You Know I Wish That I Had Jessie’s Girl

Nita divorced Jesse in 1967. She still loved him; she loved him for the rest of her life. But Scott was born in 61 and Jesse never got any better. They’d been married 21 years–more than half of Nita’s life. After Joyce married and moved away, it became near impossible to maintain the marriage no matter how deeply Nita still loved Jesse. She’d married the handsome prince of her dreams and then spent most of her marriage preventing him from killing himself. She felt like she’d never been young and she’d never been happy. Nita was only 37. She wasn’t old; she still had a chance at a life that was more than tending Jesse. So they divorced. Jesse moved to Great Falls, Montana to live with Joyce and her family. Nita and Scott stayed in the house they’d lived in since Joyce was a baby.

Jesse and Nita’s house in Pensacola

Nita had thought she would be happy and free; instead she felt lost. She didn’t know what to do with herself, so she did nothing. No more cleaning the house ’til it shone. No more cooking the same meal two or more times. No more safeguarding her belongings to prevent Jesse from selling them. Dust built up on everything. Laundry piled up in the den. Dishes piled out of the sink and onto the counters. The grass in the yard grew up to knee height. When the city ticketed her for the overgrown lawn, she and Scot mowed the front, but left the back to run wild. 

The faucets in the bathroom started leaking and were never repaired, leaving orange water stains on the green porcelain. The window screens rotted and sprouted holes. Nita kept the windows closed. She stopped making her bed every morning. She got the dog she’d always wanted but couldn’t have because Jesse fretted about the mess. King was a big German Shepherd that loved everybody and bounded everywhere he went, tongue lolling out of his smiling mouth. He loved to ride in cars. Nita doted on him and let him on all the furniture; took him down to the beach with her. When he was about 5 years old, a car parked across the end of Nita’s driveway. Someone inside the car opened the back door and whistled at King. The dog bounced over to the car and jumped in. Nita ran out onto the porch, shouting for King to come back, but the door shut and the car drove away. King never came home. Nita cried for weeks.

Nita took a job cleaning houses during the day while Scott was at school. Sometimes she cleaned offices at night and that was ok because she could take Scott with her. They’d spend her days off with Ruby Mae. It was a lonely life. Nita decided she was too young to waste away cleaning and spending time with her mother. She started going out dancing. She’d loved dancing since she and Nora used to go dancing on the banks of the Yellow River. She’d leave Scott with Ruby Mae and go out; soon she started leaving Scott with Ruby Mae all weekend.

Nita didn’t drink alcohol. But she went dancing and joined new friends at all night diners. She could lose herself in the dance and come home so tired, she fell right asleep. She lost her way for a while and left Scott with Ruby Mae for most of a year. She was free in a way she’d never been before–moving out of her mama’s house into her husband’s when she was only sixteen, and then dealing with a sick husband for 20 years. 

She was just beginning to tire of the lifestyle and find herself again when she met Claude. Claude was a big man with a big voice and a big personality. He drank hard and he played hard. They didn’t even speak when they first met; he just took her by the hand and led her out onto the dance floor. He never got tired of dancing. Soon, they were out every weekend. He worked out on the ocean during the week, catching seafish to sell at the fishmarkets. Soon Nita and Claude were going out every weekend. He wanted to stay at Nita’s house on the weekends, but she wouldn’t let him because she had Scott.

Claude told Nita he was tired of sleeping without her. He asked her to marry him and come live on his houseboat with him. He said she could help him catch seafood for the market. Scott was 16, old enough to drive. He could stay at Ruby Mae’s all week, driving himself to school, and on the weekends they could all be at home together as a family. She accepted.

That’s when she found out he was married. Claude said it was a marriage of convenience, not love. He said an old family friend had lost her husband. There was no life insurance and she’d never had a job. So Claude had married her to help support the kids until they were out of school.  The youngest had graduated and now all Claude had to do was get divorced so he could marry Nita. They married just a few months after the divorce was finalized. Nita was finally ready to go with him on his fishing trips.

The houseboat was not at all what Nita was expecting. She wasn’t expecting anything large or extravagant. But what Claude showed her could barely be defined as a houseboat. It was more like a raft with a one-room shack on top. He’d built a little lean-to on the back so Nita could use the restroom in privacy. Nita asked where they would bathe and he said they could swim in the ocean and then bathe at the house on weekends. Ok. Then she was ready to see his shrimp boat. 

Claude said this was his shrimp boat. Nita was confused; she didn’t know how he could make a living catching shrimp off … this. It turned out that Claude’s marriage hadn’t merely been one of convenience. He and Mary had one child who wasn’t even a year old. Mary wasn’t so much an old family friend as the widow of one of Claude’s acquaintances. He’d taken the ‘comforting’ of the widow a little too far and married her because she was pregnant. Claude had sold his boat and given Mary the money for her and the baby so she would agree to the divorce.  At least that’s what Claude told Nita.

That was a lot of information to take in, while standing on a houseraft in Mobile Bay. Nita decided the marriage was still worth a shot. She loved the ocean; living on it during the week would be fun. And they weren’t going to get too far from home on this craft. She still had her house. She had Claude. So she settled in.

Nita divorced Claude three years later. In that time, she’d found out she was his 4th wife. There was less than a year between each of the marriages. He had at least one child from each of the marriages until hers. He seemed to lose interest in the marriages and kids when the wives ran out of money. He liked to marry widows who had insurance from their husband’s deaths. Nita joked that he’d made a mistake with her–she was neither widowed nor rich. Claude told her that he’d truly fallen in love with her. Then he started pressuring her to put his name on the deed to her house.  She refused.

By that time she had also found out that Claude was happy and calm and loving, as long as he was drinking. Without alcohol in him, he was mean. He insulted and belittled her, told her she needed to lose weight, and wanted nothing to do with Scott or Ruby Mae. Nita had thought he was going to support them, but out on the houseboat he started drinking as soon as he got out of bed, leaving her to set the traps, cast the nets, and take their catch to the market. She was supporting him and he was mean to her. 

She left. She told Joyce she’d never been married to Claude; she’d just been ‘shackin’ up.’ Nita would rather people thought she’d been living with a man unmarried than think she’d been foolish enough to marry a two-bit con artist. She didn’t want to have been divorced twice. She went back to her house. Scott had joined the Navy, so she was all alone. She didn’t get another pet; she was still heartbroken over losing King. She went back to cleaning houses and offices. She still went dancing, but now she went home alone instead of staying out all night. She went down to the beach every evening and caught her meal for the next day: shrimp, crabs, flounder.

I don’t know when Joyce decided Nita was her enemy. I know all my life, we kids ‘knew’ that Nita was mean, she was dirty, she was uneducated and lazy. Joyce said she didn’t have a ‘real’ job. As far as being mean, I don’t know if I ever saw Nita lose her temper, even when Joyce and Scott would team up and tease her and try to get her riled.  Joyce told us that Nita hadn’t even raised her; she spent most of her childhood at Ruby Mae’s. Probably Nita’s attempt to protect Joyce from the chaos at home, but Joyce never saw it that way.

Nita’s house was dusty, but it wasn’t full of bugs. Living in Florida, the lack of bugs would suggest Nita couldn’t be as dirty as Joyce claimed. Yes, there was a gigantic pile of laundry–clean laundry–on the fold out couch in the den. The sink was stacked full of dishes, but the dishes were rinsed and not full of crusty moldy leftovers. Her floors were swept. It was true that you had to be careful about what food you ate at Nita’s, but that was because she never threw food out. She’d grown up poor. She’d dealt with Jesse throwing out food. Now she hoarded food in her fridge until Ruby Mae or Scott came and threw it out. 

Joyce and Jerome insisted Nita was fat and when she’d come up to North Dakota to visit they couldn’t take her out snowmobiling or ice fishing or sledding because they couldn’t find winter clothes to fit her.  Honestly though, the women on Ruby Mae’s side of the family tended to be short and round. The weight could get away from them if they weren’t careful, especially after menopause. But Nita was the same size as Joyce. A little taller, a little darker from all her time in the sun. Her feet were a little bigger because she was barefoot so much of the time. She was by no means obese.

Joyce and Jerome mocked Nita behind her back to us kids when she didn’t understand North Dakota weather. It was never because Nita had never lived outside of the south her whole life, it was because she was too dumb to figure it out. They mocked her (behind her back) for her ‘backwoods’ tastes. They mocked her when she applied for disability for her arthritis when she still went out dancing. I don’t know where her arthritis was but I can tell you: arthritis hurts like hell and it can keep you from performing certain jobs. But unless that arthritis is in your feet or back, there’s no reason you can’t dance. They mocked her dancing too, wondering how she could be so fat when she was out dancing all the time. 

The last time I saw Nita was some time in the 90s. She came to stay with Joyce and Jerome for the winter. Tonia, Sean, and I didn’t have much time for her. We’d never really known her and Joyce and Jerome had convinced us Nita was mean and dirty and dumb. She doted on our kids–her ‘grandbabies’ but they didn’t know her either and shied away from her demands for ‘a little sugar’–she wanted kisses and hugs from these kids that didn’t know her. They started calling her “Sugar Gramma.” 

Nita went out dancing that winter, down at the VFW at the end of the block. She met a man who begged her to stay in Minot and marry him. She told him it was too cold in North Dakota; he should come with her back down to Florida. I think she wasn’t interested in him, but Joyce decided she was moving Nita into the assisted living apartments in town so she could stay and marry this man. Nita wondered why she couldn’t just stay with Joyce and Jerome–they had the room. I think that’s when Nita finally realized how mean Joyce was and how she laughed behind her back. Nita went back home alone to her empty house.

Nita spent the rest of her life in a fog of depression, never really able to reconcile her dreams with sad reality, always chasing elusive happiness. She spent a lot of time on the beach, and a lot of time out jukin’, trying to figure out how things had gone so wrong.  Nita married again toward the end of her life, but even I knew she didn’t love the man; she was just looking for companionship. Joyce had made sure we kids disliked Nita. Nora was out of reach. Ruby Mae was gone, Scott was living with his wife in California, Jesse was gone long ago. Her brother was dead. So she married her 3rd husband and when he passed away too, Nita was done. 

Nita tried to get me to come live with her after my second divorce. But I didn’t want to live in Florida and she didn’t want to come up and live in North Dakota. Scott tried to get her to move out to California with him, but she said she was too old to move all that way and start a new life, so she stayed in her dusty house, with her old furniture, and her pile of laundry in the den. Nita passed away in 2016. 

Sunset on Mobile Bay in Daphne, Alabama USA

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