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December 28, 2014

Regina Calcaterra on FRAMING A LIFE and Framing Her Own Life

Posted by emily

Besides being a bestselling author, Regina Calcaterra has many impressive titles: lawyer, state official and adoption/foster care activist. She grew up in foster care and on the streets of Long Island, surviving a painful childhood to become a driven, generous adult. Last year, her memoir ETCHED IN SAND was published, but she was no rookie when it came to telling the story of a life. More than a decade earlier, Regina helped trailblazing politician Geraldine Ferraro write FRAMING A LIFE, and that experience gave her the tools to frame her own life.

In 1997, at the age of 31, I was introduced to Geraldine Ferraro, the first and only woman to seek the Democratic nomination for Vice President. My then-boss, the New York City Comptroller, facilitated the introduction so that I might help Gerry prepare for a call with the White House Task Force on New Americans. At the time, I was working on New York City-based immigration-related issues for the Comptroller, and was suited to prep Gerry on the city’s immigrant communities and their respective leaders for the call. What I didn’t realize was just what a gift this meeting would turn out to be.

I was quite hesitant to meet her. Although my position afforded me the opportunity to meet many dignitaries over the years, I believed that no one displayed more fierce determination and fearlessness than Geraldine Ferraro. To me, she was the modern-day Amelia Earhart, a woman who was determined not to let others define her or predetermine her destiny. Upon my arrival, she asked me to join her in her soft pastel office to share my knowledge of immigrant communities with her. After our initial discussion, she then invited me to stay and join her on the call because she thought that my experience might make me better suited to explain the various immigrant communities to the White House Task Force.

When the call was complete, I thanked Gerry for the opportunity and quickly rose to leave her inviting office. But again she asked me to stay, and began to explain how she could use my assistance on another project she was working on. Gerry went on to tell me that she was writing a book about her mother, Antonetta, to serve as a testament to the struggles and sacrifices that her mother had endured to provide Gerry and her brother, Carl, a chance to successfully mainstream into American society. She wanted to write such a tribute to her mother because she was convinced that it was Antonetta’s sacrifices that contributed to her own achievements. While Gerry was in the midst of writing the story of her mother’s struggles and the path that Antonetta took, she noticed that it lacked the backdrop of the Italian immigration story. She was hoping that my knowledge of immigration issues would extend to Italian immigration. Unfortunately, what Gerry did not know was that I was only familiar with current immigration issues and that my transient homeless childhood lacked any connection to my Italian heritage. However, I did not let my unfamiliarity with my roots prevent me from working alongside my modern-day Amelia. So I forged ahead and researched the history of Gerry’s (and my own) heritage to round out a compelling story of an incredibly strong woman, Antonetta Ferraro.

FRAMING A LIFE, by Geraldine Ferraro, was published in 1998. That unique introduction to her a year earlier bestowed me with several memorable gifts. When the book was published, Gerry sent me a signed copy of FRAMING A LIFE --- a book I was proud to be a part of and was more than thrilled to have my contributions acknowledged in. I was also given the gift of learning of my heritage and the struggles of a community that has contributed to the bedrock of our country.

In December of 1998, I went searching for FRAMING A LIFE in several Manhattan bookstores in order to give it as Christmas gifts to my family members. Besides the acknowledgement of my contribution, I had hoped that they would share in the story of survival, perseverance and optimism found within its pages. As I expected, no one embraced it more than my sister Camille, who not only adored the fact that I contributed to it, but loved the underlying messages --- especially those of the power of family, as that was the only way that my own siblings and I survived our horrific childhood of homelessness and foster care.

I am forever grateful for the opportunity to work alongside Gerry on the last book she wrote before she passed away, and for the many gifts she gave to me.