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Parting Ways Column Receives Top Story at the OC Register

In Uncategorized on September 14, 2011 at 7:37 pm

My Parting Ways Column hits top story at the Orange County Register with more than 30,000 hits.

My Parting Ways Column at the Orange County Register entitled “Dying Woman Reveals Gangster Family Secret” hit top story at the Orange County Register with more than 30,000 hits and top story at Yahoo News. Read the column below…

The framed sepia photograph flashes a dazzling flapper draped in fur and Pat White as a child posing in a tailored coat to match her mother’s.

“That’s me at 4 years old in my first fur coat,” Pat said.

I detected a confident gusto in this dying woman swaddled in a hospital bed in a board and care room in Mission Viejo.

“We never felt the Depression,” Pat, 89, said with a chuckle.

Congestive heart failure affects her breathing but not her mind or spirit. I knew we were in for a captivating life review video, the brainchild of Donna Miller, director of volunteer services of Hospice Care of the West.

Since researching my book “Parting Ways,” I’ve been following Donna as she guides hospice patients on a tour of their past, triggered by a list of interview questions.

It’s a raw last conversation. We’ve heard many life stories, war accounts, prisoner of war nightmares and confessions that folks share before going to the grave. Yet, I’ve never been vividly transported to the underworld of Prohibition.

Donna set up the video camera and started with Pat’s birth in Percy, Ill. Pat’s birth name was Mary Helen Keller. She was nicknamed Patsy. Her mother said that she had to leave Pat’s father nine months after the birth.

Pat Keller, 4, (now White) with her mom, Helen, in a 1925 picture with both wearing fur coats. Pat grew up in the Shelton Gang, who ran gambling, saloons and bootlegging businesses. CINDY YAMANAKA, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Carl Shelton, leader of the Shelton Gang, was the first in a string of stepfathers, Pat said. That’s when the room ebbed as we traveled back to Pat’s childhood. She recalled her early life with the Shelton brothers, who ran East St. Louis and Southern Illinois the way Al Capone ran Chicago.

“I grew up in an affluent family,” she said. “The money just rolled in. We just kept living high.”

“What did your family do?” Donna asked.

“Well, the Sheltons were running Southern Illinois, all the gambling places, card lounges and restaurants,” she said. “Everybody who had slot machines paid to them. There was never any crime. They controlled better than the police.”

She described her mother, born Helen Niemeyer, as a Roaring ’20s bombshell, a gangster’s wife.

“My mother commanded the room,” Pat said.

“How did your mother influence you?” Donna asked.

“Very strongly, with the fact that I was as good as any man; she gave me attitude,” Pat said. “I could have anything or be anything I wanted.”

Pat’s mother dressed her like a doll in georgette dresses and took her out in the evenings for dinner with adults.

“I never had any childhood friends. I wasn’t encouraged to make friends outside of the family.”

“Do you know why that was?” Donna asked.

“I was always told we don’t talk about family, unless we’re with family,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve opened my mouth.”

She lived in a protective bubble away from the eyes of the Sheltons’ rivals. As a child, Pat had a bodyguard named “Eli” who packed a revolver.

“When we were in town, I could always see him out of the corner of my eye or over my shoulder,” she said.

Though they moved often, some of her fondest memories are of riding her horse “Toby” on the farm with Uncle Bernie, which is a very different side of the gangster known as the guy who did Carl’s dirty work.

I later learned when sifting through newspaper archives that the Sheltons made their fortune bootlegging. The Saturday Evening Post called the Shelton brothers “America’s Bloodiest Gang” for the gang wars that occurred in Herrin, a town just south of Percy, and later, Peoria.

I also exchanged emails with Taylor Pensoneau, author of “Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons.” Carl was widely recognized as “handsome, charming and a ladies’ man.” He had multiple marriages and mistresses. Pensoneau also mentioned, “Bernard (Bernie) Shelton loved horses and always had a stable full of them.”

Pat earned her chops as the daughter of a gangster family. Her uncles trained her how to shoot guns. She became a streetwise, tough dame like her mother.

As she matured, Pat realized the family’s code of silence was an armor of protection. Her mother decided to move Pat to California because she didn’t want her daughter to be tied with the Sheltons, who were later gunned down by a rival gang.

Pat recalls living among Hollywood’s stars in Brentwood when they first came to California before moving to Belmont Shore in Long Beach. Her after-school activities when attending Long Beach Poly Tech took us on another jaunt into local organized crime history.

She recalls that her new stepdad and uncle bought a ship, anchored it three miles offshore just outside of the government jurisdiction, and turned it into a casino. Pat would drop her books off at home after school, change her clothes and catch a water taxi out to the ship. At that time, a fleet of ships would cruise up and down the coast from Santa Monica to Long Beach making sure to avoid the invisible line of authority.

“I would go onto the ship and into Uncle Bill’s office, pick up a stack of chips and go play roulette,” she said. “And win, boy would I win. Then I would go down to the dining room, have dinner and take the boat home.”

Pat reflected on one of the more famous ships, the Rex, which carried nearly 2,000 gamblers and 350 waiters, gourmet chefs, full orchestra and squads of gunmen. The frivolity ended when the law was changed to a 12-mile limit. The Rex became a warship serving in World War II.

When the war started, Pat used her photography skills – learned shooting high school sports with a Speed Graphic for the Long Beach Press-Telegram – to join a team of men taking pictures for Douglas Aircraft. One of her government assignments led to going into the bowels of a B-17 to take classified photos that would be sent to engineers fixing the stalling ammunition feeds on the 240-caliber machine guns overseas.

As she got into the tail-gunner seat, she said to the engineer, “I don’t know if you’d take me down here if you knew who my grandfather was.”

“We know who your grandfather was, and we know who your father was,” he said. “And we know who you are.”

“Let me give it a go,” she said, wanting to test the machine gun.

She pointed the gun, aimed and shot the target. The pilot came down to see who fired the last test shots. When he found out the gunman in fact was a voluptuous photographer, Pat recalls him saying “You can fly tail-gunner for me any time.”

In the chemical lab at Douglas, she met rocket scientist Daniel White.

“Mother always said I could have whatever I wanted,” Pat said with chuckle and a smitten look.

They eloped a few months later and had two daughters not long after. Pat’s adventures with the rocket scientist took them around the world for his assignments during the war. She and her daughters toured countries to learn about culture, languages and the arts.

Yet, she never told them the stories of her life. Just a few bits came out little by little to Daniel in their later years.

She’s the only one left now in her family. Her husband died in 2002 and daughters shortly after. I refocused on the grandmotherly figure resting in bed, as her past receded from my mind’s eye.

Donna asked if there was a prayer or scripture that she might like to share with her grandchildren. Pat took a deep breath then recited the prayer.

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

Pat’s five grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren have never heard these stories. Her life review is a reminder to ask our parents and grandparents about their lives, before they’re buried. You never know what could be locked inside. The key is to ask.

As the interview wound to a close, I sensed that she felt relief or release.

“Boy, if the family could hear me now,” Pat said, pausing to exhale. “Well, I finally talked. The dam broke loose.”

Contact the writer:

Denise Carson wrote the book “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing” and blogs. The book is available at University of California Press

Book Release Celebration in Los Angeles

In Blogroll, death and dying, Life Celebrations, Living Funeral on September 14, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Parting Ways Column

By Denise Carson

Author’s Cut of the Orange County Register Column on the Book Release Celebration

I brought the pages of my book, Parting Ways, alive upon lighting a candle for my mother, and then for my father at a table covered in votive candles. I wasn’t in a church, or a funeral home.

Denise Carson greets guests at her book release celebration on May 21. She has written a book titled “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.” Guests lit candles in remembrance of loved ones and were able to share memories at the Reminiscing Corner. There was also a video, a living eulogy and a moment of prayer. CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

In fact, I prepared for my life celebration, a tribute to the release of my book Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing, in a candlelit lounge at AnQi Restaurant, where my brother, Ryan Carson is the Chef. Most people wait until after their death for family, friends and colleagues to gather to praise a life mission accomplished.

Parting Ways is a culmination of my personal journey: first with my father’s passing in a hospital and later with my mother participating in a living wake with friends and family at home. I was 26 then, my brother was 19.  These experiences led me as a journalist to explore how families all over the U.S. were reinventing their roles at the deathbed. We were learning ways to change the wrenching hours at the end of life with a new set of rituals that give us a way to participate.  This brings back intimacy, dignity and celebration to an isolated, institutionalized occasion. Nine out of 10 Americans wish to take their end of life journey at home. Few do because we don’t know how.

Since we often encounter discomfort in talking about death, I’ve created an innovative guide, a map into the unknown territory to prepare yourself, your parent, your spouse, your sibling, your child, your friend or your colleague.

I opened the door to the Q Lounge at AnQi to greet my family, life-long friends, colleagues, my college professors, some of the individuals and families who I met along the way in writing the book such as Donna Miller, a life review guide who video records hospice patients sharing their story at Hospice Care of the West, Juanita Marquez Kelley’s family who had a vigil after her last breath at home, and Ron Wikstrom who invited me to report how his wife, Carol Ann prepared for her funeral at home like a wedding with the help of a death midwife here in Santa Ana.

Candle Light of Remembrance


Gina Calderone lights a candle as she arrives at author Denise Carson’s book release celebration at AnQi restaurant on May 21. Carson has written a book titled “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.” CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

I asked each guest to take a moment to pause and reflect as they entered.

“Light a candle for someone you love and want to remember,” I said. One by one, the flames danced above the white candles evoking the physical presence of those absent. I learned from the death midwives and death doulas I followed on my journey that any space can be hallowed even the deathbed using simple elements such as candlelight.

Reminiscing Corner

At the Reminiscing Corner, Jay Gianukos, a life story documentary filmmaker, who I interviewed in the book at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, video recorded the reflections guests had while lighting the candle. Like he does at many life celebrations and in the one in my book, Jay used the video camera as a focusing lens and permission for guests to surface meaningful thoughts and feelings.

Becoming Master of Ceremony

With the candles lit, reflections recorded, as the Master of Ceremony at my own celebration, I took the microphone to thank the An Family, introduce my book and my brother Chef Ryan Carson who created the molecular gastronomy delights like the champagne caviar cube wowing the guests.

Life Story Video

Looking around the room of more than 50 guests, I basked in the warmth and glory of this moment to finally share the book. I played a clip from my life video entitled “Coming Full Circle” created by Jay Gianukos. The guests were transported back to The Corner Bookstore in New York City, where Samuel Freedman, my Columbia University Professor, introduced Parting Ways as “the definitive book on subject of end of life.” On a pilgrimage, I returned to the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, where the book started. And just as we’re leaving to catch a taxi back home, I read a text from my brother that set the tone for the evening:

 “I love you D. Words cannot express the appreciation for the effort that you have put forth to make this family succeed. Had it not been for your persistency upon making me go to school I would not be the man, a CARSON man, that I am today. You are the matriarch that shall lead this family into the next generation. You’re much more powerful and wise than you think. I love you more than I can express and I’m thankful to have you as a sister and a “mother”…mom would be proud.”


I introduced Ken and Buffy Daignault, elders from my mother’s church and family friends, to lead a prayer because I learned at the end of life no matter what your faith, bowing your heads together brought solidarity to the deathbed. Ken prayed saying: “I ask that you bless and favor the fruit of Denise’s mind, heart and hands and the book Parting Ways, let this book be a blessing to many others.”

Living Eulogy

 After the prayer, I stood up to explain the importance of a living eulogy extolling a person in a celebration before death.

Denise Noble Allen, at eight and a half months pregnant, emerged from the audience and ambled to the microphone. Her pregnant belly made me realize we were both in the midst of giving birth, me to my book and her to a baby boy in a week’s time.

“I’m here to tell you Denise’s Story and recognize how very proud of her I am and her brother,” she said. “Not only have I been her best friend for over twenty years, I use to baby sit Ryan, It’s hard to sum up a 20 year friendship in five minutes, so I have to narrow it down to what shaped her to write this book.”

She retraced my footsteps from the moment we met at just 14 when I told her about how my father had died with a masking smile, and the day, she received the call that I would return from living in Paris, France, at age 24 to be with my mother diagnosed with cancer and the insight to use my reporting skills to record my mother’s life stories.

After giving a “living eulogy,” Jolene Arambula, right, is overcome with emotion as she hugs long-time friend author Denise Carson who has written a book titled “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.” CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

My oldest friend, Jolene Arambula, came up to the microphone with stories of our childhood,

“It was the summer of 1979,” she said. “I stood on the driveway of our new home, I watched a girl skip across the street hand in hand with her mother and without hesitation she walked up to me to say ‘Hi I’m Denise” We were four and that’s where our story began.”

Jolene recalled how my father, Richard, always amazed “whether he was cooking crab straight from the ocean or a full size pig on a stick in the front yard, Richard’s culinary talents were endless, which obviously his skills have been passed on to his son Ryan.”

She reflected on reading my book taking her back to the day when her father gave my father’s eulogy.

Gina Calderone, my childhood friend, followed. We all grew up in the same neighborhood. She brought all the threads together as she turned from her reminiscing to talk to me directly.

“Denise you overpowered the darkness, never losing focus…Within your wounds of life has been one of your greatest gifts, this book Parting Ways. You are going to teach people how to love on intimate level and celebrate the end of life, a revolutionary concept.”

As we embrace, I watched Jeff Brody, my professor, my mentor and former advisor of the Daily Titan, the student newspaper at Cal State Fullerton, rise from the audience. He recalled how the “exquisite writing” caught his eye in a piece I wrote about raves.

“I said I’ve got to look after this student… I pushed her, pushed her for three more semesters, and asked her to become the editor, which is an honor.”

He reflected on starting a literary journalism class and how he selected me for the independent study, pointing out then that I could eventually go to Columbia University, his alma mater.

Ryan Carson, left, listens as his sister Denise, right, reads from her new book “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.” Ryan is the chef at AnQi Restaurant in Costa Mesa where the book release gathering was held. CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

“When I think about this book,” Jeff said. We’ve spoken many times over the years, calls in the night…I feel like I was a physician, the OBGYN, as this book was being born.”

 Parting Ways Montage

As I stepped up to the microphone to say, “The reason I wanted to do that living eulogy is to give you an example of what it might look like and feel like if you decided you want to celebrate your life at really any stage. “You don’t have to wait till the end to do this.”

I opened my book and read a passage that segued into a visual montage to the song “Somewhere Only We Know,” that brought my parents and the birth of my book Parting Ways to life on the silver screen. The final video clip played of me dancing in our family room and falling into my mother’s arms, on the day I asked her to have a celebration of her life before her death. That dance stops and becomes the still image on the cover of my book.

Parting Ways Book Launch in New York City

In Uncategorized on September 14, 2011 at 5:48 pm