08/06/13 12:18pm
08/06/2013 12:18 PM
COURTESY PHOTO  |  Regina M. Calcaterra wrote a memoir detailing her life in foster care on Long Island.

COURTESY PHOTO | Regina M. Calcaterra wrote a memoir detailing her life in foster care on Long Island.

You may know Regina Calcaterra from her run in the 2010 election for New York State Senate. Or maybe you recall her tenure as the chief of staff for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Now you can read about the New Suffolk attorney’s life before she was in the public spotlight in a memoir detailing her childhood growing up as the middle of five siblings in foster care and on the streets of Long Island.

Ms. Calcaterra’s memoir, “Etched in Sand,” was released by a division of HarperCollins Tuesday. She’ll be attending a book signing and reception at Clovis Point Vineyards on Main Road in Jamesport on Saturday, Aug. 10.

Ms. Calcaterra, 46, now working for Governor Andrew Cuomo as executive director of a state commission investigating public corruption, said she worked on the book for several years and even took memoir-writing classes in New York City.

She took a few minutes from her busy schedule to discuss the book on the day of its release.

Q: Did you keep a journal growing up, or was most of the book reconstructed from memory?

A: The book was reconstructed from my memory and my siblings’ memories as well. I was working on the first four chapters for years, because, in my mind, those are the most pivotal chapters of my life. It’s only five months of my life, but it’s four chapters, and the irony is the rest of the book covers 45 years of my life.

I also worked with a co-writer [Krissy Gasbare], who I would submit a chapter to, and because she had written her own memoir in the past, she would go through it and tell me what it is that I wasn’t sharing with the reader. She had a remarkable talent for pulling things out of me.

My siblings also added a lot to the book. Sometimes it was humorous and sometimes it was not.

Q: What did you learn about yourself from writing the book?

A: I learned so much, and it also brought back some memories that I had buried and hadn’t had to think about for a long time. One of those memories was when I was sexually abused in a foster home by two boys. That was disturbing.

But writing made me relive these memories that have been with me for some time and it enabled me to shed them.

What I loved about it was that, looking at myself now and my drive and intensity, and my protectiveness of my coworkers, family and friends, it allowed me to reflect and learn where that all comes from. I never had reflected on how my character was built because I’ve always been focused on trying to succeed.

Q: You’re so open with your past in the book. How might that impact your career in public service?

A: I’m not going to worry about how it is going to affect my career. If I were worried about that I wouldn’t have written the book. If anything, I think it enhances [my career] because I talk so much about the role of public servants and the role government plays in our lives — good and bad.

I provide many different scenarios in there where I had good teachers and bad teachers and good social workers and bad social workers, and I am basically saying that everything they do matters. When they touch a person a certain way, they do not realize the ripple effect that’s going to have.

The book highlights to those in government how important everything they do is and how they have to take it seriously.

Q: A major part of the book is when, as an adult, you took your father to court in an unprecedented move to force him to take a paternity test. Did it ever seem to you that lengthy battle might not work out in the end?

A: My concern with that litigation was that, because there’s no other case in the U.S. where an adult brought a DNA paternity test against an adult, it might have an adverse impact on all future adults seeking paternity tests. As an attorney I understood the [negative] effect that could have had on future cases.

Q: Did that process bring personal closure to you?

A: It did, tremendously. The abuse that I received from my mother far exceeded the abuse that my siblings had because we had five different dads, and my father broke my mother’s heart. He hurt her the most, so in turn she would hurt me the most and did not even want me existing. She did what she could to isolate me, and the abuse I received was extreme.

It gave me closure because it ultimately gave me the answer to a question I asked my mother many times in my life, which is how it was that he hurt her so badly. I wanted to know if he beat her or he raped her, if I was conceived that way. I needed to know what about my very existence hurt her so much. But she said he didn’t, she said that he was very loving.

But I got my answer in the brief when his lawyer wrote that [I was] a 34-year-old New York attorney who was successful and doesn’t need a father. Then in the next sentence, he wrote about [my father’s] wife of 34 years. When I put the math together, I realized that when my mother was pregnant with me, he married another woman.

I finally had my answer of how he broke my mother’s heart.

Q: You talk in the book about your love for your siblings’ children. Did you ever want children of your own?

A: I’ve always wanted children of my own. Now that I’m 46, the time when I can have children of my own has passed. I have always wanted to adopt a foster child , so that can be done at any time. That option is always open, but that’s something [ my partner] Todd [Ciaravino] and I would have to work through. One day that may happen.

Q: The beauty of memoirs is that readers can learn from the author’s experience. How might your story help others in a situation similar to yours and what they can take away from this book?

A: That they control their own destiny. Regardless of what hand they’re dealt, they can change it. Everyone’s born into different situations, but be grateful you were born in the United States because there are enough resources here to pull anyone up and out.

You may feel powerless in your situation, but it’s up to you to change that, and that’s what my book chronicles. It was a long, hard journey that was sometimes dark, but I knew I was the only one who was going to change it and make my life worthwhile.

gparpan@timesreview.com

07/21/12 11:00am
07/21/2012 11:00 AM

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Jackie Penney at work last week in her Cutchogue studio.

For old timers here, just the name of the artist — Jackie Penney — conjures images of the North Fork’s fields, sea and sky. Eel-grass tickling the surface of one painting beckons the eye toward Robins Island. In another, a pair of slatted Adirondack chairs casts shadows on grainy sand.

Now, in her self-published memoir, “Me Painting Me: A Memoir,” Ms. Penney shares her remarkable story about a difficult life eclipsed by her gutsy determination to be an independent woman.

“At 82 you can do whatever you want,” said the still feisty, iconic painter and fine-art teacher.

In a recent interview, Ms. Penney offered a preview of her memoir. An accompanying exhibition of her original paintings and reproduction prints (giclées) is on view at Cutch-ogue New Suffolk Library through Aug. 31.

Q. Why did you write your memoir?

A. I wanted to do it for a long time. Who am I? People don’t know. I think I’ve had a wonderful life but it didn’t start out that way. As a child you are scarred easily. There were two marriages, alcohol and dysfunction. I was stabbed in Mexico. I had no support. I divorced. Then everything changed, looked different. My colors became cheerful.

Two or three years ago I saw an article about a memoir-writing course with Sarah Bloom. It was wonderful. I wanted to do it for myself.

Q. What made your early life so difficult?

A. If I had to describe my childhood as a color, it would be gray.

My mother came from France. My father, an opera singer from Ireland, died when I was 4. Making a living in the 1930s wasn’t easy. My mother used all her resources, including my brother and me, to make money. We were Powers child models. I don’t think that was a bad thing for my mother to do, but it was tiring and it made me sad.

Five months after my father died my mother remarried and we moved to Florida … Rhode Island, Connecticut and back to Port Washington, where we started. That husband died. Husband No. 3 had alcohol abuse issues. It’s hard to describe what this does to young people, but I spent most of my time in the woods, by myself. At 16 my angel, Sandra Forman, a neighbor for whom I baby-sat, took me in. I left home to live (and work) with her.

Q. When did the bells and whistles go off that foretold you would be an artist?

A. I never thought I was an artist, and there was nothing at home — no toys, pencils, paper. But I remember one exhilarating moment, when I was in school, standing by a window looking at beautiful clouds. I’d set my crayons on a radiator and when I looked, I felt a palpable thrill seeing liquid color run down the radiator. [She referred to a painting, “My Head in the Clouds,” an abstract work that sparked the memory.]

But one teacher did encourage me, and so did Sandra Forman, who “knew” I was an artist and urged me to take every course offered. I was stunned when I got a scholarship to Phoenix School of Design. Norman Rockwell went there — that’s why I went. It gave me a great background in drawing. I was free in art school.

Q. So you pretty much fell into art by luck and circumstance. Did you continue your art education?

A. I went to Black Mountain College for the summer. What a stimulating place that was! I met Bucky [Buckminster] Fuller, who photographed me on a model of his geodesic dome to show how strong it was. (I weighed about 98 pounds!) I then studied at the Chicago Institute of Design but had to come home and get a job. I presented my portfolio at the Madison Avenue advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald and Sample. They laughed and said, “We don’t allow women in the art gallery.” They hired me as a receptionist.

I got married.

Q. Black Mountain College was an avant-garde school. Did contemporary abstraction ever appeal to you?

A. When I first saw Picasso’s works, I found them disturbing, especially his violent treatment of women. I am basically a realist who has developed a popular style. My heart is in nature, though I do many different things. In fact, the people at the library said, “We know what you do. What else do you do?” Many of these other things are included in the show.

Q. Can you cite some examples of different themes and abstraction in your works?

A. “Still (Life) of the Party” is not happy; it’s austere and dark. The balloons are melting, bottles overturned, cigarettes stale in their ashtrays. It’s about alcohol abuse and how it affects your life. “Dancing in the Light” is a still life that tells how I feel when I paint. A pair of artist’s mannequins dance on a shelf with colored glass, crocheted doilies and flowers. Stripes of light go through the painting. It’s about the importance of the “negative” background elements that create the painting. And “Old Andruski Barn” is a myriad of rectangles, some positive, some negative. They’re everywhere.

Q. Did your love of light draw you to the North Fork?

A. No. I came in 1958 to spend time with my family, and finding time to paint was my biggest problem. My first husband, Bill, and I rented a cottage in Cutchogue and it was instant love. You could drive down the road and buy home-made bread. I loved the special light in Cutchogue and New Suffolk, where I would [in later years] take my students.

Q. How important was teaching for you?

A. It’s been my joy. People come into my world and bring me energy. Every once in a while extraordinary human beings walk into my life, gorgeous sponges who can’t get enough of what I teach. It’s exhilarating, and that feeds me.

Q. You dedicate your memoir to women who ‘fought for our lives and freedoms.’ Why?

A. The women’s movement gave me the chance to escape being a model of my mother. I became more aware of the contributions made by the women in my life, starting with my mother, who plays an integral part of my story. My daughter, granddaughter, daughter-in-law and friends are strong, confident women who are unafraid to be who they are. Because of the heroic, liberated women, many men now champion women’s equal place in our society. The men in my life, including my son and grandson, are among them.