~ DECEMBER 2022 ~
It was 1972, in the German Club at Loyola University Chicago, when Jeanne Gustavson first met the club’s president and “hunk”, Steve Watts.
That was it.
Recalled Steve, “From the first moment I saw her, I fell head over heels.”
For seven years, they were inseparable.
And engaged to be married.
Until Jeanne’s mother found the wedding magazines under her daughter’s bed.
She had kept the relationship a secret because her mother believed the only black people allowed in her home would be to clean or make repairs.
“I was very hurt and very baffled by what my family did and said. We had to keep our relationship a secret.”
And when Jeanne came clean, it was an eruption and her mom went “ballistic.”
And that led to the end of their relationship, and the beginning of a lifetime of regret.
Said Jeanne, “They had this mentality that blacks and whites don’t belong together.
In my heart, I knew it wasn’t right.”
“I said one of the people is Black, and she just went ballistic,” said Gustavson, whose parents were divorced. “My extended family got involved, and everyone was discouraging me.”
She still saw him, but she did not tell her family.
Gustavson stayed with Watts for several more years, until she could no longer bear the pressure of keeping their relationship under wraps. It had also become increasingly difficult to spend time together, as Gustavson went on to work as a nurse in the northern suburbs, while Watts was in graduate school and lived on the opposite side of the city.
“I just broke down,” Gustavson said. “I didn’t see how we were going to be able to spend time together to foster a relationship.”
They broke up, which was crushing for Watts, who believed Gustavson was “the one.”
“I was devastated,” he said.
Gustavson was also heartbroken, and “I regretted it from the time that I did it. I’ve had guilt over it for the last 42 years.”
They both married other people, and both divorced.
She moved to Portland from her Chicago suburb and worked as a nurse for decades.
She was a nurse and caregiver to her mom until her death in 2012, and then retired a few years later.
But she never forgot her “true love”.
Steve took another path, that ended up tragic.
After his marriage, he moved to Germany as an English teacher.
And then he joined the French Foreign Legion, where he was a paratrooper.
He experienced such trauma, whether by what he witnessed or what he did or both, I cannot say, but it knocked him for a loop.
He returned to Chicago and lived with his sister, and when she died, he spiraled into a deep depression.
And was homeless.
And after multiple strokes, and having his left leg amputated, Steve ended up in a nursing home.
For almost 20 years.
Believing he was forgotten and this was his destiny.
As I said, Jeanne never forgot him.
And decided to track him down to see what his life was like.
And she tracked him to the nursing home.
And flew back to Chicago to surprise visit him.
It was his first visitor in ten years.
“The minute he rolled into the visiting room and uttered the sweet nickname he gave me, forty two years melted away. He and I were 18 and 21 again. We cried, we laughed, we held each other. And most wonderfully we realized we were still in love.”
Staff members brought Watts — who had no idea Gustavson was visiting him — downstairs in a reclining chair to meet her, and right away, he said “Jeanne?!”
“In that instant, I knew he still loved me and I still loved him, and this was going to be forever,” she said. “He grabbed my hand and would not let go. The two of us cried for about an hour and a half.”
“She was so beautiful, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her,” Watts said. “We knew we loved each other still.”
Although “he looked totally different than the guy I knew 50 years ago,” Gustavson said, “at the core of it, we are still the same people. He is still wonderful. He is still funny.”
And so it goes.
After rekindling their relationship, who better to care for him then a nurse and caregiver?
With the help of a GoFundMe page, and using the rest of her savings, Jeannie has managed to bring Steve out of the nursing home to her home in Portland, Oregon, where she is now his carer.
And Steve was flown to a different paradigm.
In December, Steve once again asked her the question.
“Well, of course, I’ll marry you!” she replied.
Said neighbor and friend Tina Mattern, “They were both grinning like little kids.
Said Jeanne’s brother Tony Mathis, “It’s unfortunate or sad that this it’s happening now and didn’t happen 40 years ago.
But better late than never. They definitely love each other. It’s great. I support it 100%.”
“I did a very stupid thing 42 years ago and I’ve regretted it ever since”, mused Jeanne. “And all I can do now is love him as best I can and see to it that he’s happy and give him the quality of life that he really deserves and he’s missed all these years.
He makes me feel like I’m 18 again. He is tender and loving, and we make each other laugh. I can’t explain it. I just love the man.”
Steve smiled and added, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world. If this is not heaven, it’s pretty close to it.”
Friends, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
Thinkin’ that life has passed them by
Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup
And ride that highway in the sky
This is for all the single people
Thinkin’ that love has left them dry
Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup
You never know until you try
Well, I’m on my way
Yes, I’m back to stay
Well, I’m on my way back home
A version of this article originally appeared here on dailykos.com