Regina Calcaterra’s memoir, Etched in Sand, is a hard book to put down. For one weekend, I let everything else slide until I finished it even though I sometimes felt like I could not bear to read another page. Her story about the abuse she and her four siblings suffered at the hands of their mentally ill mother is heartbreaking to read. But Regina wrote about her childhood in foster care and on the streets of Long Island with unflinching honesty. She made me care about her and her siblings from the start, and I had to keep reading to find out what happened to them.
Cookie, as the children called their mother, self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. Her five children all had different fathers, none of which were in their lives. She often left the children on their own for weeks and even months while she was living with her latest boyfriend. They survived by stealing groceries and clothes and lying about their mother’s whereabouts when authorities checked on them.
Sadly, those were the best times for her children. The physical and mental abuse they suffered when their mother was with them was worse. They moved from one rundown house or apartment to another sometimes living in homeless shelters, trailers, or the back of a station wagon. Occasionally, they were put into foster care, but Cookie always managed to get them back.
The one thing the siblings had was each other, so they vowed to stick together no matter what. But children aren’t meant to be on their own. Eventually, the two oldest sisters moved in with friends. Twelve-year-old Regina was left to care for her younger brother and sister who were 10 and 6. Two years later, she suffered such a severe beating at the hands of her mother that it was impossible to ignore. The promise she had made to take care of her two younger siblings was one she could no longer keep.
The book gives readers a lot to think about such as child abuse, homelessness, poverty, mental illness and the foster care system. Regina notes that there have been changes since she and her siblings were in the foster care system during the 1960s-1980s. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is how the system handles older children. At age 18, they are aged out of the system with little preparation for the future. As a result, many become homeless and the cycle continues. It is why Regina has become a board member of You Gotta Believe, an organization that helps older foster children find forever homes.
The book also has a lot to say about family bonds, positive thinking, and how much even a small act of kindness can mean. Regina found refuge in public libraries and was grateful for the teachers who encouraged her to study hard. They helped her realize that an education was her way out of poverty. Unfortunately, not all of her teachers were helpful. Her second grade teacher introduced Regina to the class by explaining that she was a foster child and wouldn’t be with them long. He effectively ruined any chance Regina had of feeling like she belonged.
Regina said she wrote Etched in Sand because she wanted to empower others who are faced with difficult circumstances. She hopes her story encourages them to never give up and to never stop believing in themselves. Regina, who currently works as a lawyer for the State of New York, is a shining example of how to triumph against impossible odds. She has said that growing up with Cookie made her more compassionate. Hopefully, her memoir will have the same effect on readers. It should be required reading for anyone who works with or cares about children.