GRACE WAS HER NAME

I hadn’t been born yet when my fa­ther killed her. But she’s alive in my mind.

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - LORENZO CARCATERRA

The woman my fa­ther killed lives on in my heart and mind.

I HAVE NEVER MET GRACE MONTE.

But not a day goes by when I don’t think about her and what her life was like, her few happy mo­ments along with her many dif­fi­cult ones. I’ve al­ways won­dered about the sound of her voice and the kind of life she had once imag­ined hav­ing be­fore she mar­ried my fa­ther. Her ac­tual life was short and trou­bled, stuck on a dead-end path with a dead­beat man, with a child to raise and the threat of phys­i­cal vi­o­lence a con­stant pres­ence.

IN LATE OC­TO­BER 1946, Grace was 24, and my fa­ther, Mario Carcaterra, was 29 and al­ready set in his trou­bled ways. Their daugh­ter, Phyl­lis, was six. Grace and my fa­ther were sep­a­rated for the third or fourth time – their few friends couldn’t keep track of the on-again, off-again mar­riage. Grace had taken a small room in a thir­drate ho­tel about 1.6km from the cramped New York apart­ment they’d shared. She was weary of the un­paid bills, an­gry out­bursts, and painful blows that were in­flicted on her and then fol­lowed by tear­ful apolo­gies and pleas for for­give­ness. She could no longer tol­er­ate the af­fairs my fa­ther car­ried on with a string of women – some of them her friends – and the near- daily in­ter­fer­ence from her mother-in-law, a dom­i­neer­ing fig­ure with a hyp­notic hold over her son.

Grace opened the ho­tel-room door af­ter my fa­ther’s sec­ond knock. She stood there in a slip, her dark hair cov­er­ing one side of her face. He barged in and be­gan the rou­tine that she was all too fa­mil­iar with: he spoke of a new job com­ing through, a new place to live, a bet­ter life for them. His words had worked in the past but not on this cold au­tumn morn­ing. Years of lies, abuse, and frus­tra­tion weighed on Grace, and she wanted so much to be free of them. She lashed out at my fa­ther, telling him their mar­riage was over, the love she’d once felt for him had dis­si­pated, and this time their sep­a­ra­tion was fi­nal.

Then Grace said she was in love with an­other man. The short leash that barely held my fa­ther’s tem­per in check snapped. He tossed her on the bed. They strug­gled, Grace scratch­ing, kick­ing, and claw­ing at him, but my fa­ther was much too strong a man. Strad­dling her thin body, he grabbed a pil­low. He saw the fear in his wife’s eyes, pushed the pil­low against her face, and held it there, his hands and arms keep­ing it tight.

Within sev­eral min­utes that must have felt like hours, my fa­ther, his body drenched in sweat, re­moved the pil­low and stared down at the woman he loved. Grace Monte was dead. My fa­ther was no longer a way­ward hus­band and a gam­bler. He was no longer a man dom­i­nated by his mother. My fa­ther was a mur­derer.

IWAS 14 YEARS OLD in 1969 when I heard the name Grace Monte. I was in Italy, vis­it­ing rel­a­tives on Ischia, an is­land off the coast of Naples. It was there on a beau­ti­ful

My mother shared with me the dark se­cret she car­ried in her heart

beach in the mid­dle of a sun-soaked morn­ing, the two of us walk­ing along the shore, that my mother shared with me the dark se­cret she car­ried in her heart. She was con­cerned that I was spend­ing too much time in my fa­ther’s com­pany and that of his friends. She dreaded the pos­si­bil­ity that I would be­come who he was, a man she lived with and feared. She felt that this spot, far from our Man­hat­tan neigh­bour­hood, was the safest place to tell me the truth about my fa­ther.

In short or­der, I learned he had con­fessed to the crime and was con­victed of sec­ond-de­gree mur­der. He served nearly eight years in pri­son. Shortly af­ter his re­lease, he mar­ried my mother in an ar­range­ment bro­kered by their fam­i­lies. She was a widow with a son – my half brother, An­thony. She knew that my fa­ther had been in pri­son but claimed to have not known about the mur­der un­til the first night of their hon­ey­moon.

I have no choice but to be­lieve her, to be con­vinced that even in her lone­li­ness, in her de­sire to of­fer a bet­ter life for her son, she would not have mar­ried a wife killer. She said that she felt numb when he told her of the homi­cide in a man­ner as re­laxed as if he were or­der­ing a late-night meal. From that mo­ment, she knew she had made the gravest mis­take of her life.

I spent the rest of the day alone and in stunned si­lence. I sat on that beach un­til well into night­fall. I had thought I knew my fa­ther as well as any son my age could. But af­ter that day, I would never think of him in the same way again.

I had, to that point, not been close to my mother. At best, she and I had had a frosty re­la­tion­ship. I couldn’t un­der­stand why she har­boured such anger to­ward me. She seemed to re­sent the fact that I re­sem­bled my fa­ther. A deeply reli­gious woman, she had few friends, de­tested my fa­ther’s fam­ily, and never learned to speak English. Yet she was de­pen­dent on an un­de­pend­able man for all her needs.

As I grew older, I came to un­der­stand her anger. She had made a ­hor­rific choice and was a pris­oner in a love­less mar­riage for 34 years, not to be freed un­til my fa­ther’s death from can­cer in 1988. She then moved back to Italy, where she lived, a shell of a once-vi­brant woman, un­til her death in 2004. We spoke reg­u­larly dur­ing that time, and I sent her money when­ever I could. But our re­la­tion­ship had been poi­soned from birth.

YEARS PASSED be­fore I spoke to my fa­ther about the mur­der. But my know­ing about it al­tered our close bond. I no longer felt at ease in his com­pany, and I looked for ex­cuses not to spend time with him. Our laugh­ter-filled days at the race­track and nights cheer­ing on fight­ers at Madi­son Square Gar­den be­came dis­tant mem­o­ries. In­stead, I de­voted the bulk of my free time to find­ing out

what I could about the woman he had killed and the child he’d left be­hind.

My fa­ther’s fam­ily shut the door to any ques­tions I had about Grace. To them, her mur­der was a shame and a hor­ror that they did not want to re­live. Over the years, a few pieces of the stained puz­zle of my fa­ther’s past slipped out. Once, at a rel­a­tive’s house, I spot­ted a copy of a true­crime mag­a­zine from the 1940s. The cover story was about my fa­ther and Grace, with a head­line that blared “No Other Man Could Have Her”. And there was the photo that fell out of a fam­ily al­bum. I didn’t have to be told whose pic­ture it was; all I needed to see was the re­ac­tion of the other peo­ple at the ta­ble, fran­ti­cally hid­ing it. But I had seen enough. She was as beau­ti­ful as I’d imag­ined her to be, her eyes filled with pas­sion and with a smile as bright as any light.

I did meet my half sis­ter once at a wed­ding re­cep­tion I at­tended with my fa­ther. I was ten, and she was 24. We were in­tro­duced by a cousin who told me she was a fam­ily friend, but as drinks were poured, lips be­came looser. An old woman from the neigh­bour­hood pulled me aside, smiled, pointed at her, and said, “That young girl is your sis­ter. You’re not sup­posed to know about her, and that’s wrong. But you should know – a brother de­serves to know.” I was struck by how much she re­sem­bled my fa­ther.

My most lin­ger­ing mem­ory of my half sis­ter oc­curred at the end of the evening. She and I were sit­ting in the back­seat of a crowded car. With one arm around my shoul­ders, she leaned down and kissed me gen­tly on the top of my head. “I hope we see each other again,” she whis­pered.

Af­ter the car pulled to a stop, she got out and walked away. I wanted to jump out and hug her. I felt a con­nec­tion to her, a bond. I was later told by rel­a­tives that she was pro­hib­ited by law from hav­ing any­thing to do with her fa­ther or his fam­ily. But she and my fa­ther se­cretly kept in con­tact and, I came to learn, met once or twice a year. Later still, I found out that she had five ­chil­dren and had moved nu­mer­ous times. Al­though I want an­swers, my half sis­ter has wanted peace. At the very least, I feel I owe her that much.

IWAS A MAR­RIED MAN with two chil­dren of my own by the time I fi­nally spoke to my fa­ther about Grace Monte. Al­though I had tried nu­mer­ous times to broach the sub­ject, I could never muster the words or the courage. In 1988, he was dy­ing of can­cer, in the late stages of

Grace and I are linked by mur­der and blood, and we al­ways will be

a dis­ease that had sapped him of his strength and forced him to di­rect his anger at his ill­ness in­stead of at oth­ers. He knew that I had been told about his crime, and he wanted to tell me that while he had loved my mother in his own way, Grace Monte was his one true love.

His pow­er­ful sense of loss, the empti­ness and lone­li­ness he had en­dured in si­lence for all those years since that hor­ri­ble day in the ho­tel room in 1946 – that was his real pun­ish­ment. “I ask my­self one ques­tion ev­ery day,” my fa­ther said. “The same ques­tion. Why? Why? Why did I kill her? Why?” He had mourned for Grace ev­ery day since her death. My fa­ther was a ­tor­tured man, sen­tenced to live and die un­der the weight of an un­for­giv­able crime.

Grace Monte is as much a part of my life as she was a part of my fa­ther’s. Even now, I try to learn as much about her as I can. I know she loved to dance and heard Frank Si­na­tra sing live at the Rus­tic Cabin in New Jer­sey. She en­joyed go­ing to the movies and, like my fa­ther, pre­ferred James Cag­ney to Humphrey Bogart. She had a sharp sense of hu­mour and a quick tem­per, and she doted on her only child. She didn’t care much for re­li­gion or neigh­bour­hood gos­sip. She liked read­ing, and de­spite her lack of money, she al­ways looked stylish.

Grace Monte is my con­stant shadow, a woman never known but al­ways seen, a woman I will never be able to for­get. I have come to think of her in the same way that one thinks of an old friend long gone or a first love. We are linked – Grace and I – and we al­ways will be. It is a link forged by mur­der and blood, but it ex­ists, and noth­ing can sever it. Not now. Not ever.

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