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I keep the photographs together always. They are framed now, my two family portraits, but wrinkled and faded from my youthful inattention: had I known what they'd someday mean to me, I'd have shown them better care. The first is a studio portrait, on a thick sort of cardboard, of four people: my parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Dorsey, my infant brother Johnny, and me. At the time of this photo, I was a few months short of my fifth birthday. Within the year Johnny would be dead of rheumatic fever. Two years after Johnny, my parents would be dead as well. It is a stiff, posed photo, and I can see my smile beginning to give way to boredom or gravity. I have studied the photograph over the years, looking for some hint that this family already sensed its impending fortune, some dark suggestion of unhappiness in the eyes. I have found none: the faces in a photo reveal only what the subjects hope. Any deeper message is probably in the imagination of the beholder.
The second picture is quite different. I have come to think of it as The Photographer's Nightmare. Taken in 1955, the year after the death of my parents, it is crowded, unfocused at the edges, as if distracted from its purposes by the raucous, manic behavior of several of its subjects. The lighting is uneven, one of the people has turned his head just as the photographer snapped his little button and, as a result, appears to have two faces attempting too late to blend. A person is entering the photo from the right, almost as if he has come tovisit from an adjoining picture—a role he was to play in my life. The people in the photo are singing, singing badly and very loud, and the ones in the back row, the tall ones, are leaning to one side so that it appears they'll lurch on through the glossy white margin holding the picture together. Even from the old black-and-white I can tell they're red-faced and noisy and sweaty, and several of them, exactly the ones I would expect, have had too much to drink, and not for the last time. There are either ten or eleven people in this photo, depending on whether one counts the blurry figure dashing in from the right. These are the Flynns. I think of the first photo as a portrait of my original family. I think of this one as a photograph of my life. I doubt if a day ever passes that I don't look at it for a moment.
In the center are my mother's parents, Patrick and Winifred Flynn. They are flanked, surrounded, overwhelmed on all four sides by family, including their children: Anne, Michael, and Thomas—my uncles and my aunt. My late mother had been the eldest daughter. Her name was Betty. Entering the photo from the right, a running blur, is my cousin Matthew Lynch, not a member of this family at all but of the even larger Dorsey family, my father's people. I was of course a Dorsey, but for reasons I will explain, I lived with my mother's people. The two families had been close even before my father married my mother, two sprawling clans originally from the same neighborhood, from Old Town, the area of old streets surrounding what is now called Cabrini-Green, streets named for writers—Goethe and Schiller and Scott—but full of working-class people. My mother's family had later moved on and planted themselves in a four-block area around Riverview Park. Cousin Matt is in the picture because the Dorsey family was also in attendance on this day: the Paris-Shanahan wedding, involving families known to both sides, so that for the first time in my limited experience, everyone I knew in life, every single blood relative I had on earth was collected in one place for something other than a funeral: uncles and aunts, cousins, second-cousins, great uncles and great aunts, both pairs of grandparents. The place was Johnny Vandiver's Hall on Roscoe, a tottering frame hulk just behind Vandiver's tavern and the obligatory venue for weddings in the neighborhood.
I once heard my Uncle Tom say, "You never forget the first Time," and I think he had something else in mind, but it is also true of weddings: this one was my first, and it is forever imprinted on my memory. For one short day, all the women I knew were dazzling, the men, at least 'til they hit the bar, looked like slumming royalty. The air was close with perfume, aftershave, hair oil, the acrid smell of dry-cleaned clothes and the scent of mothballs that clung to the older people. I reveled in the noise, the food smells, the bluish cloud of tobacco smoke that hung just above the tables, the discordant music from a toothy accordion player and his trio of failed musicians.
For the better part of four hours, I was on my own, unsupervised, unchecked, unnoticed, the one child there without parental guidance, an unknown quantity, and I roamed the hall and its fusty corners and dank back stairs like a stray dog. I imagined that I was a spy, an army scout, I played games with my cousins, wrestled with Matt 'til the grown-ups threatened to throw us both out in the street, talked with an endless succession of solicitous adults who wanted, as always, to know how the Local Orphan was getting on.
But mostly I skulked about and observed how adults in that far-off time after a pair of wars let off steam. What I saw was—to an eight-year-old—glorious. For a good part of my youth, it was to color my understanding of what went on at wedding receptions: the best man went toe-to-toe with the boyfriend of one of the bridesmaids; a woman became intoxicated and began undressing to music until her husband dragged her off the floor; a gray-haired man replaced her until his horrified daughters hauled him away; a teenager threw up on the dance floor. A pair of strangers appeared along the far wall, just a couple of party-crashers, and the groomsmen escorted them out to the street without ceremony.
At a rear table, oblivious to the existence of the rest of the world, I saw my uncle Joe, my dad's brother, and his wife Loretta in one in their endless series of fights, hissing and growling like a pair of well-dressed cats, their faces two inches apart: by the end of the evening they would both be drunk, wrapped around one another, and he'd be staring at her as though he'd discovered Helen of Troy on his lap.
Out in the hallway, in a blind corner near the coatcheck, I came upon the evening's centerpiece: my uncle Tom in a deep clinch with a dark-haired girl I didn't know. She was a slender girl with very white skin, and the thin straps that held her dress up seemed to be coming down. I watched them clamp mouth on mouth and wondered how they could breathe. As I stared, it suddenly came to me who this girl was, a one-year-old family mystery had been cleared up for me, and I understood that there was an element of danger present.
When I went back inside, my grandmother buttonholed me, round-faced and matronly in a new permanent and a dark dress with small white dots. She had doubtless been looking for my grandfather, who was almost certainly in Vandiver's tavern out front, or perhaps Dunne's saloon up the street, but she was willing to settle for me.
"Are you having a nice time, Danny?"
"Oh, sure." And of course I was: thus far the wedding had presented me with violence, humor, drunkenness, jealousy, and my first experience of sex, dimly understood but fascinating. "Can we go to another wedding next week, Grandma?"
She laughed. "Oh, not next week, sweetheart, but soon enough. Maybe both of your uncles will finally settle down with a nice girl." She said this without much conviction and scanned the big smoky room in search of either of her sons. Tom chose this moment to enter with the dark-haired girl, who had thankfully pulled her dress back up.
I stole a glance at Grandma. Worry softened her face, and her dark-eyed gaze followed her favorite child across the dance floor. We both watched Tom take his leave of the girl with a little wink, and Grandma allowed herself a little snort at the girl's expense, accompanied by a brief wrinkling of the nose to show her disapproval. I wasn't sure why she would disapprove: I thought the girl was wonderful.
Eventually I rejoined my cousins and we trooped around the hall, weaving in and out of trouble and managing to be in all the best places: the groomsman and the jealous boyfriend went at it not ten feet from us, and the aforementioned teenager threw up just as we were passing by. Toward the end of the long night we kids all split up and went back to the tables where we belonged. Matt stayed with me for a while; we sat down at an empty table a few feet from his parents, Dennis and Mary Jane. They were arguing, and I could tell by the way he watched them that this was nothing new. When he saw that I was staring, he smiled at me and began talking about the trip they were taking to the Wisconsin Dells the following weekend. When his father got up and staggered away from the table, Matt gave me a little whack and said he had to go. I told him I'd see him around.
A little while after that we took our picture. It took some time to set up: my grandmother wanted her two brothers in it, my great uncles Martin and Frank, and this was no small undertaking, for we had to send out search parties. Eventually they found Martin in the tavern grumbling and making dire predictions of the end of the world to anyone who would listen, and Uncle Frank's wife Rose found him asleep in his car—he came in blinking and licking his lips, and his hair stood up on one side where he'd been sleeping on it. You can still see it in the photo—he looks as if he's modeling a new hairstyle, and one of his eyes is not completely open. My grandmother was relieved to hear that he'd been asleep in the car, which meant that the community was safe.
They all seemed happy, my grandmother had also located Grandpa and he was still coherent—and we crowded together and attempted half-heartedly to accommodate the poor photographer. He was a beefy man with a matted shock of hair and ill-fitting clothes. He chain-smoked and his shirt had come out of his trousers, and he had had a long hard day trying to squeeze dignified photographs out of that sweaty, unrestrained gathering. Somewhere at the periphery I could hear someone singing "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," and then all of them picked it up and I thought the photographer would run outside and throw himself in front of the Damen Avenue bus. Aunt Anne was running her hands through my hair and they made me stand right in the center of them all. Someone, one of my uncles, was patting me on the shoulder and they were howling away like cats on the back fence.
I was laughing, at what I couldn't have said, and if you had told me my life would be frozen at just that moment in time, that I would enter the next world feeling just as I did then, I would have counted myself lucky. I had probably begun to understand that they all belonged to me, and I to them.
The photographer snapped his picture and muttered something and then asked us to stay for one more, something had gone wrong, and as he pressed his button anew, someone bumped him from behind, and this last time just as he took the picture, Matt bolted into the camera's field.
The fat photographer straightened up, said, "That'll have to do," and I heard him add "goddammit" under his breath as he waddled away with his camera, trailing cigarette ash and shirt-tails behind him. Shortly after that troubled photo session a fight broke out over a coat, and the police were called. I thought my heart would burst.
I rode home with Uncle Tom and Uncle Mike. Uncle Mike was driving, hunched over the wheel as though the car crowded him. He was big and heavily built, and had the red hair of Grandpa's people. Tom was dark-haired and dark-eyed like his mother, and a relatively small man, though I couldn't see it then. They muttered to one another in the voices they usually used when they didn't want me to hear, but I did, I always did, and I knew they were talking about Tom and the girl.
"Playing with fire, Tom. It ain't gonna work."
"And Philly, he finds out, he'll come looking for the both of you." He pronounced it "Da bota you."
"I can't do nothing about that." A moment later Tom added, "He don't appreciate her, he don't appreciate what he's got. If I hadn't had to go to overseas, she'd have been mine. I'm gonna take her from him." Tom said this last with the same tone of absolute certainty he'd used after the death of my parents, when he'd told me that they were all going to take care of me.
"Be careful," Uncle Mike told him, and then sighed. He sat looking out the window and shaking his head.
I waited what I thought to be a respectful moment and then asked, "Are you gonna marry the lady with the black hair, Uncle Tom?"
"Jesus," Tom muttered. He looked at me in the rearview mirror. "You don't miss anything, do you?"
"I don't think so."
"Well, this is between the three of us. About that lady—whose name is Helen, by the way—it's too soon to be talking about that kinda thing. Besides, nobody can tell what's gonna happen in the future. Now crawl back in your hole and go to sleep."
I nodded, my suspicions confirmed: this was the mysterious Helen whose name I'd heard whispered among the family.
"Just be careful," Mike repeated. "He's nuts, that guy."
"Yeah? So what? So am I," Tom said quietly.
I was delighted to hear his intentions. I wanted him to marry the dark-haired girl, I wanted him to have anything he wanted. Just as he was his mother's favorite, he was mine: he was handsome and funny and brave and a war hero, and in the absence of a father, I was convinced Tom had hung the moon.
Excerpted from In the Castle of the Flynns by Michael Raleigh. Copyright © 2002 by Michael Raleigh. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted October 21, 2002
One of the most touching and hilarious books I have ever read. It is narrated by the adult Danny Dorsey who, as a child, lost both his parents in a tragic accident. His quirky yet delightful relatives, the Flynns, take him in and lovingly--at times comically--attempt to raise him as normally as could be expected. The characters are so realistic, and the dialogue so genuine, it is difficult to believe this is a work of fiction. You will delight in the richness of this charming story as you experience the adventures of a young boy growing up in 1950's Chicago. This is one to be passed along. I cannot recommend it enough. Thank you, Michael Raleigh.
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Posted June 11, 2003
If you have grown up in a large Irish Catholic family you will recognize most, if not all of the characters Michael Raleigh depicts in his book 'In the Castle of the Flynns'. I laughed out loud as I relived parts of my own childhood. The characters are real and the story poignant. It is loosely structured, however and often feels as it is rambling aimlessly through the calendar of young Danny's life. The amusing antics of his family and the love that they bestow on him after his parents death makes this book an easy and enjoyable read.
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Posted June 19, 2014
This is absolutely the best, most touching, most heartwarming book I have read in a long time.
Michael Raleigh had me wishing the Flynn family--and some of the Dorseys too--were my own family. The character development is outstanding, leaving you feeling at the end like you know so many of these characters inside and out, quite personally. I almost felt the book had to be a memoir. Excellent!
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Posted December 17, 2013
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