I heard that voice say, “Give her one more hug and say you love her again.” But the mind of an angry and hurt child defied the request and said “No! If I do not, she will miss me more and come back sooner!” Our eyes met as the car drove away. I can still see the excitement I saw there, but I can also still feel the pain of knowing that would be the last time I would see her. I was a little girl and the niece of my Aunt Pearl.
Life changed forever when I heard myself speak the words, “Mom, isn’t Aunt Pearl over there?” I waited to hear a lie. Why didn’t I listen to the voice? This is my fault! The news talks about survivors. She has to be one of them, she’ll be home soon, so my plan worked. I knew not listening to that voice was the right thing to do! I could not make my family understand she was going to be one of the survivors, all because of me! Everyone will be so happy.
I hear the terror in mother’s voice. Why is she worried? There are survivors, and she is one of them. They do not know about my plan, but soon they will understand when she comes home.
That night I had the most beautiful dream, recalling once, when I was three, how I pushed a chair to the front door, stood on it to unhook the safety chain and opened the door. I looked over my shoulder to check how close Mother was to catching me as I ran down the street towards Aunt Pearl’s house. I was almost there! Mother yelled, “Lela, get back here! I’m going to beat your butt!” So I ran faster.
Then she appears. Aunt Pearl hears all the commotion, she runs to meet me and crouches down to my level as her arms open wide, waiting to scoop me into freedom and save me from Mother, who will definitely give a spanking for sneaking out of the house again to go see my auntie. Finally, I reach her arms! My mother reaches us and says, “Lela, I’m beating your tail, I’ve told you about sneaking out of the house!” Aunt Pearl is crying as she says, “Leave her alone. This baby was coming to see her auntie. Come on, baby, and tell your mom to kiss you ass!”
Thanksgiving is coming. Who will make auntie’s German chocolate cake? The turkey, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, this delicious meal will be a celebration welcoming her home.
It is really hard to sleep. There are loud voices. The news telecast is showing bodies on the television. Mother looks away. I hear screams from my sister. What’s wrong? Don’t they understand there are survivors!
Suicide? Cults? What does this mean? Auntie will have an incredible story to tell when she gets home.
Mother looks tired. She’s cooking all the favorite foods for Thanksgiving. We have to save a plate for auntie, she’s going to be really hungry.
People are coming over to the house. Why are they looking so sad? Oh, it is for the people who did not survive. Yes, that is very sad. When auntie comes home, she will give them a hug and make things better.
Bodies are going to Dover, Delaware, but there is no mention of where survivors are going.
Back at school. The kids are talking about Jonestown, making Kool-Aid jokes and saying “those people must be crazy”, but auntie is one of “those people” they are talking about. I cannot wait for her to get home!
Mother is on the telephone with the State Department, they are asking for dental records. She must have amnesia and they need to identify her.
She has been identified. Great!! Finally, she is coming home!! So why is everyone crying? Funeral? Who died? No! No! No! She is suppose to be one of the survivors! How could this happen? Why, God! Why!? Why did you take her? Don’t you know how much I love her? How am I supposed to let her know why I did not give one last hug and that it was all a part of my plan. Why did I not listen to that voice? No! This cannot be happening. It is all my fault! This is all a punishment for not obeying. It explains why I was the one who had to notify the family about the discovery of bodies.
We are going to Louisiana for the funeral. I have never felt pain like this before, it is a combination of guilt, shock and absolute horror.
The local news interviews mother, the camera splices in shots from the airport, where a plane is arriving. The back of the plane opens, showing a plain wooden box being pulled from the plane. It is now over, she did come home, but where is my hug? Never again will I feel her arms around me. The last moments with her are replaying in my mind. Her excitement about going to Guyana to adopt a baby, the happiness in her eyes is embedded in my thoughts. That truly was the last time I saw her, and now she is coming home in a wooden box. I hate that box! I hate it! I hate it! These are the words coming from the pit of my belly through my vocal cords. I hate it!! I cover my eyes shielding that plain ugly box carrying my beautiful full of life aunt Pearl.
My family is so surprised by my reaction, they do not let me attend the funeral. But how do you really say goodbye to someone you love? Maybe it is really not her in the coffin. There is still a chance she is a survivor, lost in the jungle with amnesia, and the person in that box is not her. I hold on to this thought. It helps me make it through the pain of the funeral.
Returning to school later that month I remember thinking surely there must be other families who were affected. But there were none. I was the only one.
The news reports did not mention her as an individual. No one knows she has a family who loves and misses and wants her back. Mother is angry and very worried. I can see hate in her eyes and hear it in her voice. My other aunt who left Peoples Temple a year earlier is frightened, she is not the same. My cousins who brought Peoples Temple into our family are hated! They knew something was wrong and pulled back, but they did not warn Aunt Pearl. How could they let her go?
The beginnings of a cloaked mystery leading to an evolution of shame. But I love and miss her. How can I let people know their jokes and comments hurt? When I speak up, there is a sense of helplessness, like a scared hunted animal surrounded by wolves!
And so 28 years of pain begins.
(Lela Howard is the niece of Jonestown victim Mary Pearl Willis. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)