Grace Was Her Name

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 third-rate 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.

I was 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 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 true-crime 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.

I was 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 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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