Title: Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island

Author: Regina Calcaterra

Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (August 2013)

Length: 320 pages

(KINDLE VERSION ONLY $1.99) Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island


While many people flip (and now scroll) right to Chapter One, I’ve always been too curious about what an author’s chosen to share before a story unfolds to skip the prologue. Never have I been more grateful for that curiosity than when reading Regina Calcaterra’s Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island.

This memoir prologue is powerful – literally describing the once-homeless author flying above Hurricane Sandy-ravaged Long Island as one of the leaders charged with helping it recover. Beginning with this full-circle flash forward was a beacon for me as I read the often gut-wrenching chapters that followed.

“For years, Suffolk County transported me back to the pain and darkness my four siblings and I endured throughout our fatherless childhoods with a profoundly troubled mother. Now, as I examined it from the sky, my emotions swelled with a love for this place – how the experiences of growing up here made me who I am. Hovering above as a leader in the aftermath of Sandy struck me deeply. Aside from the love I shared with my siblings, this county was our only sense of home – a place that did its best to protect us from the unpredictable. I never could have imagined that one day I’d be called on to return the same security.”

Prologue passages like this one showed that the child who endured horrendous situations had not only survived but also flourished, using her experiences to make a difference in the lives of others.

Calcaterra’s words from the birds-eye view of her childhood home were more than just an indicator of the gratitude-infused perspective she’d use to frame her memoir. The resilience she conveyed moved me through the often cringe-worthy, up-close and personal look at Calcaterra’s childhood years when she bounced between foster homes, being homeless and living with a mother she calls “profoundly troubled.”

‘Living with’ would be better described as ‘surviving with’ since Calcaterra and her siblings were either being abused by their mentally ill mother who self-medicated with drugs and alcohol or being forced to fend for themselves when she’d abandon them, sometimes for weeks at a time.

As a present-tense narrator, Calcaterra’s voice is magnetic, telling a story so visual and evoking emotions so visceral that the reader is transformed into a real-time eavesdropper. She depicts the landscape of her childhood with fierce honesty–shoplifting, bruise hiding, vinegar drinking/pill-popping to assuage hunger, cardboard-box sleeping and the emotional walls she put up and tore down to survive.

Calcaterra believes her accomplishments are anchored in the power of family, the one she was born into and the one created by the community. She writes about how the system that sometimes betrayed her also provided the teachers, librarians and other beacons who lighted stretches of her path with encouragement and gave her glimpses of the life she could create for herself — from becoming emancipated at age 14 in an effort to keep her family together to navigating her way to a college education to tracking down the identity of her birth father.


Page 4
No accomplishment has taken place without trial, and no growth could have occurred without unwavering love.
Chapter 2 Building Sand Castles
Page 17
In a traditional home, the children depend on the parent for the means to live. In Cookie’s world, she depends on us. Her roster of kids means she can breeze into the Suffolk County welfare office and get money for housing, electricity, and food. My angst rises again as my usual question surfaces: How can they give her this endless stream of cash without ever checking up on where she spends it?
Page 20
No matter what horrible circumstances Cookie dumps us into, it will always be better than being separated and put into foster care. 
Chapter 3 And Then There Were Three
Page 53
School has always been my escape and solace, a place where an independent kid like me finds stability.
Page 57
To me, feeling secure means the opposite of what it means to most kids. Children are supposed to find their greatest safety and comfort in the arms of their mothers. Instead, Cookie’s homecoming is our darkest danger, like the worst storm anyone can imagine.
Chapter 6 Houses of Sand
Page 121
So I dress like I feel inside : stained, torn, wrinkled, and mismatched.
Chapter 8 Empty Emancipation
Page 158
It’s fascinating to observe how normal families interact. With a mother and father in the house, it’s as though everyone has a distinct role in the family: Dads work full-time at offices, moms work part-time or run the kids around; we kids can just hang out . . . and be kids. It’s a totally new experience for me.
Chapter 9 Out of Idaho
Page 215
Every single one of us has had to climb out of our childhood and help ourselves.
Chapter 10 Aging Out
Page 225
As the internship progresses I observe that the process to alter public policy is like watching a chess game: Sheer strategy and full emotional investment are needed for the most convincing players to win.
Chapter 11 The Happy House
Page 232
When you live on the fringes of society with no resources, you have no voice and your complaints are easily ignored.
Page 243
She persevered, believing that fighting and being defeated would be better than not fighting at all; but here she is.
Chapter 12 A Child at Any Age
Page 267
“She did one thing right,” Camille says. “What?”“She gave us each other.” The lives Cookie gave us were only etched in sand; able to be erased and written all over again . . . better, with meaning. We’ve all made our stories into what we wanted for ourselves.
Page 280
Even when it hurts, it’s more empowering to know the truth than to stay blind to it. Once I know the truth— and once Paul knows the truth— I’ll be finished. In my life I’ve found that you can’t let something go until it’s really over and it’s never really over until you learn the truth.
Page 299
Considering the main events I’d detailed in the manuscript, we reflected on our countless homes— fragile, temporary sand castles that we were forced to create in the most resourceful ways, only for them to be knocked down by the rising tides and uncontrollable elements around us. Thus, we decided together that my book should be titled Etched in Sand.
Page 300
Despite the challenging seas we had to navigate and the limited beacons of light that were available to guide us on our journey, we all landed safely. We pushed ourselves up through the riptides. Through our journey, my siblings blessed me with plenty of nieces and nephews, who through Etched in Sand will be learning our story for the very first time. We created a whole generation of children that will never suffer intense poverty, homelessness, or abuse. Together, we stopped the cycle. However, every year in the United States, forty thousand children in foster care will age out of the system and have nowhere to go and no one to help them.