Regina Calcaterra could have turned out very differently.
The third of five children, Regina and her siblings were forced to scrabble a life together when Cookie — their mentally ill, alcoholic mother — went on weeks- or months-long binges, leaving her four daughters and son to fend for themselves.
Little to no food. Shelter — until a landlord gets wise to the fact that his tenant isn’t paying . . . and has abandoned her kids at his rundown apartment, where they live like warriors forced to steal to survive. The clothes on their backs and, if they’re lucky, a television set to entertain the little ones.
No more. No less. For years.
Though she thinks there are people who want to help them, Regina fears what has already come to pass before: being shoved into foster care, where she will be unable to look after siblings — especially Rosie, the baby of the group. Tired of playing “mom” before their time, Regina’s teenage sisters have begun hefting more of the responsibility to Regina . . . who has no resources, no support.
Even in this quagmire in New York, Regina believes that staying together in an abusive hell with Cookie — who arrives only occasionally to dole out beatings and drop off pathetic groceries — is better than losing one another. Better than the unknown. Until one confession changes everything . . . and changes life forever.
Regina Calcaterra’s Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island is the sort of book you desperately wish were fiction. These horrible things can’t really have happened, can they? No “mother” could be so heartless. No “parent” could be so cruel. No system in place to help children could be so neglectful, and no children could really be forced to steal or starve to death in a lonely, worn-out hell.
This book is jarring. Gut-wrenching. Horrifying. Despite the obvious pain and difficulty, though, we know from the beginning that Regina not only survives her mother’s abuse . . . but thrives. That glimmer of hope — that small, tiny ray of sunshine in the distance — is what kept me motivated to turn the pages. Regina is a woman you come to know and love: someone you want to cheer on and support. Someone who needs that support.
Why read a memoir detailing such neglect? The power of Regina’s story — which is her siblings’ story, too. Even in her darkest moments, she never loses sight of the most important people in her life: her family. Though the system fails Cookie’s children in many ways, they never give up fighting for one another. And knowing that Regina goes on to become wildly strong and successful, brave and resilient, well . . . it makes it all worthwhile.
Though occasionally tough to read, Etched in Sand was impossible to put down. I finished the book in two sittings, desperate to make sure that Camile, Cherie, Norman, Rosie and Regina would somehow land on their feet.
With or without Cookie.
Somehow, through it all, Regina’s first-person account does not come off as bitter — or even angry. Someone who has every right to be a fire-breathing dragon when recounting the horrible things she was forced to do, see and decide as a teen manages to tell her tale without malice. Regina’s writing strikes a delicate balance between factual detachment and impassioned storytelling, and I found that impressive. Crazy, even.
For much of the story, I felt focused on the idea of revenge . . . this hope that their mother would finally be forced to pay for what she did to them — either with jail time or mental anguish. Preferably both. In the process, I wanted her to repent and apologize. To be less of an unspeakably horrible monster, basically.
But real life doesn’t always work that way. By the close of Calcaterra’s powerful memoir, I was thinking more about forgiveness . . . and how important it is for the soul. Despite Cookie’s attempts to break them down and wreck them, her children found a way to move forward.
The best revenge, they say, is living well.
4 out of 5