On her birthday in April Betty Jeannotte joined a pretty exclusive club when she turned 100.
She didn’t want to make a big fuss, but the managers at the senior living community where Betty lives in Florida sure wished to mark the occasion offering her a “wish of a lifetime.” Betty, who is from Maine, didn’t ask for much.
“They asked if I wanted to take a trip back to Maine or if I wanted something else,” she said.
But Betty was more interested in learning about her ancestry, so she got a 23andMe kit and a chance to work with a genealogist to find out a little bit more about her ancestry.
“Years and years ago I’d done a little research, but I never got very far,” she said. “And I was curious.”
Her gift and gifts for others who reach this milestone is something that the Brookdale Senior Living communities have been doing for years after teaming up with the non-profit Wish of a Lifetime in 2010. They offer seniors a chance to fulfill dreams deferred and since then they’ve offered gifts that include piloting planes, skydiving and getting behind the wheel of a racecar.
Betty wasn’t so interested in jumping out of a plane or speeding down a racetrack, but she did want to find out a little about her ancestry and used 23andMe and the help of a local genealogist to learn more about the family history. He found 7 generations of her maternal family.
“It was fascinating,” she said.
The information added another layer to what she already knew. Her 23andMe Ancestry Composition showed she’s about 80 percent English and Irish with a little bit of German in the mix. That reflects accurately with what she knows about her parents’ family histories.
Her mom was “of Yankee stock,” while her dad, who had been a vaudeville magician, was a Bostonian whose family originally came from Ireland. He swept Betty’s mom off her feet.
“You could say that,” Betty said.
It was part of his magic trick.
Betty’s mother lived in Old Orchard Beach, which at the time was a gathering place of Bostonians and New Yorkers during the summer. Her dad, and his vaudeville partner were among the vacationers, and that’s how Betty’s mom met her dad.
“Adams & Mack” gave “benefit” performances for the town – Betty’s mom, who’d played the organ at church, agreed to be the musical accompaniment for the show. When they needed a volunteer for the levitating portion of their magic show, she volunteered.
“It’s a funny story,” Betty said. “My mother’s dad insisted on seeing how they did the trick before he’d allow her to do the show.”
Betty still has a snapshot of her mom floating above the stage as her dad passes a ring over her body — sweeping her off her feet.
Her dad settled in town, and her parents married. He eventually came to own and operate stores that sold newspapers and magazines and included a soda shop. He became politically active and was appointed postmaster in the ‘30s. Betty grew up a bit of a tomboy in that part of rural Maine but eventually went to college in New Jersey.
“I went to St. Elizabeth’s in Morristown and graduated in June of 1941, and you know what happened in December of that year,” Betty said.
She worked in the civil service throughout the war and corresponded with “a fella I met in college.”
That “fella” was Russell Jeannotte, who eventually would become Betty’s husband. Most of his time during the war was in North Africa where he was stationed with the U.S. Army Air Corps. After the war, the couple settled in Freeport, Maine, close to the original LL Bean, where Russell operated a funeral home. Betty was an elementary and middle school teacher for 28 years.
The couple had two children, a son, who went into the Army, and a daughter, who became a chiropractor. After they retired Betty and her husband moved in the early 1980s near Sarasota, Florida where some friends had settled.
“They kept saying we should move out of the cold,” she said. “I was never sorry about the move. Maine still feels like home, but I’m happy in Florida.”
In 2001 her husband died and then three years ago, Betty lost her daughter to cancer, and then something happened. Her daughter’s friends rallied around and were – and remain – so supportive, they on the Gulf Coast and Betty in Fort Lauderdale. It was their two closest family friends, one of whom is the son of Betty’s college roommate, who influenced her to move across state to Brookdale. It is those long time friends and the new Brookdale friends she has made which make each day a good one.
“I’m sometimes asked about my secret to aging,” Betty said. “I’ve never been particularly athletic. I eat well, but I don’t concentrate on it.”
And she doesn’t think it’s her genetics either. Her mother died young, at only 53. Her dad made it to 70, and even going back further, and no one made it much beyond 70.
“I guess if anyone asks me why don’t you sound like a little old lady, I guess my secret or the only reason I can account for that is I had my daughter’s friends,” Betty said. “You know when you’re surrounded by younger people it keeps you young.”