Bertha Charles Smith – My Beloved Grandmother

05-11 Smith
Photo Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

As a little girl in Brooklyn, New York, I knew a Grandmother who was full of life, large in stature (to a child), warm and loving. I did not get to visit with her often, but my father made sure that I knew how much she loved and cared about me. We spoke by phone frequently and it would always reinforce the feeling in my child’s mind that I was her favorite. As time went on, our conversations became more sporadic. I moved away from New York, grew up and began to live my life. But my father would always tell me that my Grandmother asked about me and to let me know she loved me.

My Grandmother traveled frequently, so it did not come as a surprise to me when in 1977, he told me that she was going to South America with her church group. I told my father to give her my best when he spoke with her. Ironically, my father did not tell me that he had flown out to California before she left for her final trip. He said that Grandmother gave him the strongest and longest hug he had ever had. She told him that she loved him, that she loved me, and that she would talk to him soon. Although I and the rest of the world would later learn of the horrific tragedy in Jonestown, I would not know until years later that my beloved Grandmother was taken away from us that day.

I went to visit my father during the Christmas holidays in 1981. That’s when my father sat me down and broke the news to me. To say I was shocked was an understatement! My first reaction was ,why wasn’t I told sooner? My father explained that some of it was due to the State Department notifications, legal wranglings, etc., but that he had also been unable to come to grips and he didn’t want to tell me over the phone.

I have memories of my Grandmother and mementos, but those won’t ever be able to answer the questions that I have or tell the story of how and why. That would be something I’d only want to hear from my Grandmother. I am not embarrassed or ashamed of why she joined Jim Jones. This was something that she chose to do, something that she needed, to fill a void, or it could be that it Jim Jones was a “svengali.” Whatever it was, I loved her and would still want to feel her arms wrapped around me. That’s the kind of love I had and still have for Bertha Charles Smith, my beloved Grandmother!

(Karen Smith-Jackson can be reached at