Marilyn Pursley, my mother, transitioned out of this life and passed away on June 15, 2016. She was hoping to live long enough to vote in the election in November, but six months shy of her 97th birthday, she left this world with relative ease.
My mother was one who defined herself on her own terms. She left Missouri during the war at the age of 23 to work in the Richmond shipyards as a journeyman welder. There she dove headlong into a different sort of lifestyle than anything she could have imagined in the Midwest. As it says in the Book of Esther – and as I believe is true for all individuals within a time of significant change who work in social, political, and environmental arenas – she was a woman who was “made for such a time as this.”
My mother, who was of Scottish-Irish descent, followed her own heart into new and exciting terrain as she crossed racial and cultural divides. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise to her family. Even as a teenager, she had invited home her Indian friends, which caused rumors to ricochet around the neighborhood. Once she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, music, art, civil rights, the peace movement, interracial marriages, travel, and being her own boss became key components in her bohemian life.
In 1970 Marilyn was invited to visit Peoples Temple in Redwood Valley. She was impressed by the strong sense of community among Temple members. There was nothing quite like anything she had ever experienced. It was the community setting, extended family, and feeling of security which made her believe that Redwood Valley would be a good place for her three daughters – Diane, Cynthia and myself – as well as Diane’s very young boys, Dov and Jamal, to live. As a peripheral member, she could come and visit in the valley and continue with occasional visits after the Temple had moved to San Francisco.
During the summer of 1977, in the storm of negative publicity frenzy that the Temple was receiving, I was whisked to Jonestown. I wasn’t the only one during that period to be told one day that I would be leaving with a group of people the next day. It felt strange to leave the country without telling my mother, though, yet my commitment to the Temple balanced out some of the guilt I was feeling around it.
Ten days prior to the tragedy in Jonestown, my mother escorted my sister Cynthia to Guyana. Cynthia had Downs Syndrome, and my mother felt Jonestown would be a good place for a vulnerable person in society as Cynthia was. Who would have believed that less than two weeks later, everyone there would be dead, including Cynthia, including Diane, including Dov and Jamal.
The Temple always put on a good show for visitors, and overall, my mother’s visit was pleasant. Not long ago, however, I listened to a recording of the Jonestown meeting that took place during my mother’s visit and was surprised at how cynical and disjointed Jim Jones’ speech had become. It was apparent from the perspective I now hold that things were clearly not right. Obviously everyone wanted to believe the best and therefore the small voices of warning had to have been dismissed. So much was overlooked. So much was missed.
Mother endured the loss of her two daughters and of her only grandchildren. Tragedy returned eighteen years later, with the mysterious death of her son, my brother Eric, who was living on the big island of Hawaii.
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My mother remained active and committed throughout her life. She traveled to Europe, China, Russia, Nicaragua, Grenada, and Mexico. She continued working as a real estate broker and opened Thornwall Properties, a real estate office in Berkeley, where she worked until her retirement.
Her life was chronicled in the online Berkeleyside upon her retirement earlier this year. She was also recognized by her California State Senator Loni Hancock, who remarked: “[F]or your time as an original Rosie the Riveter, working at the Richmond shipyards, steadfast commitment to ending segregation and fighting for racial equality and social justice, … [you are] a remarkable example of what just one person can do to create change and make the world a better place. Your incredible work and spirit for life have made a significant positive impact that will be felt in the community for many years to come.”
She also received a City of Berkeley Proclamation plaque from Mayor Tom Bates honoring her. The plaque reads in part: “She was instrumental in the 1950’s in prompting an ACLU investigation of racism in real estate practices that helped end segregation in the industry and the ban on non-whites as realtors; and … helped remove racial barriers and desegregate Berkeley neighborhoods when she moved her interracial family to her first Berkeley home.”
I am very glad that my mother was able to continue her own life in a positive manner in spite of the pain and challenge of tremendous loss. I will miss her as I move forward in my life. I am glad that I survived, not only for myself, but for her. On her deathbed, just hours before her life was complete, we looked at one another and said “We did it.”
(Jordan Vilchez was in Georgetown, Guyana on November 18, 1978, but her sisters and nephews died in Jonestown. Her other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Honoring Sherwin. Her earlier articles may be found here. She can be reached at email@example.com.)