Mary Beth Jansma Wotherspoon and I came of age in the 60’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is a pretty conservative town with a strong Dutch Christian Reformed heritage. We met at work, both of us part-time tray girls at our local hospital.
Mary didn’t have an easy life. Her father died when she was young, and her mother worked as a nurse to support the family. Mary worked to pay for her parochial school tuition. Besides being expensive, Mary was uncomfortable with this type of religious education and switched to the public school by her senior year of high school.
Mary was high-spirited and had a tremendous sense of humor. She taught me how to use Blackjack gum to cover my teeth, so that when we delivered dinner trays to the patients and gave them a big smile we appeared to be missing our front teeth. In the hospital basement, we jumped on the large carts that held the dinner trays and raced each other down the halls.
Nicknamed Ferina from a character in Spanky & Our Gang, she loved to make roadrunner and chicken sounds, especially when she could catch people unaware. She was fearless, and we once bet her $10 to go into an inner city bar and last for 10 minutes. Barefoot, she dressed in her older brother’s paratrooper uniform and waltzed into the bar. Thinking he was having the dt’s, a bar patron promptly started poking her with his pool cue, and she was swiftly evicted from the dive. We hitchhiked together, singing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Feeling Groovy” as we waited for cars to pick us up.
Mary was a talented artist, and her serious side came out in her art. She was troubled by the issues of the day, especially racism, poverty, and the Vietnam War.
Our paths diverged in 1968. I got married and Mary was my maid of honor. She headed to Chicago to witness the Democratic Convention and returned to Grand Rapids to raise money to bail out protestors who had been beaten and jailed. She started school at our local community college, but her heart wasn’t in it. She left after a short time and made her way to California. Long distance calls were expensive back then, so we wrote letters. I still have some of hers. She wrote of her struggle to support herself and her search for meaning in her life. Without naming the group, she did tell me about finding Peoples Temple and how it was everything she was looking for in life.
I didn’t hear from her for a very long time. One day she showed up at my place of employment, and what a change I saw in her. The beautiful girl who loved clothes and make-up was dowdy and looked like a missionary. She had her young daughter with her. She talked in an emotionless, robotic manner, and said she was on a cross country trip and had been given permission to visit me. I was indignant that she needed permission to visit me and thought she acted like she was brainwashed. She wanted me to join her group, but I wasn’t at all interested. That was the last time I saw or heard from her.
As the news about Jonestown hit the media, I had a troubled feeling since I knew that Mary’s group had started in Ukiah, like Peoples Temple. I was shocked and devastated when it was confirmed by our local paper that she had perished along with her daughter and husband.
I have lived all these years wishing I knew more about what her life had been like in Peoples Temple, hoping that it had been a happy experience for her. Of course I also have hoped that when the poison was passed out, she grabbed her daughter and ran for the door, but I guess that will be something I’ll never know. I appreciate so much being connected to Laura Kohl, Mary’s friend from Peoples Temple, and having her share some of their experiences.
(Sue Murphy may be reached at Leesuemurphy@aol.com.)