America is in love with “reality” shows that put everyday people in situations in which they demonstrate their courage and tenacity, test their resolve, and challenge the odds. But the thing is, they’re all fake. And when faced with people living in our own backyards who endure real adversity, and literally struggle for survival, they all too often go unnoticed.
Etched in Sand by Regina Calcaterra is an incredibly moving memoir of how she and four siblings grew up in suburban Suffolk County NY with a drug-addicted, alcoholic mother – oftentimes homeless, living out of a parked car or at shelters. Their mom was mentally unstable and would disappear for weeks on end… and when she was around she repeatedly submitted her young kids to both verbal and physical abuse. Hungry and malnourished the kids taught themselves survival skills from an early age – when they could, they gathered clams, mussels and onion grass at the beach – other times filled their clothes with groceries at the supermarket while purchasing a single item. Clothing consisted of hand me downs or whatever they could grab from used clothing bins in a sport Regina lightheartedly refers to as “dumpster diving.” At various times they were taken in by social services and scattered to foster homes but sometimes those weren’t much better.
With amazing resolve Regina managed to focus on survival and found numerous ways to cope with adversity. She found peace and a temperature controlled environment in the public library and soon learned she could escape her misery by immersing herself in reading books. With the help of some teachers who encouraged her to believe in herself, she eventually graduated high school and went on to college and law school. She and her siblings are grown and have all gone on to lead productive lives. Her experiences taught her many things including the need for a social safety net and progressive government programs that can provide assistance for struggling and less fortunate souls.
Perhaps that is what steered Regina toward public service – as an attorney fighting corporate corruption, an advocate for a healthy foster care system, and now as an active participant in government and politics. She begins her book on a positive note describing her feelings of pride and responsibility representing Suffolk County as its first woman Chief Deputy County Executive planning for and surveying the colossal damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy. She has since gone on to serve as Executive Director of Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Public Utilities and currently the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption.
The decision to share her story did not come easily for Regina or her family and was an act of courage in itself. For most of her youth she took pains to hide it from friends, teachers or social workers. It was awkward, embarrassing, and painful to reveal the truth and it risked breaking up her siblings so they could not provide support for each other. But as an active advocate for homeless kids, she made the decision that her story could make a difference.
I first heard snatches of Regina’s history when we met just after the NYS Senate initially defeated by a narrow margin the bill for marriage equality. She joined a number of other politicians who were working toward passage of the bill and gave an emotional address in support . She recounted some of the events of her childhood, not to invite a “pity party” as she likes to say but to set the stage for explaining some of the reasons for her decision to oppose conservative, long-term incumbent Ken Lavalle for NYS Senate. We immediately joined her grass-roots campaign and raised money and support but unfortunately her candidacy was short-lived. Regina was born and raised in Suffolk County and now lives in a home she purchased within the election district but her candidacy was challenged on a technicality because she temporarily resided in PA for a work assignment. Familiar with adversity she took it in stride and has advanced her political career well beyond. And I’m sure she’s got lots more in store.
Regina’s story is compelling and it is told well – this is a “must” read. It’s hard to imagine children growing up as she and her siblings did and being able to (literally and figuratively) survive, let alone thrive to go on to healthy productive lives. But her story is not a pure Horatio Alger story in which the heroine simply pulls herself up by the bootstraps to succeed. It illuminates some of the systemic issues that lead to child abuse, poverty, and homelessness and is a harsh critique on how much more needs to be done to ensure kids don’t have to suffer as they did. Undoubtedly the Rush Limbaugh of the world will tout her story as an example that anything is possible in America, ignoring the facts that for every Regina Calcaterra there are dozens who were not fortunate enough to break the cycle – innocent children whose lives were destined for pain and misery through no fault of their own.