Remembrances of Juanell Smart

I cannot really remember the first time I met Nell. I know that on one occasion we ate at a Mexican restaurant when she came to southern California for a bowling tournament. I know I was there when she spoke at the dedication of the memorial stones at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland in 2011. I was there the time she buried the cremains of her four children at Evergreen.

So while I cannot member the exact moment that we met, I distinctly recall the moment we bonded. She was staying at our house in San Diego during one of the survivor reunions in the early 2000s. She had been having some stomach upset, and in the middle of the night woke up in excruciating pain. I took her to the E.R. at Scripps Hospital near downtown San Diego, where she was eventually seen and taken to a bed, which is to say, a gurney. I remember the intimate moment when the medical staff gave her a gown and told her to strip. She needed assistance stepping out of her panties. I’m sure she cracked a few jokes about that. But it was at that moment we became friends.

Mac and I began to visit her in Indianapolis in the early 2000s. She had a nice middle class home in a nice middle class neighborhood. There was a large lake that fronted her back yard. She was incredibly handy, constructing furniture, making a playing table with an inlaid Scrabble board, creating a unique set of shelves for her audiocassettes, doing plumbing, electrical wiring, and major gardening. This was what she was doing with her life in retirement.

* * * *

Juanell Louise McGee was born in Bexar County, Texas on October 13, 1938 to Elena Marthenya “Kay” McElvane Nelson and Arthur McGee. She had a half brother whom some cousins tracked down, but I don’t have further information on him. It is not clear when she moved to Southern California. A possibility would have been relocation during World War II, when many African Americans left the South for employment in war industries in California.

Juanell first married Bartley Fain – whom she later described as the love of her life – and then Alfred Smart. In the 1970s she worked in Guam before returning to the Los Angeles area, where she worked for the Small Business Association in Burbank. She was a member of the LA Temple on Alvarado Street, which her mother, Kay Nelson attended, along with her uncle James McElvane. Kay became a real estate agent, and Jim – known as Mac to everyone in the Temple – was a community organizer. Nell’s four children – Tinetra Fain, Al, Scottie, and Teri Smart – also attended the LA Temple. When Kay moved to Jonestown, the grandchildren went with her. Juanell visited them in Jonestown a few weeks before the deaths. They seemed healthy and happy to her, so she didn’t see anything to worry about.

The period after November 18, 1978 was rough. She went through a lot of Johnny Walker Red, according to her friend Milica (pronounced Melissa), who worked with her at SBA. By her own account, Nell was a mess. She wanted Jim Jones to be alive again, just so she could kill him. Yet as time passed, and as she reconnected with other survivors, some measure of healing, if not acceptance, occurred. (For some of Juanell Smart’s writings, please click here.)

Eventually she settled in Indianapolis, where she worked for the US Department of Agriculture as a hearing officer. It was there that she met Tommie, a young man who eventually became a son to her, sharing his own family with her for more than twenty years. Tommie and his wife Alex welcomed Juanell into their home and into their family. I feel fortunate to have them in my life as well, since they opened their home to me when I traveled to Indianapolis on numerous occasions to visit Juanell.

Friendship with Nell was always a bit tricky, however. She could be kind and gracious one moment, and then the next, an irritable and irritating witch (with a b). Sometimes you could see it coming. Sometimes you couldn’t. She became more physically disabled as she aged, but refused to accept any of it gracefully. If you tried assisting her into the car or lifting up groceries, she would say in the voice of a child “I do it!”

I helped her pack up her house when she downsized into a two-bedroom apartment. My gosh, she had a lot of stuff! But all of it was very classy. She had excellent taste in clothing, jewelry, and furnishings. Glamour photos from her apparently wild young adulthood testify to her lifelong enjoyment of the finer things in life.

Her dear friend Lynne, along with Tommie and Alex, and others helped her move that first time. Despite her occasional crabbiness, Juanell was able to attract a wide group of people who liked her. Even in her most debilitated state during her final years at the Harcourt Terrace Nursing facility, she became the darling of the staff. Yet she could also lash out at her friends, and all of us bore the marks of her scathing remarks. Even Lynne’s 86-year-old mother Anne, who visited Juanell regularly at the nursing home, felt the Wrath of Nell at times.

There was a horrible period during the pandemic when she had to move yet again, this time from the apartment to a much smaller place in a senior residence. Milica also came to help her move. The pandemic had aged Juanell terribly. She was isolated, ordering food from Grub Hub and products from Amazon. She never asked for help and said she was fine when friends asked about her. After the death of her beloved dog Sydney, she had her little cat Baybee to keep her company. She desperately needed nursing assistance, but adamantly refused it no matter what any of us said. She ended up in the hospital several times, with dangerously high blood sugar, a broken hip (twice), and other crises. Fortunately, Tommie found a home for Juanell at  Harcourt Terrace and Lynne found a home for Baybee.

The last three years have been hard for all of us – Juanell, her friends, and the staff at Harcourt. Nell repeatedly insisted upon going home. One time I inadvertently made her cry when I just said it straight out: You are not going home, Nell. As Tommie pointed out to me, divert and distract, never contradict. Good advice for anyone dealing with difficult people.

Nell did not go gently into that good night, as Dylan Thomas would have it. No, she raged, raged against the dying of the light. No matter how weak her body was, no matter how bed-ridden, tired, and uncomfortable she felt, Nell’s spirit shone brightly. She was always herself. Each time I visited her this past year, I’d think, Well this will be the last time, I’ll say my goodbyes now. And each time, I left convinced that she was going to outlive us all.

The first time I began to doubt her immortality was on my last visit in early March 2024. She was very thin, weak, in pain. Yet she continued to feed herself (sort of), and rejected any attempt to help her down a caramel macchiato, her drink of choice, although more of it ended on the bed covers than in her mouth. That’s Juanell, I thought. She hated any sentimentality, so usually I’d just leave by saying “See you next time.” This last time, I did tell her I loved her, and this time she said “I love you.” This probably sounds strange, but I knew then that the end was coming.

Tommie helped make arrangements for hospice when Juanell was diagnosed with a large tumor in her intestine. She had an order for DNR. Lynne visited regularly, and brought her children and grandchildren to visit, since they had always been a part of Juanell’s life. Her mother Anne also visited of course. And then, without warning, Anne died on Saturday, April 13. That was a big blow, since Anne was every bit as spirited and lively as Juanell. In contrast, Juanell had been on a long slow decline for several years, until it accelerated in her last couple of months. She died at 10:54 p.m. on Monday, April 22, 2024 at age 85. Lynne was present at the transition, playing Gospel tunes on the CD player, talking about Juanell’s children by name – Tinetra, Al, Scottie, Teri – and how she would see them soon. She heard Nell say “AlAnne.” Or was it “Al and Anne?” In any event, Lynne is pretty sure that Juanell and Anne are raising a bit of Hell up in Heaven right now. And that they both have found peace.

To lose one’s mother, one’s uncle, and many, many friends is a disaster. To lose four children at once is unimaginable. Certainly it took an indomitable spirit and will to not only survive, but to thrive. Yet Juanell Smart managed to do both. She leaves behind a legacy of strength, courage, and a biting personality. It would be fair to say she did not suffer fools gladly. But she loved her friends deeply.

I’ll let her close these remembrances in her own words:

In spite of losing my whole family, I try to remember that the experience was not all bad. I am a lot more tolerant, a lot more caring, and a whole lot wiser. I go into old age alone, but not bitter and without placing blame on anyone.

(An obituary for Juanell Smart appears here.)