Shirley. I loved talking with Shirley. She had a sweetness about her. She reminded me of my mom a little. The way she gave attention to all of her kids really impressed me. She had a lot of kids, but she was always laid back, and never looked irritated or overwhelmed by them. I like to see mothers who aren’t irritated by their kids.
I can’t buy a watermelon without thinking of her husband, James. James was a truck driver, and I remember how he used to haul watermelons. He had the longest, sweetest, crispiest, Texas watermelons I’ve ever tasted. He used to bring his surplus to the church, and I didn’t mind standing in line to get a slice.
* * * * *
I became pregnant my senior year in high school by a young man in Peoples Temple. You couldn’t attend regular school if you were pregnant in the 70’s. They allegedly didn’t want us to corrupt the morals of girls who probably had no morals. I was sent to Booth High, an alternative school for pregnant girls, where my fellow immoralettes and I laughed and joked about getting “caught.”
I was embarrassed about being sent there, until I saw some of my schoolmates there. Wow, I guess I wasn’t the only corrupting influence. I was especially surprised to see a former classmate getting on the school bus looking like she was ready to pop. We used to call her mother “The Hawk,” because that’s how she had watched over her daughter. She wouldn’t even allow her to walk to and from school with us. Every morning, she drove her daughter to school and watched until she entered the entrance building, and every afternoon, she was right there when the dismissal bell rang, waiting to whisk her daughter away to a moated castle or something. I couldn’t figure out how that girl had ditched The Hawk long enough to get pregnant. I remember calling my best friend Toni James when I got home and joking about it. Whoever the mystery father was, I said, he must have been hiding in a toilet stall, because that’s probably the only place The Hawk wasn’t watching.
The Hawk doesn’t know this, but she really influenced me as a parent: She proved that you can hover over a person all you want, but in the end, they’re gonna do what they want to do anyway.
We were bussed from our home school to Booth High in East Los Angeles. As I was walking toward the bus that first day, I was kicking myself for getting into such a predicament. But as I boarded the bus, I saw someone I knew. Tonya Baisy, Shirley’s oldest daughter, was a friend of mine from Peoples Temple. We both got wide eyed, laughing and pointing at each other. We both asked the same stupid question: “Girl, what are you doing here?” I felt better because now I had someone to talk to.
We took our first bumpy ride catching up on what was going on in each other’s lives. I asked her what her mom said when she found out she was pregnant. That’s when she told me her mom had gone to Jonestown with seven of her children, but that she and her oldest brother had refused to go. Tonya was staying with her grandmother, Miss Naomi. Her dad didn’t go either, but Shirley’s sister Patsy had, and she’d taken her four kids with her.
Tonya told me about the last time she got “brought up” on the floor in a San Francisco meeting of Peoples Temple, after someone had written her up for having “a bad attitude.” Afterwards, she made up her mind to not go anymore. She snuck away and returned to Los Angeles. She said she missed her mom, and wished Shirley could be there with her when she had her baby, but no matter what, Tonya wasn’t going “to no damn Jonestown!” We got into a heated conversation about all of the people and things we hated in Peoples Temple as the bus hit every bump in the road along the way to school.
The two of us sat next to each other in school. We began to walk to and from the bus together, since we had recently moved around the corner from Miss Naomi. Miss Naomi was pissed that Shirley and Patsy had gone to Jonestown and taken 11 of her grandchildren with them. Tonya really missed her family, and always talked about how she wished they’d come home.
* * * * *
Shirley. Tonya and I laughed and joked about Shirley. I told my friend I missed her too, and laughed about the time Jim Jones told her to lose weight. He had her jaws wired so that all she could consume was liquids. She had to weigh in every week, and they were puzzled that she wasn’t losing the weight they expected her to. Here’s what they didn’t know: Shirley was going to be Shirley, regardless of the consequences. She would drink the broths from her favorite foods, and had learned how to unwire and rewire her jaws. She had an emergency kit for someone to use if she were choking. That’s all Shirley needed to know! She became a pro at it and still enjoyed the foods she loved. I had huge respect for her after that! Tonya and I cracked up at the memory, and then she said, “If Jim Jones is God, why didn’t he know what she was doing?” I agreed. That led to a day of talking about the phony shenanigans of Jim Jones. We spent a whole morning telling stories, and always prefacing it with, “remember when?”
Shirley. I used to like being next to her in the choir. I can’t even remember if she could carry a tune or not, but I do remember it was fun to be in her presence. She was easy to talk to. She was more like a big sister, the sister you could confess all of the bad things in your life to. It was hard to think of her as someone’s mother because she was so young! She’d had at least 10 kids before she was 30 years old. A house full of kids, and still, she had a lot of laughter.
Shirley. She and her sister Patsy were really close. I often wonder if Shirley would have gone to Jonestown if Patsy hadn’t gone. I saw a video clip some years ago of Patsy dancing with a snake in one of the meetings there. Patsy with a snake? No, that can’t be right. What happened to make that happen?
Shirley. I can’t remember her ever saying an unkind word about anyone. When I see pictures or films of her in Jonestown I am saddened. She did lose a lot of weight over there, but her face looks like she lost a lot of joy as well. I can only imagine the things she must have experienced in Jonestown to take the glimmer from her eyes.
Shirley. It’s been over 40 years since they took you away, but your smile is still parked in the garage of my heart. Sheltered and protected from the blaring sun, protected from the rain, and from the winds that try to wear your shine away.
Shirley. How I wish I could laugh with you about Tonya going into labor. How I wish I could see the joy in your eyes as you embraced your first grandson. How I wish, how I wish, how I wish.
Shirley. I wish that the peace you deserve rests with you, and the joy you shared so freely would remain in our hearts. May your grandchildren know that you began loving them even before they were born.
Shirley. You will always be my big sister and my friend.
Shirley. You will always be loved.
(Glenda Randolph Bates was the sister of Darlene Ramey, who died in Jonestown. Her articles for this site appear here. She died on March 29, 2022 from pancreatic cancer.)