By Linda Cicoira — Her grandmother emptied whiskey bottles and filled them with hot water for a homemade dresser drawer incubator when Jessie Flynn was born in her parents’ bedroom on April 30, 1926. She was “teenie weenie” and blue and needed the help.
Now at almost 93, her life continues to be a constant adventure.
For her 90th birthday, Flynn, of Nelsonia, and her daughter-in-law went hang gliding “on the sneak” so her children wouldn’t try to dissuade the escapade.
As the plane took off, she didn’t know the operation was recording her response. “The first thing you hear is ‘Weeeeeeee!’” she said. “I loved it. The kids were mad at first. Then they realized I was just as happy as a lark. I felt so free up there. It was just a wonderful feeling.”
She has survived a lot in her decades, and like at her start, she has remained “small.” When Flynn was five, a doctor mistook her for a toddler, and at 14, fellow high school students directed her to kindergarten.
Her life was also uncertain in those early days because she, her mother and her two siblings were often abused by her alcoholic father. “We moved a lot,” Flynn said. “Many times running for our lives.”
The four of them left home and landed in a three-room apartment. It was about the start of the Great Depression when food was scarce. Her mother, Genevieve “Virginia” Berman, cleaned houses for a living while the kids were in school.
When Flynn was six, she said, an experience marked her life. A devoted Catholic, she stopped at church to pray for her father after one of his episodes. A young priest was there and spoke to her and she wound up telling him about the family’s troubles.
“These words are just so in my head,” she said. The priest told her, “You know you have a father in heaven who will always be there for you. He loves you. He is always with you.”
After that, “I never felt alone,” Flynn said. Even when her husband died. “I have a very strong faith. It’s been proven to me. There are things that have happened that I don’t know how they happened except for the will of God.”
She explained that she was postmenopausal with her last child and it was thought at first that she had a tumor. When she found out she was pregnant she knew the child was a gift from God. “He has been such a joy,” she said. Of course, the other kids just referred to him as “the tumor.”
Berman, Flynn’s mother, married at 15 and was only 16 years older than her daughter. Flynn married at 20 and was with her husband for 63 years until he died 10 years ago. Berman lived to be the same age Flynn is now and was cared for by Flynn for many years. Now Flynn’s daughter, 70, lives 30 feet from Flynn’s house with her husband. Flynn also has two sons, 67 and 55 (the tumor), and an adopted daughter. She has 17 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandchild.
She moved to the Eastern Shore in 1980 in a quest to live halfway between her homeland in New York and her husband’s in North Carolina. The couple was entrepreneurs that tried every type of business. They once owned the Edgewood Motel, just a couple of miles from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. It is now a well-known boat and tackle shop and motel.
In North Carolina, the couple owned a skating rink, a gas station, and a small grocery store. “One time I had five businesses,” she said. It was her job to take care of the bookkeeping while taking care of the children.
Flynn also lived through WWII and was almost named mascot for the crew of a U.S. submarine. The sailors wanted a mascot because Betty Grable, a pinup girl who was photographed from behind looking seductively over her shoulder while wearing a bathing suit, was chosen for another group of service members.
Her brother, a sub crew member, took a picture of her at the beach and unbeknownst to her submitted her as a possible candidate. Flynn, a usually reserved “Victorian” lady was wearing a two-piece bathing suit, not her usual one-piece, but hardly considered scandalous in this day. She was sunbathing on Rockaway Beach, in N.Y.
“I won first place” but then was disqualified because the mascot was required to be a crew member’s girlfriend.
“They said your best girl,” she noted, using the words of her brother. He told them he had a couple of girlfriends he couldn’t choose between. “My sister has always been my best girl and she always will be,” Flynn said he told them to no avail. After her brother passed away, his wife gave her the nominating photograph, which is shown with this article.
For nine months during the war, the family didn’t know where her brother was or how he was.
Rations were slim during the war so baking and sending cookies to soldiers sometimes was difficult but she was determined. A woman who owned a German deli in her neighborhood was a U.S. citizen and found out she was sending the care packages. “She gave me the product — butter and sugar — for me to do it every month,” Flynn said. “I got help and that’s how I was able to do it.”
Sadly, the last box she sent was to her cousin. “He was killed by a German sniper while in the street celebrating on the first day after the war was declared over in Germanyt,” she said.
“He died and never got the cookies,” Flynn continued. “They returned the cookies, in a big cardboard box, to me. It was nothing but a bunch of crumbs. It tore me up.” The box arrived weeks after the family learned of his death. “It was shocking,” she said.
Her cookie deliveries were a part of the way she has lived — doing for others.
“My best advice is to help everyone you can along the way,” she said. “You will get more out of it than you give. I mean that very much. I have always taken people right into my home and taken care of them and certainly treat others like you want to be treated. And if someone does do something that goes against your grain, don’t attack them for it. I just pray for them and it relieves my tension. You can’t hold grudges. You can volunteer. I’ve always done a lot of volunteering in my life. … My kids keep telling me to say, ‘NO.’”
Flynn said staying active as she always has kept her young. “I found this place through the telephone book, (Eastern Shore) Area Agency on Aging,” she said of the Onancock Senior Center. “I joined here in 2010. Hobbies. I always had a load of them. Always did gardening. I hope to get back to it.”
Flynn also loves to dance but has been having some trouble with one of her feet. When she was in high school there were dances every week and she won some awards. “I used to do line dancing here,” she said. “I hope to get back to it.”
“I just always kept so busy,” Flynn continued. “For 90 years, I always had all the family — at least 17 to 33 people for dinner” for holidays. A couple of years ago, the family said she had to slow down and let them help.
“I was pulling the turkey out of the oven and it was a 28-pounder,” Flynn said. Someone came in and startled her and the bird went flying. “I caught it with my hands. I grabbed the whole thing. I burnt my hands, of course. But it didn’t hit the floor” and she saved the feast from ruin. “My son-in-law said he will be doing the baking from now on.”
For her birthday, Flynn is looking forward to her 75-year-old sister’s visit later this month. The sister and her daughter come every year and they all go out to yard sales and for boat rides. A birthday bash for Flynn and her great-grandson’s birthday is also held as he was born May 1.
Flynn has no regrets. “I am thrilled that I was able to do what I did.” Her honeymoon to Niagara Falls didn’t happen after the wedding because she insisted the couple visit his parents. “We finally made it for our 50th anniversary in 1996,” Flynn said. “It was wonderful. It was worth the wait.”
Flynn said she has always been a frugal person. For her birthday, she wants “time. Some help with the garden. That’s all I want. I don’t need anything. I want services that I have had trouble getting done.”