"Meeting The Lady I Never Knew" by Chris Demirdjian
I am the son of Lela Howard and the nephew of Mary Pearl Willis. By now I’m sure you have heard this name, either in the jonestown report or somewhere in the news. But they can only tell you so much, like what happened, and how it ended. In my opinion, you must hear the perspective of people who were affected by this. I’m sure many of you wonder how a sixteen-year-old could be affected by this terrible tragedy, but believe me, this had a huge impact on me as well as a hard lesson.
My mom and I got involved in researching Jonestown one night in late September 2006. My mom was having a conversation with my grandmother, and somehow it led to Aunt Pearl. My grandmother and my mom had talked about Aunt Pearl in the past, but no one really wanted to go very far with it, which I really didn’t understand. And then, my mom began to cry. I asked her, “Why do you always cry, whenever you talk about Aunt Pearl?” Mom said “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”
Our research took us to this website, and we found out that Stanley Nelson’s film, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, would be shown at UCLA. I really loved the documentary, and it taught me a lot, but there were many times when Mom began to cry. At the end of the film, when the director invited former Temple members and relatives of the Jonestown dead who were in the audience to come forward to speak in a question-and-answer session, she went up to the front of the theater, a move that surprised everyone, including myself! After she spoke and answered a few questions, you wouldn’t believe how many people went up and asked her questions. I had to get in line to get to my own mother! Even outside the theater people kept asking her questions. Before Mom and I left UCLA, someone came up to us and told us this same documentary was going to be played at the Nuart Theater in L.A. in a couple days. Wow! I really didn’t know Jonestown or the documentary itself was this big.
Going to the Nuart Theater was fun, and we got to meet the director, Stanley Nelson. He was a nice guy, but of course we had to ask him to explain why all previous movies showed Jonestown as a “bunch of crazy people in a cult.” One good thing about going to the Nuart was the people., how different they were from those at the UCLA screening, which after all had been mainly film majors and other college students. A lot of regular filmgoers showed up for this feature. They were able to ask questions, voice their opinions – and of course there were few who disagreed with other people – and a lot more people talked after the showings. I remember during the very first showing I kind of felt the like one of those people on that show Entourage because I had been seated next to two people, Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee, who were in the movie. The showings at the Nuart were all fun; I just miss educating people who were much older than me.
Mom and I also went to the Bay Area for November’s memorial service, and met a bunch of other Temple members, survivors and relatives. That was good too. But after all, that a huge bombshell dropped on Mom and me.
A couple of nights after the showings, the Aunt Pearl’s daughter told us that her mother didn’t have a headstone on her grave. We were shocked and appalled, and of course, curious. I sure as heck would have got my mom a headstone, I’m sure you would’ve got a headstone for your parents. After all the smoke cleared, Mom and I realized, we had a mission. The following Monday, Mom called the cemetery where Aunt Pearl was buried. The first question the guy on the phone asked us was, “Is she buried on the black or white side”? Mom was angered to hear that and so was I. But you have to remember Louisiana is in the south, and a lot of things happened down there back in 1979 that wouldn’t happen today. The man put Mom on hold while he went to look for the spot where Aunt Pearl was buried. When he came back, he told Mom he couldn’t find the grave, but she could call back in a few hours. When she did, the other bombshell was dropped: The man said he couldn’t find the grave. Mom was shocked and angered. When I came home from school that day, she told me the terrible news. I was disgusted: how can someone’s grave be lost? Or better yet, how come no one in the family ever purchased a headstone? Once I started asking a few questions about that, everyone in the family began pointing fingers at one another. My grandma blamed my mom’s mentally-ill aunt, while other family members like Aunt Pearl’s daughter said they tried, but there was nothing they could do.
Mom had to go back to the beginning. She talked to our family who lives down there in Monroe, Louisiana and who had attended her funeral. These questions lingered in both our minds: “If everyone was at the funeral, how come no one bought a headstone? How could family just forget about Aunt Pearl?” After a few days, Mom decided to call the Monroe City Hall and talk to the people in charge of cemeteries. I’m pretty sure she didn’t like hearing that sanitation was in charge of the cemetery where Aunt Pearl was buried, but worse, the people in the department didn’t call Mom back. A couple of days after that, Mom wrote a letter to the governor of Louisiana.
A month later, in December 2006, we got a response from the city of Monroe. Mayor Jamie Mayo apologized for the remarks of the cemetery worker, and said he and other Monroe officials were going order the man as well as the other cemetery workers to sensitivity training. They were also going to restructure the cemetery so that “no one else would have to go through this ever again.” The next call came from Robbie Evans, a reporter from the Monroe News-Star, who interviewed Mom for what turned out to be the first of several articles. We expected the coverage to give Mom a little more leverage at the Monroe city hall, but no one would return her calls. The reporter was told that people were searching for the grave, but when he went out the cemetery, he never saw anyone out there.
Eventually, all the calls – from my mom, from the reporter, for citizens from Monroe who read the stories (especially a man named Danny Thomas, who has become our friend) – had an effect. The state cemetery board took notice and went to Monroe to take over the investigation.
Mom and I flew to Monroe a week later. Our cousin Isaiah drove us to the cemetery and told us the general area where the grave was. When we went the next day, a woman from the state cemetery board, Shelly Crow and her son, along with a cemetery worker were all there waiting for us. Then Danny Thomas, Robbie Evans, the photographer from the News-Star joined us. Also there was the photographer who took the original picture in 1979, even though the photo itself turned out to be not much help.
The worker stuck a long metal probe into several different places in the ground. We went all over the cemetery. There was one place where the worker hit a hard spot, and everyone wondered if that was it. We left a marker, a broken block of cement – or the way the cemetery was kept up it could’ve been someone’s headstone – to be specific. I was scared to say anything because it wasn’t necessarily the grave at all, it could’ve been a rock underneath the ground. Shelly told us that people were going to dig that spot up the next day.
After a few early setbacks the next days – which required the mayor’s intervention to resolve – we went to the grave site. It seemed like everyone from Monroe was there, including people driving by or stopping by to look. This was the day Mom and I had waited for. The guy with the Caterpillar dug his way into the ground. Mom was nervous, already beginning to cry (She promised me before she wouldn’t cry). The Cat dug so deep into the ground, it clipped something. The diggers with the shovels cleared all the dirt to reveal a casket! The Cat had opened up a hole in the top, but fortunately all it had done was to let dirt fall inside.
At first, Mom didn’t want to approach the opened grave, but as the people with shovels and the guy with the Cat began to put dirt back in, I yelled “Stop! Let her touch the casket”! Mom and I touched it, and for the first time since we began researching Jonestown, I started crying.
The first thing I did after we discovered the casket was to my grandma. I tried to compose myself, but when I told her “We found her, we found her,” Grandma was really emotional as well. After all, this was her sister. Mom and I flew home happy, but we knew we still weren’t done.
Mom had to order the headstone, and we had to return to Louisiana to place it. Going to Monroe this time wasn’t bad at all. We already found Aunt Pearl, so really there was only joy in the air. Now what I’m about to tell you is surely the sign of the devil getting in the way. The day the headstone was going to be placed on the grave, our friend Danny Thomas broke out in hives and was dehydrated. That was pretty scary, but Danny, being the former Vietnam vet he is, wanted to tough it out and stay there. He did, despite getting into an argument with the paramedics on whether he should go to the hospital. Mr. Carson, who worked at the hotel we stayed at, actually put the headstone on the grave by himself. It turned out to be a great experience.
I personally want to thank everyone, people we met in San Francisco, people in Monroe, and finally I would like to thank the man who asked us, “Is she buried on the black or white side?” If it weren’t for that one man who asked that question, none of this searching probably never would have happened.