On a clear cloudless day in May, my thoughts were focused and my heart was singing. I was standing on a grassy hillside at Evergreen Cemetery. There were a lot of people gathered there that day with a common purpose. We were there to pay tribute to our family and friends who perished in a tragic event more than 32 years ago. They were the victims of Jonestown. I imagine we all carried in our hearts a special message, maybe a little song or just a simple goodbye, but whatever it might have been, it was unique to that occasion. It was the dedication to our family.
I started attending the November remembrance ceremonies a few years ago. The services were meant to “not forget” what had taken place in November 1978. I went because somehow I felt that just being around fellow Temple members would somehow help close the gaping hole left in my heart by the immeasurable loss of so many people that I use to know and love. Some were biologically connected to me and others were spiritually connected. I am sad to say that these visits often left me feeling so lonely and emotionally depleted. I was searching for something more, but I was never able to come to a conclusion about what the “something more” was. I just knew that the services were not enough. That is the reason, when I learned earlier this year of the plans to create a memorial dedicated to the victims, I immediately felt like it was the answer to the incomplete response that I had always felt in the past. It was a memorial, just for them! It hit me that is what we had needed so badly. We needed to give them their own unique – and previously-denied – recognition.
The events scheduled for May 29, 2011 were so different from any other gathering. Even the day itself felt different to me, felt light and free. My emotions ran high with expectations about the ceremony, as I wondered what the plaques would be like, and whose names I would see there. I knew for sure that I wanted to touch my little niece Ava Jillon Inghram’s name on the plaque. I also wanted to see the name of Alice Inghram, my sister-in-law. I cannot explain exactly why I felt so strongly about this, but somehow I just knew that it was important that I have the opportunity to do it.
As I stood on the hillside listening to the speakers, my mind took this incredible journey. I recalled my friends and loved ones from a long time ago. I remembered little Frances Buckley wearing her bright orange and brown sundress on Sundays, and three-year-old Martin Amos explaining how girls and boys are different. I thought of Jimbo and Candy Cordell singing in the children’s choir and then making silly faces when they were finished. I remember little Brenda Cobb and Eileen Jackson trying on each other’s shoes, Diane Lundquist and Maud Perkins teasing each other and laughing at their jokes until they were in tears, Shanda James working at Fish and Chips, and Beverly Livingston and Paulette Kelly talking about hair styles. I remember Sylvia Grubbs and Shirley Smith talking about the color of the new choir dresses. Beautiful memories were pouring out of my mind as I reflected on the ones who had left us way too soon.
It was good to be there with the survivors and members of the new generation, the descendants of the ones who perished. This time the sadness in my heart – and I suspect in many others as well – was replaced with a sense of purpose. The highlight was the dedication of the beautiful plaques. It is absolutely awesome to have a peaceful place to go to meditate and read the names of those who died. May 29th was so special because we came to honor our families and comrades with a fitting farewell. They were wonderful people with big dreams and a solid determination to match those dreams.
Although it is long overdue, we bid each of you farewell. We love you.
(Vera Washington was a member of Peoples Temple for several years who left in 1973 because of conflicts she had with the leadership of the group. She is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous writings are collected here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)