One Day I’ll Fly Away; Leave Your Love to Yesterday

When Nita and Jesse divorced, Nita got the house and Jesse moved to Great Falls to live with his daughter Joyce and her family. He only lived with us a year and a half before he met and married Gerry. I remember getting up in the mornings to have cigarettes and coffee with my Grandpa Jesse, who we called ‘Hoss’ for some reason I never knew.  He would buy me a pack of candy cigarettes and pour a little coffee in my hot chocolate and we’d sit in the kitchen while he read the paper and I ‘read’ a comic book. Jesse used a zippo lighter and I can still smell the butane and hear the snap of the lighter being shut

I was very young and I don’t remember how he met Gerry, but it must have been a whirlwind romance; Jesse had only been divorced a year and a half when he married Gerry. He was 44. She was 29. It was her first marriage.  A year after they married, Teresa was born, a stillbirth. She would’ve been Sean’s age if she had lived. A year and a half after Teresa passed, my Uncle Mark was born. My Aunt Kellie was born 2 years later. This caused a few playground fights. My Uncle Scott was only four years older than me. My Uncle Mark was 6 years younger; my Aunt Kellie 8 years younger. My classmates called me a liar and explained to me that aunts and uncles are the same age as your parents, not you. I cried. I wasn’t lying. My family was just weird.

Not long after Kellie was born, Jesse and Gerry moved to Los Angeles. I remember going to visit them. Ruby Mae was in Los Angeles for some reason I was too young to remember, so Joyce decided we’d drive to Los Angeles and visit her father and grandmother. I remember driving through Las Vegas, which was practically a ghost town at noon on a weekday. For some reason, Joyce made me her navigator and gave me the map. She swears I got us everywhere we needed to be with no problems. As an adult, I’m seriously direction-impaired–I can get lost in buildings I’ve worked in for years. Maybe beginner’s luck got us through. 

LA in the 7os

Jesse and Gerry both had mental illnesses. Jesse had PTSD and Gerry had severe anxiety-what Joyce told me was ‘nerves.’ Jesse seemed to be getting better. I never remember being afraid of him or worried about him. But Joyce told us not to upset Gerry because of her nerves. They lived in a tiny little apartment in L.A. and I know Joyce was concerned there wasn’t enough room for all of us to sleep. Mark was three and going through a severe biting phase that Jesse and Gerry seemed unable or unwilling to curtail or control.

Before the first day was over, Tonia, Sean, and I refused to play with Mark because he’d bitten us several times. Then he bit Tonia on her back hard enough to break the skin and draw blood. He was like a little bulldog: he bit down on Tonia and held on. She couldn’t reach him to get him off her. I couldn’t pull him off; I’d take a chunk out of Tonia. I couldn’t smack him away, either, because he was littler than me and I wasn’t supposed to upset Gerry. Tonia started screaming from the pain. I started screaming in empathy. Sean started screaming because we were screaming. Joyce ran in to see what all the screaming was about, saw what was happening, and started screaming too. There was a lot of screaming.

But we weren’t done screaming. Joyce got Mark off Tonia, saw she was bleeding, and showed the bite to Jesse. She said Mark needed to be punished or we were leaving. Jesse and Gerry said it was just an accident, a one-time thing. Joyce called me and Sean over and showed them all the bite marks on our bodies. She started screaming at Jesse, telling him she’d told him Mark was biting us and they hadn’t done anything to stop him. So Jesse took Mark up on his lap and spanked him. Gerry started screaming as soon as she realized what was happening. Mark had never been spanked, and Jesse had never raised a hand or even his voice to anyone in her family. But now Joyce and her kids had arrived and everyone was screaming and Jesse was spanking Mark and she was beside herself.

Gerry started gathering up Mark and Kellie, shouting that she wasn’t staying in the house with Joyce and her kids. Joyce shouted back, “Don’t worry about that! We’re leaving!” And we did. We drove downtown to Ruby Mae’s hotel, where I experienced my first case of vertigo after getting out of the elevator on the umpteenth floor and seeing a floor-to-ceiling window. I had to look out! But when I did, I experienced the optical illusion that the buildings around us were falling, instead of seeing the reality that the clouds were moving. I was terrified. I didn’t scream. There’d been enough of that. I did stay away from windows for the rest of our visit.

Jesse and Gerry moved back to Great Falls not long after all the biting and screaming. We visited them often and Mark never bit us again. Gerry’s favorite food was liver and onions and I cannot eat liver without gagging. I dreaded going over there. I think I might’ve preferred to be bitten.

When Mark was four and Kellie was almost three, Gerry and her kids returned from the store to find Jesse had passed away in his recliner. He’d had a heart attack. He looked like he’d just passed peacefully in his sleep. 

We visited a few times after that, but soon only Joyce visited Gerry and her brother and sister. Gerry had a hard time dealing with Jesse’s loss. She lept the recliner he had died in, but no one was allowed to sit in it; it was Jesse’s chair. 

Gerry got up in the mornings and made coffee. She made a cup for herself and one for Jesse and sat down at the table to smoke. She’d light a cigarette for Jesse, too, and let it sit in the ashtray and burn down. No one was allowed to sit at Jesse’s place at the table, and she’d fix a plate for him at dinner. I don’t know how long she continued with this grieving, only that it was long enough for Joyce to decide she didn’t want us kids exposed to it, and she started visiting alone.

Jesse and Gerry had been married seven years. She never remarried.


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