Anthony Tremmaglia for Reader's DigestI 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 less than one mile from the cramped New York City 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 fall 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 neighborhood, 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 harbored 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 the 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.