouth with her paper napkin. “Don’t you worry about our laundry—just know the washer and dryer are yours to use anytime they’re free.”
Addie informs us that she and Pete had asked to see our report cards before they took us in. Camille and I transact a puzzled amusement: If our most recent grades were acceptable, what kind of kids have they turned down? Then Camille helps clear the dishes while I carry the leftover broccoli to the counter. We stand in the doorway of the kitchen and thank them for letting us stay there a few nights, before heading into Camille’s room where we shut the door and, sitting arm to arm, speak in whispers. “You want to sleep in here tonight?” Camille asks me.
I nod, getting ready to cry again. “Yes.”
We both stare at the ceiling, knowing that somewhere on this island, Norman and Rosie are probably doing the same thing.
We wake early the next morning and enter the bathroom together, mindful not to hog it from Danny and the Petermans. Addie’s left us each a toothbrush—“You can have the purple one!” I tell Camille. “I’ll take the orange.” I squeeze a long strip of toothpaste from a fat tube onto the bristles; it feels like a wild indulgence.
“Don’t use so much, or they’ll take it away!” Camille says. I smile at her with a mouthful of minty foam.
When we walk out to the kitchen, looking for coffee—a habit I developed to get me through low-energy mornings in junior high, and which, according to last night’s rules, is not off limits—we find Addie in the kitchen, stirring her own mug. “You’re welcome to coffee, girls,” she tells us, pointing to the cupboard.
“Wow,” I say, finding all the shelves in the cupboard stacked with dozens of Mickey Mouse mugs. “You’re big fans of Mickey, huh?”
“Well, sure we are, we don’t drive our RV to Disney World every year to see nature!” She takes a sip of coffee and gets that grave look on her face again. “Girls, you should know, you’ll be staying home from school today.” Instantly, my stomach tightens—my face must be too scary for the little kids at their neighborhood bus stop. But Addie goes on to explain that, because it’s Friday and they want to keep our case moving into next week, Ms. Davis is on her way over to help us write our emancipation affidavit.
“Can we call our sister?” I ask her.
“Yeah. She remembers a lot of the stuff that happened to us. If the social worker’s coming to get our story, we need our sister Cherie.”
Addie rests her arm against the kitchen door frame and tells us it’s fine, as long as it’s a local call. For us, a kitchen telephone hanging on the wall is usually just a good weapon waiting to be dismounted to help smash cockroaches and chase other vermin around the kitchen. “My only request is that before you use the phone, please ask first,” she says. “We may be expecting calls and just need to keep the line free.”
Addie hands me the receiver and I approach the base to poke my fingers through the rotary holes. Each spin of the dial adds to my nervousness because I know I have to tell Cherie what I did. As I fill her in on what’s happened over the past few days, I can hear baby A.J. murmuring under her chin. “The social worker says the more details I give, the more likely the judge will emancipate me and take Cookie’s guardianship of the kids away. Can you get over here?”
I wait for her to respond with annoyance, telling me she has a two-month-old to worry about and her in-laws will give her a hard time about watching him, but instead she says, “Hold on. Give me the address.” By nine thirty she’s on the front porch, introducing herself to Addie. See how stable my big sister’s life is? I want to ask Addie. Isn’t she great? Addie puts on another pot of coffee and some store-brand Oreos on a plate. I fill myself with sugar and caffeine, thrilled that Cherie and Addie are hitting it off with all this mother-to-mother talk. If we were here for any reason other than the affidavit, I’d be disappointed to see the social worker arrive and interrupt our breakfast date.
On the table between my elbows, Ms. Davis places pages and pages of lined paper with carbon sheets in between each page. She explains that there will be two copies of my affidavit—one for my file and one for the judge. She encourages us to start at the very beginning, as far back as we can recall. She instructs me what to write in the very first paragraph of the affidavit
I, Regina Marie Calcaterra, do swear that the information provided is a true description of my time with my mother, Camille Diane Calcaterra. The truthfulness of this affidavit is supported by my older sisters Cherie and Camille. Dated, November 1980.
Then Ms. Davis tells us the rest of the affidavit will be in our own words. At first we search one another’s faces for memories and details . . . but it doesn’t take long before it’s all flowing so fast that my pen can barely keep up with our words.
July 4, 1971
Four years old
MAMA JUST GAVE us each our own watermelon slice and sent us out to the picnic table, promising she’ll bring sparklers when we go into town to watch the Fourth of July parade. I take my watermelon under the redwood picnic table to see how many ants I can attract to our picnic. Mama always teases me, saying I’d prefer to live in a mud-pie mountain with ants, beetles, crickets, and lightning bugs as my neighbors over living with clean knees and fingers any day. Four white-sandled feet—Cherie’s and Camille’s—swing in my direction from the bench above. All their talk about this new mom and a new home distracts me from my ant collecting.
“If they adopt her, then we won’t see her ever again,” Camille says.
“They can’t adopt her,” Cherie says, “because Mom won’t let them. Either way, it’s bad for all of us.”
“How can Mom say what happens to Regina? Regina doesn’t even know Mom.”
“I know, Camille.”
“Mrs. G is her mom. I mean, how do you take a baby away from the person she thinks is her mom? She even calls Mrs. G ‘Mama.’ ”
“Camille, knock it off. Mrs. G is not her mom. And Regina’s not a baby—she starts kindergarten this year.”
“She shouldn’t even be in kindergarten yet, she’s only four!”
“Well, it’s that or she stays home with Mom all day!” Cherie says. “It’s safer for her to be at school! Stop arguing with me, wouldya? Regina belongs with us.” Cherie pauses from all her insisting to sigh. “I wish Mrs. G would adopt all of us,” she says. “I wish we could stay here.”
“Me too,” says Camille.
“Me too, me too!”
From above, my two sisters laugh at how I’ve chimed into the conversation. Cherie’s nicknamed both Camille and me “Me Too” because everything our older sister says, we younger sisters agree with. “You learned ‘Me Too’ at the Happy House,” Cherie says, leaning down and brushing dirt off my face. “Do you remember the Happy House?”
I shake my head. “What’s the Happy House?”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived with Mama, Papa, and their teenage daughter, Susan. I love my mama and papa, but I spend every minute I can around Susan. She reminds me of a princess in her long, flowery dresses. I like to snuggle up with Susan and play with her silky light brown hair or let my tiny fingers get tangled in her long necklaces of leather and wood.
Cherie picks me up. She and Camille take my hands, and we walk to the house to find Mama. “This is the Happy House,” I tell Cherie.
“No, Gi, this is the Bubble House.”
When we walk inside, Mama and Susan are crying in the kitchen.
“Why you cry?”
“You’re going to go live with your new mom now,” Susan says through her tears.
My head tilts with confusion. “I have a mama . . . you mean I have another mama?”
“You have two mamas. And a little brother, too!” Mama says.
“His name is Norman,” Cherie says.
I sort of remember calling someone else Mommy because she wanted me to call her that. I visited her house last Christmas. Mama dressed me like a princess in a crimson velvet dress, patent-leather shoes, and clean white stockings. Susan called the other mommy my Christmas Mama, because she wanted to give us Christmas presents. But I don’t know why I have to see her now—you don’t get gifts for the Fourth of July. “Is it Christmas Mama?”
They all start laughing until it seems like Mama might start to cry. “Yes, honey,” she says. “It’s your Christmas Mama.”
I smile around at all of them. “I get Christmas presents?”
Susan and Mama pack for my visit with Christmas Mama. I wonder why I need so many clothes? As Mama tucks stacks of folded laundry in a suitcase, she explains that, even though it’s summer, we need to pack warm clothes, too.
“Just in case you stay with Christmas Mama.”
Mama stays quiet a moment. “Yes.”
I move in to help them pack my bag of clothes, my dolls and stuffed animals, and my toy Baby Jesus, resting in a pile of plastic hay.
In the car, Cherie and Camille are silent. I chat away, bubbling over about Christmas Mama and hoping there will be new toys, baby dolls, and maybe even an Easy-Bake Kitchen so Mama and Susan can show me how to bake when Papa comes to pick me up from Christmas Mama’s house.
Papa slows the car, then pulls into a lonely building in the middle of a three-road intersection. “This is it?” he bursts. “This is where she’ll have them living?”
Susan whispers in a way that confuses me even more. “This is only a Christmas visit, Dad, remember?”
Papa snaps back. “Enough with the fairy-tale talk, Susan.” His voice is starting to sound like he’s choking, like a frog. “She’ll figure out what’s happening as soon as we leave.”
“No leave,” I say.
Everyone climbs out of the car, leaving Camille, Cherie, and me in the backseat while they unpack the trunk. I watch closely as Papa walks in the front door of the building and comes back out with his face all red. His neck is bulging. He looks scary. Then he yells. “This is a goddamn glue factory!” he says. I’ve never seen Papa so mad. “The apartment . . . is upstairs . . . from a goddamn glue factory!”
“She couldn’t have found an apartment in a normal complex? She had to pick a damn glue factory in the middle of all this traffic?”
He tucks in his shirt like he’s trying to calm down, and he directs Mama and Susan with our luggage up the steps. Then he walks us to the side door. Papa stoops down and wraps Cherie and Camille in each arm. He hugs them with all his might, until he’s crying, and he collects himself to stand over them. “Stay strong and take care of one another,” he says. “Especially Regina. She needs her big sisters now more than ever.” Then he turns to me, scooping me up off the ground and letting me nuzzle my head in his neck and shoulders.
“Papa, why do you look so sad?”
“You know you’ll always be my princess, right?”
“I know, Papa,” I tell him, cupping my hand around his neck. “And you’re my king.” He squeezes me against him, and Mama and Susan turn their faces away. Papa gently places me next to my sisters and tells Mama and Susan in his froggy voice that he can’t go upstairs and he’ll be waiting in the car.
Mama clears her throat and takes Cherie’s hand, then Camille’s. The three of them navigate the narrow staircase together, their shoes on the hollow steps the only noise. Susan holds on to my right hand, and I hold the wooden banister with the left. “Hey, Susan, watch!” I do what she, Cherie, and Camille have taught me to do whenever I get scared or sad—I count. “One step, two steps . . .”
When I reach the platform, I look up at Susan. Why isn’t anyone skipping or smiling, or excited at all? Then a door opens. Christmas Mama is standing there.
She’s thin, and her very black hair is in a tight ponytail. Her eyes have a lot of makeup like a lady on TV. Her dress is long and black with a belt around the waist and no sleeves, and when I look at her feet, she has on sandles with a little heel. She seems pretty, but something about her is spooky, too. A tall, skinny man pops up behind her. Behind him walks a big, gray, hairy dog. I hide behind Camille. The dog sits next to the man.
Cherie and Camille allow Christmas Mama to hug them. “Welcome home, girls,” Christmas Mama says. Then she looks at me and points into the kitchen past a yellow Formica table with aluminum legs. She says, “Regina, I am your mother. I love you, and here is a Big Wheel.”
A Big Wheel?
I hold Susan’s hand closer. Nobody here seems happy, and everyone is watching me. Like a robot on a cartoon, Christmas Mama stands there smiling, blinking, waiting for me to say something. Susan leans down and whispers, “Say thank you, Pumpkin. Look at your present.”
I look at the Big Wheel bike and then down toward the floor. I start whimpering, then it’s a full-fledged cry into Susan’s flowing skirt. “But I don’t want it,” I say. “It’s not Christmas.” My whimpers continue until Susan grasps me tighter. Finally, I turn toward Christmas Mama. I’m afraid to look at her so I don’t, but I tell her through my tears, “Thank you for my Big Wheel present.”
Mama says it’s time to go. She shakes Christmas Mama’s hand and tells her to take care of her little gifts. After we all get fast big hugs from Mama and Susan, they hurry down the stairs and disappear.
This visit feels different than the other Christmas visit did. I want Mama and Susan back, and I start to yell for them. Christmas Mama shushes me and takes us into a room with two little beds. My cries turn into a piercing wail. “Mama! Mama! Mama!”
Then it lands on my right cheek: a sharp front-handed slap. My head jerks toward my left shoulder but is jolted back with a backhanded slap to my left cheek that knocks me to the floor. “Stop crying or else I’ll really give you something to cry about, you little bitch!” she howls. “I’m Mom. You got that? I’m Mom.”
No, no, no. I look at Cherie and Camille. “This is our mom,” Cherie tells me. She looks sad.
“Listen to your big sister, you little whore. She’s right. You came from me, see this? From this belly. I’m your mom.”
No. I don’t want her for my mom. “I want Papa.”
“Oh, you want your father?” Christmas Mama says. “Well, he didn’t want you, and it’s no wonder, you goddamn little waste of skin. And he didn’t want me, either, so you just shut the fuck up about any papa. You got that? You do not want to get me started on that man, the arrogant, self-absorbed piece of shit.”
I almost cry again but Camille runs and puts her arm around my shoulders. Christmas Mama commands her and Cherie to go outside and bring up all our stuff. “I’ll deal with this bastard,” she says. She looks mad at me, and I want to cry again. I haven’t done anything bad. Mama and Susan never yelled at me this way.
Cherie and Camille stand in the door, staring with fear in their eyes. “You two go, goddammit!” she screams. When they run for the stairs, Christmas Mama tells me that she wishes I was dead, that I should have never been born. Then she bends over and grabs my right arm to yank me upright. She slaps both my cheeks again, then slams the door and locks it behind her.
I’m locked in that room for days. I’m only allowed out for potty, baths, and to eat. If I start crying, my sisters come running in and beg me to stop. They lead me in counting. We count. They leave. I sleep. I wake, and I sit there bored. I count. I count. I cry. They come back. I count.
The room is hot, so I take my clothes off to try and get cool. I climb on top of one of the beds and open the second-floor window, waiting for a breeze. Outside that window is a view of a big building with noisy red trucks that come out. Every afternoon there’s a loud, scary alarm that comes from a big yellow horn on top of the building. I stick my head out the window and look for someone to rescue me. When it’s clear that no one’s coming, I rest my chin in my hands and see what else is around: lots of parked cars along the tarred driveway downstairs, a forest across the street, a traffic light, and lots of cars with families driving by. I count the cars parked downstairs, and the ones driving by, and the shiny red fire frucks—a word Cherie and Camille taught me. I say it a lot because every time I do, they laugh until they fall on the floor, and that makes me laugh.
Christmas Mama finally tells me I can come outside and play with my Big Wheel, as long as I stop calling her Christmas Mama. “For Chrissakes, I told you! Just call me Mom,” she says. I nod.
Together my sisters carry my Big Wheel downstairs, where I can play on the sidewalk with cars whizzing by. I learn to stay quiet and just count, and this way I can stay outside all the time. When it gets really hot, I take off all my clothes and climb back on my Big Wheel, riding around in big circles to create a breeze to cool off. The glue factory workers run out and wag their fingers, stretching their necks for my mother or telling me I’m too young to play Lady Godiva. Then my sisters dash down the stairs and outside, chasing after me with my clothes in their hands.
But I guess I’ve shown Mom how well I can take care of myself because one day she tells me I’m going to live in Baby Norman’s bedroom. She says she’s tired from all the work she has to do with three messy girls living in her house now, and someone needs to take care of her little prince. Mom tells me I’ll need to clean Norman’s diaper and give him baths and teach him how to go potty like I learned. If he goes in his diaper it’s my fault, so I make sure he lives on the potty. When he stands up and tries to run away with no pants on, I chase him down the hall and lure him back with the toys Mom got him at the thrift shop. Mom teaches me how to wash and wring out his cloth diapers in the tub. “You never know, I might need them again,” she says.
We all have chores. Cherie and Camille have to cook and do the dishes. I have to dust and clean the bathroom. All of us take turns caring for Baby Norman.
At night, Mom’s husband, also named Norman, comes home and stumbles up the stairs in the dark. If he’s with Mom and they’re happy, they go to sleep and the house is all quiet. But if Norman gets mad, he beats Mom up, and then we have to be really, really good. If we don’t clean the house or change Little Norm’s diaper the right way, she beats us just like Big Norman beats her.
After a few weeks here my sisters stop playing with each other. They don’t even talk anymore, and nobody laughs together. If dinner’s not ready or a dish is still wet, Mom wants to know whether it’s Cherie or Camille who should get the beating. My sisters point their fingers at each other, and Mom stands with her hands on her hips, considering which one of them she’d like to hurt. Cherie and Camille don’t try to cheer me up anymore, and when I cry, they yell at me. “Shut up!” they say. “Do you want Mom to beat you again?” It’s every kid for herself, except for Little Norman. Mom loves Little Norman.
This isn’t my family anymore—they’re like strange, scary ghosts. I used to love Cherie and Camille more than anyone in the world, but in Mom’s house they’re different people. I’d rather be by myself than with them, so when Mom and Big Norman are out one night, I decide I don’t want to live with all the sad people anymore. I sneak out the door, down the thirty-six steps. I run across the street and deep into the woods. I hide. I stay hiding, even when I hear the voices of Cherie and Camille calling out for me. Then Mom and Big Norman join them, and I close my eyes. I’m never coming out. They keep calling and calling, but I know they’ll never find me. I drift off to sleep under a pile of leaves . . . until . . . do I hear the sound of Susan’s voice calling for me?
“Little pumpkin! Fairy princess!”
I hear her, again and again. I jump up. Susan’s come to get me to bring me home! I just know it. I dash out of the brush and run toward her voice, racing into her arms. I hear Cherie and Camille yell, “She was in the woods, we found her!” Susan carries me back toward the street where I see Papa’s car is parked . . . oh, I knew they’d come back for me! But she doesn’t stop at the car to put me inside. Instead she walks past it, carrying me toward the glue factory. “No!” I scream.
She carries me into the hallway up the steps, stopping at the platform where Mom is standing. “I’m so happy you’re okay!” Mom says, smiling at Susan. “After a nice bath I’ll give her some oatmeal and put her to bed.” She looks at me adoringly and says, “You could have gotten attacked by a wild dog—or even worse, hit by a car, you silly girl. You scared all of us!” Susan kisses me good-bye, again, and walks downstairs. I sob as she closes the outside door behind her.
Mom stands there with the phony smile on her face. Then it turns mean. “Cherie, are they gone?”
Cherie stands by the window and nods. I beg her, “No!” Doesn’t my big sister know what will happen now?
In an instant Mom turns her energy toward me, grabbing me by my hair and slamming me to the ground. It feels like my hair is being pulled all the way out of my head, and the skin on the top of my head is being ripped open. I try to put my arms in front of my face, but she punches them down and grabs me around my waist. Then she picks me up and throws me into the wall, denting it. As I slide down to the floor and land on my back, she grabs my right arm and leg and flips me over on my stomach. Then she kicks my legs, back, and stomach until I’m all weak and my head turns heavy. There’s a loud buzzing sound ringing from my brain. All I can see is white, and I can’t fight back or move my body anymore.
When I awake, I’m naked. I try to sit up, but my arms can’t cooperate. I raise my head to see why I can’t move, and I notice my arms are clasped together on my side and tied to the radiator. My legs are bound together above my ankles and tied to the rails underneath my bed. When I see this, I have to rest my neck. My brain feels like it’s swollen. I close my eyes.
I feel something cold. When I open my eyes again, Camille is holding a rag that feels like it has ice inside. “Where’s Susan?”
“Gi, Susan is only our foster sister. We don’t live with her anymore.”
“Can we go back?”
“No.” Then she whispers, “Not unless the police find out that Mom hurts us.” Camille tells me, still in a whisper, that while Mom was tying me up, she made my sisters take all my clothes out of the room so I couldn’t run away again. “This is what happens when you don’t listen to Mom,” she says. Now I want to spit in Camille’s face, but I can’t lift my head.
After that, Big Norman tells Mom that having a baby was enough, he didn’t bargain for three little girls and their crazy business, too. He starts spending more time away from the house, and one morning Mom’s crying at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, saying Big Norman left her for good.
She says she needs more time to herself and I’ll start kindergarten in a few days, even though I’m only four. My birthday falls in November, a few days before the cutoff, so she says I’ll probably be the youngest in my class. She also tells me that I have to use her last name when I go to school because I don’t have a daddy like Norman does. “Because you’re a bastard, remember?” she says. “Your daddy didn’t want you. And I can’t blame him. You’re a smug little snot, just like him.” Cherie overhears Mom saying this, and later she tells me not to worry about having the same last name as Mom—Cherie has the same one, too, and that makes me feel better. I like sharing a name with Cherie. “Cherie, where’s my daddy?” I ask her.
Her only answer is this: “I think he’s at the Happy House.”
Where is the Happy House? “Can we go there?”
“Well, maybe someday when you’re bigger we can find it again.”
I want to find the Happy House now.
Because my school day is shorter than Cherie’s and Camille’s, I have to stay in the school library until they’re ready to walk me home. That seems okay because I flip through books all afternoon, but it doesn’t work so well when my sisters start getting held up in detention all the time. They miss school to take care of Norman, and they’re not turning in their homework, and they said that it doesn’t help that the man who’s been sneaking in our house at night likes Mom more than his wife, who happens to be a teacher at our school. When they’re in detention and I stay too long at the library and can’t watch Norman, my sisters realize we’re all in danger of Mom’s beatings. They tell me I have to walk home alone, as long as I cross with the crossing guard and walk along the storefronts.
The next fall, Mom meets a new man named Vito, who always wears a black suit and a thick belt around his waist that we’re not allowed to touch. Vito is nice to us, way nicer than Big Norman, but the two friends who are always with him are weird. They’re really quiet, and they’re always wearing sunglasses—even at night. I know this because when Vito sleeps in Mom’s room, his friends sit down in the car and wait for him so he always has a ride somewhere.
Mom begins to stay out with Vito all the time, and we love to play house without her. When the snow melts from winter, we collect our change and bundle Norman up and take a long walk to the Saint James General Store, where we treat ourselves to apple, grape, and watermelon swirled candy sticks and candy necklaces.
Then on the way to the local King Kullen supermarket we drop Norman off at home, securing him in a room by himself so we can go shopping with Mom’s food stamps. Camille and Cherie take two different carts, and I stand on the outside edge of Cherie’s with my feet on the bottom rail, adding up the cost of the food items as they’re placed in the cart to make sure we have enough food stamps to cover our groceries. When we bag our food at the cash register, my job is to hide an extra stash of bags in our cart. Then Cherie tells the cashier we have to go find our sister, and she wheels me back into the store to look for Camille, who takes the contents of her cart and stuffs it all in my bags when no one’s looking. Camille’s cart is always better—she grabs Fluffernutter, peanut butter, frozen jelly donuts, and lots of cake mixes. Then we zip out the door with our stash.
We prefer to be left alone. We watch Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and The Flintstones without any interruption from my mom’s boring shows like Guiding Light and As the World Turns. When it’s cold or raining outside, we take out the games that Mom gets from the Salvation Army for Cherie and Camille. We play five hundred rummy, chess, checkers, Connect Four, and Battleship. We take turns feeding Norman and teaching him words for the objects around the apartment. Couch, we tell him. Television. Lightbulb. Of course, we also continue his potty training.
When spring breaks, Mom’s away even more, so I go out to the side yard to make mud pies and chase worms and ants. We miss school more days than we attend, which finally brings a truant officer to our door. Then we start attending again, for now.
When the weather heats up, Mom starts coming home more. She’s always groaning that her back hurts. “You’d better get prepared,” she says. “You’ll have a new little brother or sister by Halloween.”
Mom says she and Vito want to plan a vacation together, so she begins working across the street at the deli. On weekends she brings me to stock the freezers. Her tummy is too big for her to climb around, but I’m small enough to crawl on the ground and stack juices, milk, and sodas on the bottom shelves. Then I stick around and clean the counters and mop the floor before the deli opens.
After school lets out in June, Cherie, Camille, and I put Norman in his walker and walk two whole miles to our favorite spot: Cordwood Beach. We stroll past homes that look like palaces with big wrought-iron gates, finally arriving at the beach. On sunny days it’s filled with kids—splashing around, building sand castles, and screaming when they see a horseshoe crab or a jellyfish. We spatter in the sand and water with them, taking breaks to climb the remains of an old brick house that looks like a castle and jumping off the floating dock. Even on gray days, we’d prefer to get caught in the wind and rain than stay home bored in the glue factory. We squeal, digging in the wet sand for clams with our hands and feet, hunting out mussel beds, and loading up our arms and pockets. On the way home we pick onion grass for a special treat at dinner.
Right after I begin the first grade, our baby sister is born. We’re all thrilled to have a baby girl in the house. Roseanne doesn’t look like any of us, with her pale skin and blond hair—just like Vito has.
Sometimes I like to imagine that my daddy has dark brown hair, just like mine.
For Rosie’s baptism at Saint Philip and James, we dress Rosie in a long white gown. Vito looks funny in his dark suit and sunglasses, and his two friends stay by his side during the ceremony—even for the photos. After Rosie’s christening, we get to take care of her ourselves while Vito takes Mom on a celebration “baby trip” to Lake Havasu, Arizona. It’s Mom’s first plane ride. When they come back, Mom tells us she and Vito had a great time on his “going away” trip but that he won’t be seeing us. “Vito had to go live somewhere else for a while,” she says.
It doesn’t take long before Mom disappears, too. She begins to spend more time away at night, and when she returns from her binges, she brings home a man or a hangover . . . or both. We learn to stay out of her way, because especially when she’s sad or not feeling well, we’ll catch a serious licking. As men come into our home, though, they always comment on what pretty little girls she has. We look down and walk away: If only they knew the trouble their compliments cause. When the men leave, Mom makes sure we all know that we’re just sluts and whores, and Norman is her prince. “You think you’re so pretty?” she says when her visitors leave. “Get over here. You won’t be pretty when I’m done with you.”
Months after Rosie arrives, our mom doesn’t look like our mom anymore. She locks us in her room and cries that, at age thirty, her old go-go dancer body is gone forever and all the stress of raising kids is making her face lined and puffy. “My life amounts to nothing, and it’s all because of you kids!” she screams. As her unhappiness worsens, so does her drinking; and as her drinking increases, so does her weight. It’s Cherie, Camille, or me who take a beating during these tirades. And we never allow her near Norm or Rosie, but Mom’s usually too tired to fuss with the baby anyway.
We teach Rosie to talk and walk and play games, and we shower her with beautiful expressions of love like mia bambina amore and je t’aime. We don’t know how they’re so familiar to us, but we use them a hundred times a day.
All our fawning over Rosie frees Mom up even more, but instead of bringing men home, she’s started bringing in animals to try and cheer herself up. We tiptoe around, cautioning Rosie to avoid the monkeys, turtles, and chickens that Mom attempts to hide from the landlord. The three squirrel monkeys are kept in a cage, and Mom reminds us to put on gloves to feed them—otherwise they’ll eat our fingers as appetizers. Unfortunately, our yellow dishwashing gloves aren’t exactly appropriate for primate-caretaking: One of the monkeys bites off a rubber fingertip and chokes to death, and Mom leads us in an emotional burial service in the side yard. We clean up poop from the donkey that lives up on the tar roof, where we sometimes shower with the hose since we can’t use the tub—it’s the home for our land turtles. They’re our favorite. When any of us gets grounded in our rooms, we take a couple turtles out of the tub and line up bits of food to pit them against each other in a turtle race. But since we only have one bathtub and need it for five baths and clothes washing, the turtles finally make a mystery escape in the middle of the night.
The chickens only last until the landlord finds out about them. I envy all these animals for their easy exits from our mother’s domain. Pepper, Mom’s German shepherd mix, is the only creature in this house who’s always happy and loving. We take him to the school yard to run around for exercise, or on long walks past the local farms. Occasionally we stage a disaster scene as though he’s run loose into the fields, and while we go “looking” for him, we snatch corn and potatoes for our dinner.
By December of my second-grade year, Mom has gone roaming again. The glue factory workers, crossing guards, and firemen are suspicious. In fact, sometimes we see a parked police car outside, and Cherie says we need to be careful because they’re watching us.
WE ARE READY for the cops when they come up the stairs. We realize they caught Norman wandering outside in the dark, at night, in the cold, and that they’ll be the ones to bring him back to us. We know they are watching and waiting to catch us doing something wrong, and Norman innocently gave them a tip. The two cops come in and grab all five of us, still in our pajamas. They put Norm in the front between them and all us girls in the back, with Rosie on Cherie’s lap. They ask us to stay silent, but we are five kids in a police car without our mother, and we don’t know where we are being taken. We aren’t silent. We are children.
It’s mid-December and they’ve decided to put the four of us older kids in a home together so we’re not separated for the holidays—but Rosie, just a year old now, is going to another house.
The foster family sets up four sleeping bags for us on the living room floor. The parents and their two teenage boys force us to lie in the sleeping bags all night and day, never moving or complaining. If we do, they close the bag around us by zipping it up over our heads, and they beat us while we’re inside of it. If we cry too loudly, the punishment turns even worse. One day the foster mom grabs me by the head and cuts off my long curls with a giant pair of scissors. When the social worker checks on us and asks what happened, she answers that I got gum all stuck in my hair so she had to cut it out. I haven’t chewed gum since the last time my sisters and I went to the Saint James General Store.
One day a package of Yodels cakes goes missing. The boys force me to open my mouth so they can smell my breath, and they agree that I’m the Yodels thief. I’m beaten again, this time by them and their mom, while Cherie, Camille, and Norman are forced to watch and stay silent. If we try to defend one another, the kid getting the beating will only get it worse.
One night, while I’m sleeping, I’m suddenly cold—somehow I’ve gotten out of my sleeping bag. I wake to the realization that my pajama bottoms have been removed and the two boys are looking at my private parts. I begin screaming, but by then Cherie and Camille are nowhere in sight, and Norman—despite the boys’ threats—starts kicking them and screaming for them to leave me alone. As they drag me into their room, they yell to Norman to shut up, telling him they’ll lock him outside in the freezing cold all night like they just did to my sisters. I’m alone with no one to help me. I watch the slice of light from the hallway disappear as they close their bedroom door, trapping me alone with them inside. I begin counting.
BY NOW I understand what foster care means. Susan, Mama, and Papa weren’t my real family—they were people who wanted to give us a nice home after the cops found out Mom hadn’t been taking decent care of us. Now, after the bad home, the five of us are separated into three different foster families. To me, being a foster kid is a little bit like being a dog: You have no control over the kind of family who will take you. Even if you’re treated badly, it’s possible no one will ever find out the truth and come rescue you.
Rosie stays where she was originally placed, and Camille and Cherie are placed with a family named the O’Malleys. Norm and I move to the Tenleys’ in a town called Dix Hills, with little houses on tiny lawns, that’s thirty minutes from where we used to live. The Tenleys’ house is all wood paneling, and Mr. Tenley’s hair matches the gray button-down shirt he wears to work every day. Right away Mrs. Tenley gets into an argument with the social worker—“Someone needs to buy these kids some clothes!” she says, but she insists she’ll save the receipts and would like the county to reimburse her for the purchases.
When the social worker introduces me, she informs the Tenleys that I’m the troublemaker and Norm is an angel, and that they’ll have to keep an extra eye on me. The Tenleys relay this information to my new teacher, who introduces me to my second-grade class on my first day of school, right after Christmas break. “Class, this is our new student. Her name is Regina, and she may not be here for very long—she’s a foster child.” I look at her, shaking my head. She’s just ruined any chance I might have had of getting invited to my classmates’ birthday parties. “We’ll welcome her for the time she’s here, and she’ll start in the lowest reading and math groups.”
That’s where I cut her off. “But I don’t belong in the low groups,” I insist. “At my old school I was in the highest group.”
After a week, she sees I was right and I’m placed in the advanced class. The kids at school don’t know what to say to a foster kid, so I spend most of my free time in the bedroom reading my favorite Judy Blume book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. That, and every library book with Amelia Earheart I can get my hands on.
I finish second grade while at the Tenleys’ and only see my sisters one day every other month when social services coordinates a visit between both pairs of foster parents. By the time I see them in late August, Rosie’s moved in with them. She’d been losing weight and getting extremely ill because she refused to eat. She’d also been hospitalized with dehydration. I overhear her foster mom tell Mrs. Tenley that the doctors said Rosie was suffering from Failure to Thrive, a condition that makes it difficult for her to absorb nutrition because, emotionally, she’s too upset about being separated from her family. The social workers hope Cherie and Camille can comfort her and nurse her back to health. They said they hope that with the love of her older sisters, she’ll gain weight fast.
Mr. Tenley’s always talking about Walter Conkrite, his favorite newsman, whom he refers to as the “most trusted man in America.” He never lets Norm or me watch anything except the evening news, and I sit on the edge of the couch shifting my weight, staring blankly at the TV set.
One night, after I’ve started the third grade, Mr. Tenley calls me into the living room. “Nah,” I tell him. “That’s okay, I’m busy with homework.” That’s when he comes into my room, picks me up, and carries me down the hall, planting me in front of their wood-encased television set. “This is an historic moment,” he says. “President Ford is pardoning Richard Nixon. Pay attention. You will always remember this.”
There sits the president, looking friendly but serious, wearing a black suit behind a desk with a grand window behind him:
I have come to a decision which I felt I should tell you and all of my fellow American citizens . . . I have promised to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right as God gives me to see the right, and to do the very best that I can for America.
I feel that Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough . . . Now, therefore, I, Gerald R. Ford . . . have granted . . . a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all.
This Thanksgiving is the first time I see Mom since last December when the cops found Norman roaming the streets. Mr. Tenley drives us to Saint James, and I make him pinky-promise he’ll pick us up after dinner.
Mom tells me she won a visit with Norm and me at her fair hearing. She talks all about a new guy named Karl and how she’s planning to buy a house in Smithtown so we can all live together again. I imagine having earplugs in my ears, until I’m helping her prepare dinner and she starts asking me about Master Bate.
“Master Bate?” Maybe she means Mr. Bate? But none of my foster fathers were named Mr. Bate. None of my teachers are named Mr. Bate. I don’t know any Mr. Bate! Mom asks me why I’ve been touching Mr. Bate and my privates at night, and when I stare at her in confusion, she tells me to stop with Mr. Bating.
“Mrs. Tenley told the social worker, Regina. And the social worker told me. You’re only nine—that’s too young to touch yourself down there. It’s a dirty thing for a little girl to do.”
I nod my head, but I’m still lost. The only time I touch myself down there is when I hold my privates to protect them from ever being hurt again like in my last foster home.