Deirdre Marie Capone: Naming Names And No Longer Holding My Breath (Guest post)

Thank you to Deidre Marie Capone, and Bob Brody’s blog “Letters to My Kids“, for this terrific letter in honor of Mother’s Day 

Dear Kim, Kevin, Bobby and Jeff,

I am a Capone. My grandfather was Ralph Capone, listed in 1930 as Public Enemy #3 by the Chicago Crime Commission. That makes me the great-niece of his partner and younger brother, Public Enemy #1: Al Capone.

For much of my life, this was not information that I readily volunteered. In fact, I made every effort to hide the fact that I was a Capone, a name that had brought endless heartache to so many members of my family. In 1972, when I was in my early thirties, we left Chicago and my family history far behind me. I reinvented myself in Minnesota and made sure that no one in my life other than your dad knew my ancestry. I succeeded, even with you four children.

I was terrified that if you learned you had “gangster blood” running through your veins, youd be exposed to the same pain I had experienced.

So, when Bobby came home from school one day in 1974 to announce that his class was learning about Al Capone, it knocked the wind out of me.

Ever since you children started school, I had developed the habit of asking,“What did you learn today?” when you came home. Of course, I always listened to your answers with great interest, but on that particular day, I felt like the whole world had just slid out of focus, leaving only Bobby and me. There he was, smiling and cheerful as usual, telling me that he was learning about my uncle in his fourth grade class.

My heart seized, but somehow, I managed to get out a half-casual, “What did you learn about Al Capone?”

“We learned that he was a gangster,” Bobby told me. He went on to tell me about Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, Al’s bootlegging operation, and how he had been such an expert outlaw that when the police finally nabbed him, the only charge they could pin on him was tax evasion. I was so astonished that it was all I could do to nod along as he spoke.

Later that evening, when Dad and I were alone, I told him about what Bobby had said. I felt like I had been holding my breath ever since Bobby so innocently chirped the name “Capone.” Dad and I decided together that we couldn’t keep the truth from you four any longer. We had no idea how you would react, but one thing was certain—we didn’t want you to hear about it from someone else. And now that Kim and Kevin were teenagers, they had started to ask about their grandparents. We couldn’t keep this from you forever.

That evening, as Dad and I gathered you kids in the kitchen, I was petrified. This was a moment that I had created in my head time and again, since Dad and I decided to start a family. And each time I imagined it, it ended badly. I thought you kids would be furious with me for keeping the secret, or for being a Capone in the first place. Maybe you would be ashamed of me. But worse yet—maybe you would be ashamed of yourselves. Maybe hearing the truth about your family would send you into the same kind of downward spiral that had swallowed so much of my childhood.

When I was growing up, I had often been mad at God for making me a Capone. I couldn’t understand why other children weren’t allowed to play with me, and my heart broke every time I heard someone murmur a slur or saw the newspapers print awful accusations about the family I loved—and the family that loved me in return when everyone else shunned me. Given my difficulties growing up as a Capone, I just couldn’t imagine that things would be any different for you children. As I sat you down at the kitchen table and prepared to break the news, I felt like I was on the verge of crushing the happy life that Dad and I had worked so hard to give to you.

I could tell that you sensed my nervousness, and you were unusually quiet as I told you I had something important to say. I squeezed Dad’s hand tightly, and the words came slowly.

“There’s something I want to tell you about my family,” I began. “Al Capone was my uncle. My grandfather was his brother. I was born Deirdre Marie Capone.”

For a split second, there was silence in the kitchen. I could feel my heart in my throat. Then you four children looked at each other then back at me. Then, at the exact same instant, you four children exclaimed, “Cool, Mom!”

As soon as the word “Cool!” broke the tension in the room, all four of you were peppering me with questions. “What was he like? Was he nice to you? Did he love you? Do you look like him? Do you have pictures?”

Relief washed over me. I had been building this moment up in my mind for so many years, and now here I was, discovering that something that had once been shameful to me could be source of pride for my children. I tried to answer your questions as best I could. I pulled out my family photo albums and began to introduce my own children to the people who had loved me most when I was their age.

Deirdre Marie Capone is the great-niece of Al Capone and the last living member of that family born with the last name “Capone.” She is the mother of four children and the grandmother of 14. After she retired to Southwest Florida, her family urged her to write her story of growing up in this infamous family. In her book, Uncle Al Capone – The Untold Story from Inside His Family, she shares for the first time the intimate details of life within the Capone family. The book can be purchased in any bookstore. A personalized signed copy can be purchased from her website, www.unclealcapone.com

This letter was first published on Bob Brody’s blog, Letters to My Kids