Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island - Regina Calcaterra (2013)
6. Houses of Sand
March 1974 to 1977
IT SEEMS LIKE every few months we get a new social worker, so it’s not surprising when a new lady shows up to get Norm and me. While I’m helping her load our bags into her trunk, Mrs. Tenley stands at the front door. She calls behind me, “Regina, it’s not spring quite yet! Come put on your coat.” But Mrs. Tenley told me that all my sisters and I are about to be reunited in a new home, and the anticipation of this has made me fearless against the cold . . . and pretty much everything.
As I whiz past Mrs. Tenley with the last of our things, she says, “Regina, the way you move, you seem like you can’t wait to leave here.”
I look up at her. “It’s not that,” I say. “I just can’t wait to see my sisters.”
In the backseat I hold my newest plastic Jesus figurine while Norman plays silently with a G.I. Joe. We stay quiet even as the social worker pulls into the smooth paved driveway with fresh-cut grass of a stunning colonial-style house with a double door entrance, large brass knockers, and two story-high columns flanking the front door.
“What are we doing here?” I ask the social worker from the backseat.
“This is the address your mother gave me.”
Norm and I look quizzically at each other. “You might wanna check that again.”
“Can you help me get your bags out of the trunk, please?”
I sit still in the backseat for another second. Then my fear of embarrassment to present my garbage bags of luggage in front of this magnificent home propels my plea: “The address—please check it again. They’re going to tell us we have the wrong place.” Right then, the door opens.
Standing in the entrance is my mother.
I take in her face, then her outfit. She’s wearing a floral shirt and gauchos—with pleats. Her hair’s been let down from its messy ponytail and colored a single shade of pure red, curled into a careful lilt at her chin. It would have taken an actual hairbrush to create such poofy, neat waves. I remember her telling me when we lived above the glue factory that the only good thing I got from my father is my hair, but for the first time ever, hers actually looks pretty, too. And she’s thinner than I remember. Could this really be the same monster who lived with us in Saint James?
Anxiety from my confusion begins to rise in me until an unassuming, tall man appears in the doorway. From the first moment, I can sense that he’s gentle. His hair starts at one temple and is combed neatly across the front of his forehead and pasted down to the other side. Thin arms fall from a short-sleeved button-down shirt, and polyester pants are fastened around his belly button with a brown leather belt. Black-rimmed glasses frame his face. Given our mother’s romantic history, I’m cautious to get my hopes up about him. I slump back in my seat and mumble to Norm: “Guess that’s the new guy.”
As they exchange a few seemingly polite words with the social worker, Norm and I file quietly out of the car. When our mother’s eyes scan to us, she fixes a smile on her face, like the mom in a Hamburger Helper commercial: Oh, you silly, adorable kids. The man extends his hand to me when we reach the porch. “I’m Karl,” he says. “Pleased to meet you.”
“You too,” I tell him. “Nice house.”
“Well, after I passed the real estate exam,” Mom interrupts, “I worked fast to close this deal. You should’ve seen the pack of Stepford wives lined up the block, licking their chops when I pulled the Century 21 sign out of the ground. Inside deal, see. That’s what happens when you have the right connections.”
Mom acts as though we’ve all enjoyed a cheerfully prepared breakfast of French toast, eggs, and bacon together every day for the past year and a half as she shows Norm and me through the house. What do you think of the boyfriend? I’m dying to whisper to my brother. Instead, I ask the more urgent question: “Where are Cherie and Camille?”
“The bus should be dropping them off from the middle school any minute. And don’t even ask—you’re already registered in third grade at Branch Brook Elementary. I took care of everything.” Her voice echoes through the expansive foyer when she says, “By the way, you two can thank Camille for your bedrooms. She helped pay for the house.”
“Camille?” I ask her. “How?”
“With her broken legs. Don’t you remember the story? She got run over when she was two. The driver put money in a trust fund for her to use when she grew up.”
We start up the grand wooden stairs, following behind her. “So where is the trust fund money now?”
“You’re standing in it, darling.”
Darling? Getting sober turned her into a different person!
“I talked the trust’s lawyer into handing over the cash because I told him—get this—that the whole point of buying this house is to raise Camille and her siblings in a safe environment. Smart Cookie, right?” Aha . . . the old Cookie Calcaterra peeks through the Beaver Cleaver facade. “Come on outside, I’ll show you the swimming pool.”
Norm and I follow her in silence, ogling at the inground pool with an awkward fusion of excitement and hesitation. I can’t predict how likely it is that we’ll even live in this house through the summer to enjoy swimming in it.
“You want to know the best part?”
We look up at her.
“I own the house with the bank. I don’t have to pay rent anymore.”
The part of me that loves this house cooperates easily with my mother’s happy-family charade. While she’s at work in the afternoons, Cherie, Camille, and I make dinner and then help Norm with his homework. At dinnertime Karl sits at the head of our rectangular kitchen table, coaching us to say please and thank you and indulging our requests for stories about his work as an engineer at Grumman Aerospace. “Don’t ask Karl too many questions,” Mom chides. “His work is top secret.”
“It’s not that secret, Cookie,” he says. “It’s good for them to learn this stuff.” Then he turns to us and says, “Right now we’re building a military aircraft that America needs to keep us safe from the Communists in Russia. We’re in a Cold War, see. They can attack us with their nukes any time so we need to be prepared.”
Karl thinks the reason I listen in awe is because his stories are so interesting, but really I just can’t get enough of having his attention. Sometimes I think of asking Mom and Karl, “Say, how’d you two meet anyway?” but it’s a more pleasant fantasy for all of us to make like they’ve been together all along. Mom is much calmer these days—she says it’s because Karl’s such a good father to her kids, but Cherie and Camille say her maternal demeanor is thanks to the fact she’s not drinking anymore and that her doctor has her on the right medication. “Doctor?” I ask. “Is Mom sick?”
Cherie and Camille exchange a sarcastic glance. “She’s sick all right,” Camille says. “Sick in the head.”
The possibility that Cookie’s been faking us out makes me uneasy, like the day she showed me the swimming pool out back. “You know what they say,” Camille says. “If it seems too good to be true . . . then it probably is.”
At night, Mom and Karl watch TV in the family room or Mom makes real estate phone calls in the kitchen while Karl reads the paper in the recliner. Meanwhile, Cherie, Camille, and I all help one another put Rosie, who’s already two, to bed in her crib that’s positioned against the wall in my bedroom. Then I settle in for long talks in Cherie and Camille’s bedroom and help them tape Teen Beat photos of David Cassidy and Leif Garrett on their walls. Sometimes we invite Norman to come in, under the condition he’ll agree to put on purple socks so he can be my Donny Osmond as I play Marie. Cherie and Camille join in singing and dancing, and the four of us carry on just like the old days at Cordwood Beach . . . together.
I notice that not having been able to rely on Cherie and Camille at the Tenleys’ house brought out a grown-up side to me, and sometimes I find myself still acting like a mom to Norm . . . and even though my brother’s the only person in the whole house who doesn’t have to share a bedroom, he still appears mindful that it’s his sisters who taught him survival. In an effort to make up for the year we lost, the five of us do everything together. After school we take walks to Branch Brook Elementary’s playground and spend hours swaying gently on the swings and talking, or squealing as we balance the weight of all five of us between both sides of the seesaw. On cold or rainy days we take advantage of the fact that Mom has yet to find enough abandoned furniture to fill our house. We set up our radio inside what Mom calls “the great room”—our step-down giant living room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors—and dance like maniacs as the songs on Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown echo off the hardwood floor. When Frankie Valli’s “Swearin’ to God” comes on, we crowd around the radio to listen carefully to all the words and scribble them down. Mom always wants to be the first person she knows to memorize all the lyrics to the new Four Seasons songs. She says she has a special connection to them from her time as a go-go dancer when they were just an up-and-coming band from New Jersey playing the Long Island club circuit.
One day she arrives home from work and nonchalantly invites us out to the front lawn to help her unload the car, where we find three bikes, and a new Big Wheel for Norm, in the front yard. ”Mom, wow!” we exclaim, instantly taking off for the park on our new rides. We whiz past Karl, who’s standing there, quietly beaming with his hands in his pockets. I shout over my shoulder, “Karl, thanks!”
He shouts back: “You got it, kiddo!”
This is when Mom suddenly gets wrapped up planning a new project: having a portrait taken of her with her five kids. As a hobby, she’s started sewing dresses for all of us, having purchased cotton fabric with raised crushed velvet in yellow, pink, and blue. She sits in concentration at her sewing machine, creating tea-length dresses with scooped necks and dome sleeves. She grows so possessed by the endeavor that when she hears us walking past where her sewing machine’s set up in the dining room, hints of the old Cookie begin to reveal themselves. “Stay the hell outta there!” she shouts. This is my cue to begin spending my afternoons in the school library. That old familiar undercurrent of uncertainty is back.
Mom insists that Cherie’s and Camille’s hair remain straight and long like Marcia and Jan Brady, while my natural waves are styled in a trendy shag—short at the ears, long in the back. Mom cuts Norman’s hair to highlight his intense almond-shaped eyes and chiseled cheekbones. Rosie’s wispy blond locks are always in little pigtails. We keep taking bets on when she’ll grow out of her blond hair, but so far she hasn’t. “She’ll always be a blonde,” Mom says, lowering her voice in a way that makes it hard to decipher between melancholy and bitterness: “Just like her daddy.”
Karl’s still at work when the photographer shows up. “Do we need to wait for your husband?” the woman asks.
Mom’s only answer is this: “He’s not my husband.”
This simple phrase is the pin in my balloon, a careless reminder: We’re not a normal family at all. Suddenly I’m nauseated as Mom commands us into position on a bench by the great room’s shiny wooden stairs: “Look happy, kids!”
When the photographer leaves, Mom turns as dramatic as a soap opera star, gushing about her excitement to have a family photo to add to the last one—the one taken three years ago when we were all wearing our Lake Havasu T-shirts. I know this is another excuse for her to mention Vito.
“Where is Vito anyway?” I ask her.
“He’s locked up,” Mom says. “His enemies figured him out.” She tells us Vito’s garbage business was so good that he didn’t have to share his routes with anyone else, which pissed off other garbage men, who told the FBI on him. Then he went to jail. Mom brags that Rosie’s daddy is famous because he was the boss of the garbage men. “Before they put him away,” she says, “he was in all the newspapers.” There’s a faraway twinkle in her eye when she says, “He always reminded me of a husky Robert Redford.” When we ask her if the cops tried to put her in jail with Vito, she rolls her eyes and laughs. “God no. Everybody knows girlfriends and kids are always left alone—we’re protected by the Mothers and Fathers Italian Association.”
Later that night, Camille asks me, “You know what the Mothers and Fathers Italian Association stands for?”
I shake my head.
“Think about what the first letters spell out: M-A-F-I-A.”
“Ohhhhh . . .”
The next day I ask Mom out of curiosity: “How long will Vito be in jail?”
“Jesus, Regina, I don’t know. Stop asking questions,” she says. Then she takes a long drag off her Virginia Slim. “Maybe another two years—what will Rosie be, five? But it doesn’t matter anyway,” she says, using her bare ring finger to scratch her cheek. “Karl is Rosie’s daddy now.”
WHEN OUR FAMILY portrait arrives in the mail, Mom flings it on the kitchen table. “Look at this,” she says. “All that work I did—for a bunch of fucking clowns.” When she adds “What a goddamn disgrace,” it’s impossible to tell whether she’s referring to the photo or her life.
In it we’re lined up in two rows, Cherie, Camille, and Rosie in the front and Norm and me kneeling on a bench behind them. The only one smiling is Norm. Cherie’s arms are straight out, holding a hysterical Rosie like she has a dirty diaper, and Camille is looking over at the two of them as if she just sensed it. “And look at Regina,” Mom says. “Could you pretend to listen to me for once?” I didn’t bother to smile in the picture; I never do. My haircut is boyish and my gapped front teeth look like mini Tic Tacs screwed into my gums. My expression shows an intolerance to participating in a picture meant to capture this facade. I know that, just as fast as the photographer’s flash, soon this will all be gone.
While Mom and Karl are working overtime trying to keep our home, we get to spend more time alone, in this big house, entertaining ourselves. So we bake. We bake muffins, bread, rolls, cakes, and cupcakes. And when we can’t bake because the pilot light is out, Cherie leans her head into the oven with a lit match, while Camille turns the gas on. Luckily it’s almost summer when Cherie’s eyebrows, lashes, and hair are singed, so we stop baking and move on to more outdoorsy hobbies. We dive into the green pool water and scrawl our names on the algae-covered walls.
Regina Marie Calcaterra, I write.
Regina + Donny Osmond
Mrs. Regina Osmond
All the letter O’s are formed in the shape of hearts.
We swim to the bottom of the pool in search of treasures sitting on the floor, waiting like shipwrecks for someone to discover them.
NORM AND I arrive home one afternoon in June to find a padlock and tape barricading the front door. All of our stuff is piled on the lawn. “Oh no,” I tell Norm. “Mom and Karl must’ve had a fight!” When we run around back to try to get in, Cherie’s fishing our inner tubes out of the pool. She sees us and rests the net on the ground . . . signaling she’s about to share bad news.
“What’s going on?” I ask her.
“She forgot to pay the bank,” she says.
I slump down and sit at the edge of the pool, somehow having known this was coming. For almost a year I’d managed to convince myself that this life was really ours. But just like that, it all went up in smoke. I should’ve known better than ever to count on Cookie Calcaterra.
Mom finds a house a few blocks away on Terry Road so we can stay in the same school, but Karl never shows up. “Don’t look so fucking miserable, you little whores,” she tells us, swigging from a can of Budweiser as we struggle through the front door of our new house, heaving Hefty bags. “It was good while it lasted.”
It’s not long before she’s fired from Century 21, and she starts spending her days at the bars again. If she comes home to Rosie crying or to a cold dinner on the table, or a front yard that hasn’t been properly cut with our dull scissors, then the drinking turns into beatings. The new house gets broken in by my body as it makes dents and holes through the paneling and Sheetrock walls. I avoid her because I never know when she’ll feel like grabbing me by the back of the head and slamming my face into the table, causing relentless nosebleeds. I begin to run away again, hiding in the woods near my school or up in trees where no one can find me. Sometimes I disappear overnight, and at lunchtime the next day I tell my teacher I’m walking home for lunch. Then I head straight for the woods to search out safer hiding spaces. When I find them, I stash books wrapped in plastic bags there for me to read when I arrive later.
When I’ve finished a book faster than I’d anticipated, I pass the time spelling antidisestablishmentarianism, the longest word in the dictionary. My goal is to get all the letters in under seven seconds. Then I shorten it to six seconds, then five, and when I conquer that, my mind begins to ponder how else I can keep it busy.
Every few weeks Mom brings my siblings and me with her to her mandated psychiatrist visit. When we were in foster care, she spent time in what she called the loony bin—Pilgrim State Hospital. They only discharged her on account that she was good about taking what she calls her “happy pills,” and because she agreed to fulfill regular visits with a psychiatrist that would include a few visits with us kids. Before we walked into his office for the first time, Mom bent down and wrapped her hand around my arm so tight her fingernails dug tiny pink half-moons into my skin. “So help me Christ, if you blow it, Regina . . . He reads body language for a living. Lie good.”
“You know about what—about the little tiffs you and I have sometimes.” She leans in so I’m breathing the cigarettes from her breath. “Or else, you know, Regina. You know what will happen next.”
I knew: The state would take us away again. I sit quietly in the psychiatrist’s office, looking at my hand against the blue canvas couch and insisting with my nods and smiles that life with Cookie Calcaterra is a day at the beach. The psychiatrist seems to watch me closer than he does my siblings, and I know he knows I’m lying.
People look but don’t see, why?
People hear but don’t listen, why?
People touch, but don’t feel, why?
After I write a poem titled “Why?” my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Muse, suddenly seems to take a special liking to me. She asks me to read it to the class and then invites the other teachers from our corridor to hear me recite it a second, third, and fourth time. She begins to ask me, when the other kids are busy, “How are things at home, Regina?” The day I tell her I’m moving, I’m stunned when her eyes suddenly fill with tears. “Promise me you’ll never forget that you’re special, Regina.”
Special? I usually get dirty, ugly, poor, bastard, gross, nasty, slut, rag doll, and whore . . . but never special. Ms. Muse continues, telling me I need to always make sure I have a library card, that reading will help me wherever I end up. “Stay smart, stay sharp, and never, ever stop reading,” she whispers in my ear. She hugs me so tight I think I might cry, too.
“THE MORE EAST you go in the cold months,” Mom tells us, “the cheaper rents are.” As we drive near the shore, I notice construction workers securing the bulkheads to protect the beaches from another harsh winter. I try to imagine the bungalows we pass in Sound Beach bursting in summer with families, block parties, and barbecues . . . but when Mom finally moves us into a place in Rocky Point, it reminds me of a camp’s dark bunkhouse. The kitchen is a tiny galley with a two-burner stove and the furniture is broken and cushionless. I can see through the worn wooden floor planks to the dirt and weeds below.
Mom leaves for a few weeks, telling us she’s “going to get warmed up by the Red Devil.” We know the Red Devil because he’s spent the night here before—he’s a pale, freckled, lanky guy with a long red goatee that comes to a sharp point.
“Good, go,” Cherie says quietly when the front door slams behind Cookie. “We like our freedom without you anyway.”
“Yeah,” I join in. “And don’t bring that crusty scruff back with you, either.” Cherie and Camille burst out laughing.
In the house, the only source of heat comes from the semiwarm air that’s pushing through one floor grate in the hall that adjoins the bathroom to the one bedroom. From the house’s front windows we watch icy snow fill the road, wondering how we’ll get a ride to school—our only source of meals and warmth—when our bus driver inevitably gives up on attempting our narrow hill.
In between alternating as caretakers for Rosie, now age four, we go digging in enclosed steel bins outside the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul charities for items to stuff between the floor planks, insulating us from the wind and door drafts, and any semblance of towels or blankets to pile on top of us when we sleep.
“Snorkels!” Camille hollers from inside one of the bins.
Cherie snorts. “Get real, it’s winter. What the heck will we do with snorkels?”
“No, no, look,” she says, climbing out with her arms full. “They’re puffy coats with hoods that cover everything but your eyes.” Camille is our aspiring fashion designer, so we take her word that such ridiculous-looking coats could be named after underwater face snorkels.
We wear the snorkels home with newfound mismatched gloves, hats, and scarves, while we stuff our pockets and pillowcases with undershirts, towels, sheets, washcloths, and socks.
When the snowdrifts eventually grow taller than us, we tunnel a hole through the snow to the street, then walk twenty minutes in the drifts to get to Route 25 where our bus driver said she’d pick us up for school. Some days, though, the weather is so bad that we don’t even bother. At home, we wear our snorkels all day with our other findings piled on top of us for warmth. At nightfall I unlatch the exhaust hose on the back of the washroom’s clothes dryer, then position the dryer so that the back of it points toward the center of the room. After I make sure the dryer door is closed so Rosie can’t crawl inside, I press the on button. Warm air blasts into the washroom, and we generate more heat between us by cuddling up with our arms around each other in our snorkels piled with stuff. When we finally get sick of sipping the sugar water we boil on the electric stove to fill our stomachs, Cherie, Camille, and I wake up around four in the morning to wrap whatever we’re sleeping in around Norm and Rosie. Then we venture out in search of food.
Our snorkels make it easy to hide stolen candy and snack cakes, and we realize how much more we can smuggle by cutting a hole in one pocket then ripping through the coat’s lining to the other pocket. We know the bakery’s delivery guy arrives at the town market just after five in the morning. The minute his van has disappeared around the corner, we fill the lining of our coats with warm rolls, donuts, crumb cakes, and soft bagels. Then we head to the deli that’s past the road to our house, to see if the milkman has made his delivery so we can feed Rosie. We’re able to eat for several days after one outing. On the walk home, we snack as we savor our successful hunt, and sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”—taking turns being Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell—since it symbolizes the lengths we’ll go for one another.
Each of the girls have to miss at least one day of school a week since someone always needs to be at home to take care of Rosie, who doesn’t start kindergarten until next year. She’ll be the smartest in her class since her schooling on pictures, colors, and numbers is inspired by our boredom—when she counts to twenty, it’s a victory for us all.
When it’s my turn to watch her, I fill her day with songs about optimism by teaching her the lyrics to Annie’s “Tomorrow” and my very favorite, “Ooh Child.”
Oo-ooh child things are gonna get easier. . . .
Oo-ooh child, things’ll get brighter. . . .
We fantasize about the song’s promise of walking in the rays of a beautiful sun, in a better brighter world.
I don’t care much for my new fourth grade teacher, who’s nothing like Ms. Muse. Instead of listening to her, I daydream, and on the days I’m actually present, my classmates and teacher act like I’m not. Rosie’s not the only factor that keeps us from going to school: We’ve also been dealing with heads full of lice, ultimately followed by a family decision that it’d be better to stay home and build snowmen, make snow angels, and go sledding down the road on pieces of cardboard. If the library were closer we’d be there finding books of games, reading to Rosie, and teaching her more colors, bigger words, or how to stay inside the lines with crayons. At home, of course, all this is tougher to do since our fingers, numb inside our mittens, have a hard time turning the page or holding worn-down crayons.
Inside, we spend our days watching The Six Million Dollar Man, The Waltons, and Happy Days on our eleven-inch, black-and-white television. Maneuvering with our mittens makes games like five hundred rummy last longer. We save our new favorite, The Game of Life, for last and play until keeping ourselves warm all day has exhausted us enough to sleep again.
One morning Cherie tells Camille and me to go looking for food without her. “It hurts when I breathe,” she says, worrying us by adding, “I feel like no matter how much I sleep, I can’t stay awake.” Her coughs are deep and long, and she feels hot with fever as her perspiration soaks the clothes and sheets we wrap her in. Somehow, though, she can’t stop shivering.
When we get outside in our food-hunting gear, I ask Camille, “Do you think it’s the flu?”
“I don’t think so,” she says. “You don’t cough like that with the flu.”
Over the next few days and then weeks, Cherie’s cough grows stronger while her body grows weaker. “Be the man of the house, Norm,” we tell him as we snorkel up—but this time not in search of food. Our younger brother has to care for Rosie and an eldest sister who can barely lift her head off the couch. When we leave, he’s positioned himself by her side to monitor her breathing.
Camille and I follow the road into town, relieved all the taverns have their signs lit up now that night falls so early. We find one called The Cornerstone that we’ve heard Mom talk about before. “Hey, mister,” I ask the bartender, “have you seen Cookie Calcaterra or the Red Devil?” The bartender turns to us, clueless. We walk in and out of every pub we find, telling the managers and bartenders that the Red Devil says he knows everybody in all the bars in Rocky Point. Finally, one of them lets us behind the bar and stands over the phone book with us, pointing out numbers to all the other pubs and dialing the phone for us. “Our sister is sick,” I tell each one. “Can you please see if Cookie Calcaterra is there?” After a few hours of searching, we finally give up, but on our way home, snow starts to fall . . . and something about this makes Camille wonder out loud if Cherie is going to survive. “You think she’s dying?” I ask her. The look on her face tells me enough.
We turn back and head for one of the bars where we remember seeing a pay phone hanging on the wall. I fight the butterflies in my stomach when Camille dials 911 and tells the operator in a shockingly steady voice, “Our sister is very, very sick. She’s weak and she can’t breathe.” I purse my lips in worry as she answers the dispatcher’s prompts. “Yes, we need an ambulance. Our mother is working.”
We run home in time for Camille to climb in the ambulance with Cherie . . . and just as the police are pulling in. They question me about our mom’s whereabouts. “Where did you say your mother works again?” one asks.
“Some real estate agency,” I say with a shrug. “I don’t remember the name.”
The paramedics rush Cherie to the hospital, where she’s admitted for severe pneumonia. When Camille returns late that night, getting a ride from a social worker, she tells me she had to keep herself from fainting when the doctor told her we waited so long that Cherie could have died. “Her lungs are damaged worse than any pneumonia case I’ve seen,” he told Camille. “If she ever gets her lung strength back, it will take months.”
We know what’s coming when two social workers pull up to the house in two separate vehicles. Camille and I are driven to one foster home; Norm and Rosie are placed in another. We’re separated again . . . but this time without our oldest sister, who usually knows what to do when we don’t. Worse, she’s by herself, with no one there to hold her hand while she fights for her life. “Can thirteen-year-olds get Failure to Thrive?” I ask Camille. Her face is expressionless when she shrugs. “I hope not,” she says. “I’ll be thirteen next year.” Then she turns and wipes the frost from her window.
Camille and I are obsessed with what will happen to Cherie when she’s finally released from the hospital. “She’s a sick woman,” my older sisters say about our mother, and I’m coming to understand that’s the only explanation for her choices in her manner of raising us. Beyond her heavy drinking are her violent mood swings and unpredictable outbursts, which we’ve been trying for years to accept as part of who she is. Sooner or later she always found ways to repent by taking my siblings to the movies or bringing us to a bar and giving us all the money we wanted for the jukebox and Shirley Temples. But the ruthless abandonment of us in midwinter in a desolate neighborhood—with no heat, no food, and limited contact with the outside world—has changed Camille.
The first outward sign of her contempt of our mother is when we’re placed in our new foster home in Brentwood. “I don’t want to be called Camille anymore,” she tells me.
“I don’t want to share a name with Mom.” After a few days, Camille announces that she wants me, and everyone, to call her by her middle name: Deanna.
My task of having to call my sister by a new name after a decade knowing her as Camille is only further confused by the fact that our foster parents, Nancy and Frank, named their son and daughter Nancy and Frank. Nancy and Frank, Nancy and Frank, Deanna . . . and Regina.
Like most twelve-year-olds, Deanna is allowed to play after school with friends from her new school, go to dances, style her hair, and eat whatever she wants as long as she goes to class and does all her homework.
But Frank treats me like his second son. He shares his love of boxing and Sugar Ray Leonard with me, and I find myself liking Sugar Ray’s baby face . . . and having someone who acts like my dad. We constantly watch boxing matches, interviews, and news on Sugar Ray, and as we prepare for a match, we talk about it for days leading up to it. Then we warn Nancy, Nancy, and Deanna what they’re in for if they dare to join us for the fight. This is the first foster home for as long as I remember that we actually don’t want to leave.
Anytime Deanna mentions Mom, she refers to her as Cookie. “She doesn’t deserve to be called a mom,” she explains. I begin to call Mom “Cookie,” too—after all the months and years of growing up without her, she feels too unfamiliar and detached for the name Mom. Nancy tells us that Cherie’s being released from the hospital and the court has permitted Cookie to take Cherie back, as long as Cookie lives in the same residence as Karl. Deanna and I roll our eyes.
Not long after that, Nancy learns Cookie’s won back guardianship of Norm and Rosie, too. Nancy explains that the court only wants Cookie to take care of a few kids at a time, and if she proves she can, then we can return to her, too. “We’re not in a rush,” I tell Nancy. “Trust me.”
Our summer’s been filled with inground swimming pools, Slip ’N Slides, and water balloons. Frank takes us to the community celebration parade and shares our amazement over a fourteen-year-old Romanian gymnast named Nadia whose score showed up as 1.00 because the Olympic scoreboard makers never imagined that they would need room to post a fourth digit, since before her routine, no one had ever scored a perfect 10.00.
As our summer of Olympic-size fun comes to a close, so does our stay with Nancy, Frank, Nancy, and Frank. With a new school year coming, the court has ruled it’s time for us to return to our mother . . . or, as we’ve made a pact to refer to her from now on: to Cookie.
Deanna and I hatch a plan to write a letter to the court, asking them if we can please stay with the Nancys and Franks, but we finally reason that Cherie will need our help taking care of Norm and Rosie until her lungs get better.
THE MONTH BEFORE fifth grade starts, Cookie and Karl reunite. They find a nice two-story home to rent, directly across the street from the Saint James Episcopal Church. “Does this mean I’ll get to go back to Saint James Elementary?”
“No, Regina,” Cookie says. “I’m gonna send you to school in Timbuktu.”
The house is nestled off of busy North Country Road, surrounded by dense woods that hide a secure tree house built high into a group of trees. Norm and Cherie are settled in bedrooms on the second floor by the time Deanna and I arrive. Cookie puts me in a bedroom on the first floor with Rosie, right next to the bedroom she shares with Karl. “I remember your little tendency to run away,” she explains. One night, very late, when I hear strange noises coming from Cookie and Karl’s bedroom, I knock on the door. “Is everyone okay in there?” I yell. Instantly the noises cease, and the next day Cookie tells Camille—whose new name was dropped the day we arrived here—to help me move my things to the spare room upstairs.
I’m excited when I return to Saint James Elementary, the school I loved attending from kindergarten to the middle of second grade. My fifth grade teacher, Ms. Van Dover, is known for being nice, and my old friend, Beth Nadasy, sits in the desk right next to me. “I’m sorry I never got to say good-bye to you in second grade,” I tell her on the first day of school.
“That’s all right. Where’d you go?”
Of course I can’t tell her that we were taken away in a police car in the middle of the night because my little brother was found wandering the streets in his pajamas, or that we’ve been living with strangers for the last three years. But what I tell her is still the truth: “I thought of you all the time.”
Cherie begins high school with her lifelong friend Kathy, and Camille is in Nesaquake Middle School with her old friends. The single advantage about being forced to live with Cookie again is that, for the first time in our lives, we don’t have to walk into a school on the first day and fear whether anyone will sit with us at lunch or invite us to play on their dodgeball team. This makes going to school easier for all of us, and now staying home is easier, too: Karl’s insisted that the only way he’ll stay is if Cookie stops drinking. So she does.
We’re even in walking distance from our favorite spots like Cordwood Beach, Saint James General Store, Wicks Farm, and Saint Philip and James Church where Rosie was baptized. It strikes me how strange it is for life to feel so normal. Then, one night at dinner, Mom announces that Vito, Rosie’s biological father, has been “wasted.”
“Wasted?” I ask. “You mean he’s drunk?”
“Wasted,” Cookie says. “Smoked. Rubbed out. Murdered by the enemy.”
I shut my eyes and hope that the Mothers and Fathers Italian Association is still watching out for us. Then I turn and look at Rosie, whose blond pigtails bounce as she claps and laughs in her high chair. She’ll never get to know her real dad, which makes me lose my appetite. My wish to meet my father one day sometimes feels like the only thing I have to look forward to.
Cherie and Camille begin studying foreign languages. When Cherie asks her teacher about the phrases we’ve been using for as long as we remember, we learn that je t’aime means I love you in French, and mia bambina amoremeans my baby love in Italian. Both are much sweeter to hear than Cookie’s old foreign words like vaffanculo (which I’m pretty sure means something about the F word) and puttana (which, based on Cookie’s context when using it, we’ve translated to mean whore). I begin writing je t’aime and mia bambina amore all over my notebooks and then in the daily love letters I share with Justin James, a boy whom I rarely speak to, but who tells me he thinks I’m pretty. For a girl who thinks her teeth look like Tic Tacs screwed into her gums, this is irresistibly wooing. Every day I hide his letters in a shoe box under my bed, tucking them in a dark spot so Cookie will never find them.
When my classmates ask me where we lived over the past few years, I answer, “With my grandparents.” Then I quickly change the subject. And even though I think of this as my school, I sometimes can’t help but feel like a visitor. I observe others in the class—while they haven’t changed much, I definitely have. I wonder if I would be as content and confident as they are if we’d never been taken away that night. Would I feel differently about myself—pretty, clean, and carefree, like my classmates? I love to watch Kathleen Totter in her dresses, knee-high socks, and Mary Jane shoes, how her silky blond hair is neatly parted into two perfect ponytails that are tied with matching ribbons. But even if I had nicer clothes and polished shoes, none of it could cover up the past few years of turmoil. So I dress like I feel inside: stained, torn, wrinkled, and mismatched. The school made me get these big silver-rimmed glasses when they figured out I’d been hiding my strained vision by memorizing the eye chart every year, and my haircut makes me look more like my brother than my sisters. But for me, this actually works: I want my awkwardness to be clear to the other kids. Pretty much the only comfort I’ve ever felt is when I’ve been living in my own world, sending signals to others to keep away from me so they never find out the truth about my life.
Rather than bothering to hint to my classmates that I’d love to be invited to their homes, I spend my afternoons studying in the school library or napping in the tree house. I also spend endless time in my room listening to my little vinyl records on my phonograph, always playing over and over the funny songs on the Dumb Ditties album we got from the Salvation Army.
Since Karl was able to retrieve what few possessions we’d left at the Rocky Point house, I still have my Jesus figurines. Now, with a church across the street, I’m intrigued to find out why I’ve been carrying them around with me for as long as I can remember. So every Sunday, I cross the street by myself to attend all three morning services at the Episcopal church, retreating to my tree house after each one, until I see people filing in for the next service. I discover in the weekly bulletin that they also hold a Saturday-night service, and I begin attending that as well. I have no idea what I’m reading or singing about, but I take comfort in the safety of this space. It’s also the only place I’ve ever been where you can be a stranger and people still smile at you.
Fifth grade is going great because my teacher thinks I’m special. The closer I get to Ms. Van Dover, the more I want to please her. Even in winter she smells like fresh flowers, and her red curls and creamy white skin make her brown eyes stand out when she smiles. Even though she treats every kid in the class nicely, I’m convinced that she finds moments to spend extra attention on me. She holds weekly spelling bees, most of which I win; my prize being the choice between a Twinkie or a Ring Ding, which I always scarf down on my walk home. At the end of the year Ms. Van Dover announces we’ll be voting for “superlatives,” and she gives me an inconspicuous wink when my class votes me “Nicest.”
Unfortunately, my budding confidence is shaken when the end-of-the-year spelling bee turns into a showdown: me versus Susan Kominski, the president of the fifth grade class (whom the class voted Most Popular). She’s crowned the fifth grade spelling bee champion when I misspell vacuum, which I really should’ve known, because my classmates are always singing the “Regina Hoover Vacuum Cleaner” jingle to me. (Also, because of the Understanding Puberty video that we all had to watch after Memorial Day weekend, I take note that at the next school I move to, I will change my name to something that sounds nothing like vagina.)
After school’s out, Karl comes home exhausted from working long days at Grumman. He tells us work is stressful because of the Communists. Cookie’s out working later as well . . . back behind a bar. Although Karl threatens that she better not drink, she comes home every night smelling like booze. When he starts to follow her, she sticks me in her car, telling him she’s taking me to the mall or to visit my grandparents.
“Grandparents?” I ask her. “I don’t even know my grandparents.”
“Shut the fuck up and cooperate.”
Finally, in the heat of summer, I come down with the chicken pox. Cookie takes me to the doctor, who simply instructs me to bathe in oatmeal to soothe the itching. Karl tells Cookie he’s not convinced we went to see a doctor, and they both flee angrily in their separate cars.
Karl’s the first to finally return. He flicks off the Donny & Marie show and sends us out to the front yard so he can use the living room to sort through his belongings. Cookie comes home drunk, screeching and flailing when she sees his packed boxes lining the entryway. Their argument spills out to the front yard, where he tries to take her car keys away so she can’t drive while she’s smashed. He wrestles her to the ground to calm her down, and just then she starts screaming, “Rape! Help, he’s raping me!” A stranger stops and opens his car door, and Cookie throws herself inside and shouts obscenities from the window at us. When they speed off, Karl hurls his things into his car. “Take care of yourselves,” he tells us, resigned. “I tried to make this work, but your mother’s a goddamn hopeless case.” All five of us stand on the front lawn for a while, knowing the only thing we can be certain will come next is chaos.
When Cookie finally goes off the deep end, we’re not sure if it’s thanks to Karl’s departure or Elvis Presley’s death. When she hears on the news that the King died in his bathroom, she locks herself in ours. For the next week she consumes jars of peanut butter, known to be one of Elvis’s favorites, while sending us out to buy all of his albums, which she plays through the house on full blast.
Shortly after I start sixth grade at Nesaquake Middle School, Cookie stops paying rent. I hold Rosie as I walk into Ms. Van Dover’s classroom. “We’re moving again,” I inform her.
“Be safe,” she tells me, crouching down to sweep my long bangs out of my eyes. “And if you ever feel scared, look back at what I wrote to you in last year’s yearbook, where I told you that you were a bright girl with lots of talent and that you should never stop your quest for knowledge. I meant every word.”
And just like I thought, Ms. Van Dover goes on to tell me how special I am to her. “The only thing that will get you out of your situation is to stay in school, Regina,” she says. Then she looks at my hand clasped tight around Rosie’s, and tells me, “Make sure you teach Rosie what you’ve learned—she needs a teacher who cares about her as much as I care about you.”
This time I just smile.
Then Rosie reaches up to be held . . . and again, we’re gone.