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'You Did This, You Shouldn't Have' — Fort Kent Woman, 100, On Navigating Life's 'Little Curves'

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Michael D. Wilson
/
For Down East magazine

On the eve of Maine’s bicentennial, Maine Public has teamed up with Down East magazine to share the life stories of centenarians — people who have celebrated a hundred birthdays.

In Fort Kent, one woman’s life was shaped by an early experience deep in Maine’s North Woods.

This interview is part of our series of conversations with Maine centenarians.

“See the big mountains there? We’re surrounded with that,” says 100-year-old Jeannette Jandreau.

On a cool fall morning, Jandreau looks out of the window of her nursing home and points to the rolling landscape along the Canadian border, a sight she’s seen for decades. She grew up not far from here, on a farm in St. Francis.

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“We lived on the farm, we didn’t even have to go to the store because we had everything,” she says. “Planted everything. We had animals. All the plants were watered. We had chicken all the time. Cows, pigs, sheep.”

Jandreau recalls her childhood as a happy time, when elders played cards and had fun.

“And they got ready on the Saturday night, ‘We’re going to have a dance in the neighbors’ [house].’ They didn’t have big buildings they have now to dance. Just houses. And it was nice,” she says. “Everybody enjoyed it. Even the kids.”

Jandreau says she even loved going to school, and dreamed of one day becoming a nurse.

“Working in a nursing home. I would have liked to work in a place like this, where I could help people,” she says.

But Jandreau’s life, and those dreams, changed dramatically when she entered the 8th grade. That’s when her older brother and his wife came to the house one day and asked her father for permission to take Jandreau to a small logging camp deep in the woods to work as a cook’s helper.

“When I came home, they were there coaxing my father for me to go with them. And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’ And then she started with nice stories and all that stuff. And my father looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to go?’‘ And I don’t know, all of the sudden I said, ‘Yep.’ So I just went with them,” she says.

It’s not an uncommon story for that time and place. Historians say many young people — mostly males — left their homes during the early 1900s to work in logging camps, preparing large meals for loggers who worked 15- or 16-hour days.

Jandreau says she expected to be gone for just a few months, maybe a year, and would then go back to school. But she says she was kept there for about five years, and only returned home for brief visits, which she revealed to a priest.

“I went to see the priest and I told the priest I’d been out of confession for three years. He said, ‘What was wrong, how come you didn’t come?’ Well, I told him the story. And he said, ‘Well, you’re all right. You’re OK. But they’re gonna carry the sin,’” she says. “So that’s why I didn’t go back to school.”

Jandreau says after the five years, mostly in the woods, she demanded to go home, and her father came to get her. She decided to find work downstate at hotels in Millinocket and East Millinocket.

“Wait on tables and make beds, you know, the work it takes. I did anything. Cook, too. Teach them how to cook,” she says.

Jandreau married in her 20s. She had met her future husband back home in St. Francis, and they wrote letters while he fought overseas in World War II. When he returned on furlough, they got married. And when the war ended, the couple went back to St. Francis and raised four kids in the St. John Valley.

Finally, in her 50s, Jandreau achieved her life’s dream: she was hired by a local nursing home, first as a housekeeper then as a nurse’s aide.

“I prayed to be a nurse all those years. See, my prayers were answered because I was a nurse’s aide. Stayed there for eight years. So then I think about that sometimes,” she says. “But it didn’t happen, or it happened just a little bit. Just a little bit.”

Jandreau would have to leave that job to care for her ailing husband. While she regrets that she couldn’t have spent more years as a nurse, she’s philosophical about the turns that her life took.

“But you know, no matter who it is, there’s always a little curve there that you don’t like. You did this, you shouldn’t have done it. Any young person would do that. Going somewhere to work, or that didn’t work. Lots of things,” she says.

Despite those obstacles, Jandreau says she’s content today. She spends her days playing bingo at the nursing home and talking with friends and family members. She peels apples and chops carrots with her granddaughter. And while she sees the world today as moving much too quickly, she urges kids to follow some simple advice: take advantage of opportunities that many kids in her generation never had.

“That’s for the children, when you grow up, go to school and learn. And then, whatever you have to do, go to school first. And then do like anybody else, go to work. Earn money, then do what you want to do. But do it right,” she says.

This interview will air the week of Dec. 23, and is presented in partnership with Down East magazine.