Emma Mae

(This article was first published in 1980, “Word Weavers, Volume II, An Analogy of Prose and Poetry by Regional Writers of the Mendocino College Community.” It was copyrighted in 1980 by “Women As Writers Workshop.”)

During the 1970s, I had contact with several care home owners who were members of Peoples Temple, including Eva Pugh and Birdie Marabel. In early 1976, I was working with the California State Department of Mental Health and primarily worked following the care home residents who had been former patients in Mendocino State Hospital.

My job included having to close a care home run by Nat and Maxine Swaney, across from the Peoples Temple Church in Redwood Valley, and to place the elders elsewhere. Maxine had died in a fatal car crash coming back from a Peoples Temple service in San Francisco. Everyone involved – the family and the patients – was devastated by Maxine’s death.

I interviewed Emma Mae in November 1979, one year after the end of Jonestown. She had not gone to Guyana with Peoples Temple because of her diabetes and other health problems. She was an older black woman who had one leg amputated below the knee and who faced the likelihood that she would lose her other leg as her diabetes worsened. In my interview, she would say that Jim Jones was God and then she would say that he was the devil. I think my faculty advisor probably told me to leave out anything about Jim Jones because she thought it was too sensitive of an issue. There was still a lot of emotional pain present in Ukiah and Redwood Valley because of what happened in Guyana. The publication was also under the Women’s Writer Class of Mendocino College (Ukiah) and she may have thought it was too political. She did say that she thought that I had captured the woman’s voice. I don’t remember if Emma Mae it is her real name or one I made up. I probably made it up.

I think this character sketch describes one of the types of people who were drawn to Jim Jones, i.e., poor, illiterate, but seeking a place where they felt welcomed and cared for.

Emma Mae

I went to visit Emma Mae in a convalescent hospital on a rainy afternoon in November, 1979. As I entered the room, I saw an elderly black woman sitting in a wheelchair. She was a small woman, who sat hunched over her sewing. Her right leg was amputated below the knee. Her other leg, which was propped on a chair, was swollen with several lesions on the toes. One of her eyes was covered by protective bandages. When I said, “hello,” her face lit with joy at having a visitor. It became my pleasure to meet this remarkable woman, who despite the realities of her life is a loving and courageous person.

“Dead, my mother is dead, my father is dead, my brothers, Harrison and Johnny are dead. My sisters, Mary and Cassey are dead. They say I have a brother in New York, but I never saw him. All women are my sisters and I love my brothers, too. I can’t remember everything, but God will bring it to me after a while. I was born on Jesus’ birthday, yes, my mother birthed me on his birthday. I was born near Charlotte, North Carolina near Lincoln, by the Springville church. I don’t remember what year I was born. I had a birth certificate here somewhere, but someone tore it up.

“My mother gave me to her sister. She was running from the police because my daddy had a girlfriend and mama had peppered her tail with cayenne pepper. She was going to drown me in the river, but her sister say, you give that child to me. I never know my mother. She die in King Mountain with the white people. I never see my daddy much; he work on the railroad. My daddy died while I was up working in Baltimore. My aunt called me to come home. He died on Christmas Day.

“I was the baby of the family. I was a spoiled baby. I was married when I was twenty-one years old. I have two boys, born dead. My husband and I separated. I gave him a suitcase and told him to come back no more. He was a woman lover. I have a daughter. Her father was a nice man. She was a love child. I tried to see her once but she say I not her mother. Sometimes the Lord fixes it that way. I talked to the Lord all the time. I love my God and my Jesus.

“When I was twenty-four years old, I worked for Winston-Salem. I worked for Mr. Parker. He take care of me. I worked on the chain. The tobacco come down the chain hanging on a stick, we open it up the leaves on a chain to the hot house. When I first worked there, I fell down like a drunk, couldn’t stand up, and went blind as a bat, but Mr. Parker take me and put me to bed. When I woke up, I asked him, what did you give me? He said the electricity throw me. I didn’t have to work the rest of the day. I had a six pound tumor, big as a baby taken out when I was there. The company paid for my hospital and medicine. Then they give me a job where I could sit down. We clean the leaves off the stems as best we could. We sang while we work and had a prayer before we started work. Mr. Parker say so. We get fifteen dollars a week and the company take care of us, gives us meals and a room. We could buy things from the company store.

“I like my sewing. I’m making a quilt for the lady doctor. In Los Angeles, I worked in a barbershop, mending clothes. I made good money, too. I don’t know what I’d do without my sewing.

“I don’t know how to read. Once in Baltimore, I went to the store and asked for hog jowls. The man, he tell me to come back with a list because I can’t read. So I went over and showed him the hog jowls. Then he understand me. A nice lady brought me a Bible. I can’t read, but if I go over and over it, I can see it. Sometimes she come and reads to me. She bring her children. I loves children.

“I lost my leg to the sugar five years ago. My eyes are bad because of the sugar. When this one gets well, they do the other one. I’ve been in this hospital for about two months. I like it here, they’re nice to me. My other leg is so sore and swelled, but they take care of me here. I’m a spoiled baby. I play bingo. I sing, go to Bible study, and exercise class. They are my brothers and sisters, here. I’m God’s child, I is. Ain’t that right?”