Life with the Cordells

by Denise Davenport

05-05-loretta
Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society

I loved Loretta Cordell and her family. I truly adored her with all my heart and soul. She was my friend, my teacher, a surrogate mother, a mentor and a confidante. I was amazed by her intuitive abilities and her adeptness in expressing them as a musician. My relationship with her was a complex one. She brought great joy to my life, but she also brought great frustration and disappointment.

* * * * *

I was 11 1/2 years old in the summer of 1965. The previous two years of my life had been filled with a lot of trauma and personal sadness. My mother had suffered several debilitating bouts of severe depression which kept our family in utter chaos and despair. My parents struggled to stay together as a couple. As a child caught in the middle of such emotional destruction, my life had become a nightmare.

Around this same time, I started receiving letters from Loretta Cordell, my piano teacher and family friend who had followed Jim Jones to California. Loretta’s letters were always filled with passion for the church and the various activities in which they were involved. Each letter made her life with the church sound idyllic. Finally, around May of 1965, Loretta suggested that I might enjoy spending the summer with her and her family, but she included the strong warning that I may not want to return to Indianapolis after receiving tasting the paradise that California represented.

The three of us – my parents and I – recognized this as the opportunity for a summer’s reprieve from the tumultuous situation at home. So, at 11 years of age, I took my first airplane ride to sunny California, the land of milk and honey. And my first summer with the Cordell family was quite possibly one of the happiest times of my life.

The Cordells lived in a very small, modest, three-bedroom, rancher with a tin roof in the countryside of Redwood Valley. One of my greatest discoveries of that summer was a small creek that ran slightly off the embankment of the road leading to their driveway. My walks to the creek provided me with many hours of peaceful and quiet reflection, something I desperately needed at the time. I had chores, of course, but my overall responsibilities in the household were still relatively small. That first summer provided the healing balm that my soul needed, and, as predicted, I dreaded the prospect of returning to Indianapolis at the end of it and facing what awaited me there.

With some reluctance – and perhaps relief – my parents agreed to allow me to stay in California with the Cordell family. I was elated.

* * * * *

Like many married couples saddled with such a large family, Loretta and Harold had their own share of marital upsets. Having five children under the age of 9 – plus me – presented its own brand of special headaches. Reality set in quickly that the space in their small home was not adequate for all of us. We would periodically switch around sleeping arrangements in an attempt to find more compatible use of space, but the options were truly limited. In addition, the Cordell children were all chronic bedwetters, and the smell of the bedrooms was unbearable at times. My final bedroom in that house was actually the living room. Loretta and Harold persevered to make the best of the situation, and tried to make home life as pleasant as possible for all of us.

Over the next two years, more and more of the household chores began to fall on me. This was no real hardship. I had started helping with household cleaning at the age of seven, and in comparison to what my mother had asked of me, Loretta’s demands for cleaning were mild. The Cordells had no washing machine, so we made trips to the laundromat almost every day out of sheer necessity.

My parents sent regular checks to assist in my upkeep, but there seemed to be very little left over to be spent on non-essentials or treats. I didn’t feel deprived at any time, but I have to admit, meals were a little boring, with little to no diversity in the menu. Breakfast was usually cream of wheat or oatmeal. Our dinners consisted of some sort of hamburger and macaroni concoction. Lunches were either bologna or peanut butter and jelly. To this day, I can’t bring myself to eat bologna.

Within a couple of years, by the fall of 1967, the Cordell family had moved to a small farm house in Redwood Valley. This home had once been used as a state-approved boarding home for mildly mentally disabled or disturbed individuals. In fact, one of the previous residents, a twenty-something, openly gay woman named Myrna, stayed with us briefly during our first year in this house. She was high functioning, but she did have some rather deep emotional limitations.

The new location did not afford the same freedoms of the other home. It was slightly more remote, and I was no longer able to take my scenic walks that had given me so much serenity. On the positive side, however, the new accommodations were much roomier, and I had a room of my own on the first floor of the house. The rooms upstairs in the attic space had been converted into two bedrooms, with the boys, Christopher and Jimmy Joe, sharing a room, and the girls – Cindy, Candy and Mabel Joy – taking the other.

The Cordells’ other challenge in 1967 was that I had fully entered my teenage years. Although I had more privacy in this house than I had before – and more privacy than the Cordells’ own children – I began to feel that I was placed under a magnifying glass. It seemed that everything I did fell into question. I began to seriously resent my position in the Cordell family. I think the dynamic of adding Myrna to the mix played heavily into some of my feelings. She just had a knack for pointing out the flaws that you would have preferred to overlook, including the fact that I was not a true member of the Cordell family.

Up to this point, I had pretty much become the full time babysitter and housekeeper. Cooking and laundry were still Loretta’s primary domain, but many of the daily chores had been turned over to me. Myrna’s presence removed a lot of the responsibility from both me and Loretta – she often did laundry and ironing and helped with the cleaning – and at first, I welcomed this shift. Unfortunately, Myrna’s own emotional baggage – beginning with the fact that she’d fallen in love with Loretta – surfaced over the next year. She didn’t bother to hide it from me or Loretta, and it created an undercurrent of unrest in the household. Loretta tried to put her off, but Myrna was pretty relentless in her obsession, and it worked to undermine the already-strained relationship between Loretta and Harold.

As I began developing into a woman, Myrna did not hesitate to point out the changes in my body to Loretta and Harold. If Harold paid me a compliment or spent time talking to me, Myrna made it a point to cast suspicion. In addition to causing me embarrassment, it created a lot of jealousy and friction in my relationship with both Loretta and Harold. Over a period of time, I started to question my own place – more than that, my value and worth – in the household. I believed I was perceived more as an intruder and burden than as a contributing and viable member. I also felt a growing financial pressure. My upkeep was taking a larger economic toll on the Cordells.  I was told that my family in Indianapolis wasn’t contributing enough to offset the expense. Consequently, I was frequently making calls home to ask for more money. Unfortunately for me, my parents felt that they had sent more than adequate funds for my upkeep, and were appalled at the pressure I was placing on them by asking for more. My parents were both blue collar workers, not exactly wealthy people. I discovered years later that they were spending almost one-third of their income to support me. It makes sense that they felt put off with my frequent calls for more funds.

I never really had a close and loving relationship with the Cordell children. They resented me being so young, and yet being placed in the position of babysitter/caretaker, and my own feelings mirrored theirs. I am ashamed to say that more than once, I bullied them into submission from my position of authority.

By the end of 1968, Myrna was no longer part of our household, but the fire she had lit continued to boil the water in the pot. By 1969, Loretta and Harold were having some serious marital difficulties, with arguments lasting for days. They would end only when Loretta left the house and stayed away for three to four days at a time, but this only sent the whole household into a more chaotic frenzy than before. Many mornings, Harold would awaken me early to make lunches and breakfast for everyone before leaving for school. Beds had to be made, which – given the continued incontinence of some of the children – meant numerous daily loads of laundry. Additionally, I had to hurry home after school to watch over the children and prepare dinner for the family.

And then there were my responsibilities within Peoples Temple. Like most of the teenagers in the church at that time, I was expected to fully participate in the various activities necessary for the betterment of the cause. Wednesday night meetings were getting longer and more intense. As a Temple teenager, I was also expected to get good grades in high school. My only recreation – Friday night get-togethers with other teenagers, a much needed and appreciated outlet – became scarce at this time. If I did manage to go out, I had to make pretty elaborate arrangements to get to town, since the probability of getting Loretta or Harold to drive me was pretty slim to none. I was miserable and depressed.

Then I made the fatal mistake of voicing my dissatisfaction. This did not make me very popular among the other church members, who were more sympathetic to the overloaded Cordell family. Instead of finding support or relief from my problem, I was perceived as a spoiled and ungrateful whiner. I would understand this perception in retrospect, but given the circumstances at the time, I never felt it was fully deserved.

My mother came to visit me in July of 1969. Even though my calls were monitored to avoid anything being said that reflected poorly on the church, she said she heard a sadness in my voice when we talked, and she wanted to see what was going on. Shortly after her arrival, Jim told her that I was in love with a young man in the church and that he believed we would make a good match. If she tried to take me back to Indianapolis, Jim said, my separation from this young man, for whom I did have deep feelings of devotion, might lead to a backlash of rebellion.

On August 6, 1969, I was married to Stephen Buckmaster, a young man that I did in fact care about. I was 15 years old. Jim arranged this marriage, one of the first of many to follow among congregation members as a means to solidify loyalty to the church. Steve and I moved into a little trailer on Viola and Ray Godshalk’s property. We used that as our home base for the next two years while Steve attended college and I finished up my high school education.

Over the next few years, I maintained a cordial, but somewhat closed relationship with the Cordells. Even with all the anger and hurt I felt, I still held affection for them and very much wanted their approval. Around 1972, during one of our few real conversations, Loretta confided in me that she did not think that men really understood the needs and desires of women, or at least that Harold never really understood her. She said that she had always felt that there was something missing and asked me if I had discovered that to be true in my marriage with Steve.

Loretta and I talked about life in general and some of our feelings of the events that had happened. It was an attempt by both of us to bring back some genuine warmth to each other. She told me that she would always love me, and that if I needed someone to talk to, she would be there. Since Loretta always played her emotional cards close to the chest, I found the conversation to be deeply moving and somewhat out of character for her. In hindsight I realize that it was probably the first time that we had been able to discuss life woman-to-woman, instead of woman-to-child, as our relationship had been up to that point.

When I left Peoples Temple in 1973, Loretta and Harold were still a couple. I have learned in recent years that their relationship did end, and that Loretta found her true love in Deanna Wilkerson. Given what I’d come to realize about Loretta, that came as no real surprise to me, and I only hope that that love brought her much deserved happiness as well.

(Denise Davenport was a member of Peoples Temple for several years. Her previous articles for the jonestown report can be found here. She can be reached at denisefab1953@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on October 13th, 2013.

Last modified on December 31st, 2020.
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