Kathy Swanwick | For the Times Herald-Record
NEWBURGH – At nearly 107 years old, Evangelista “Jennie” Benejan Y Gomez DeJesus’s family credits her longevity to her lifestyle.
“She would say, God first, and then the way she eats,” said Yvonne Mojica, Jennie’s 68-year-old daughter, “she eats really healthy.”
Jennie has lived through the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, two pandemics and two world wars. Born on February 27, 1915, she’s outlived her husband, all 12 of her siblings and two of her children.
However, she still has the love and support of her three surviving children, 10 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, 14 great-great-grandchildren, and plenty of nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews and cousins.
Pre-COVID-19, dozens of them would gather at the family’s Newburgh home for parties. There have been few visitors during the pandemic, but they still manage to stay in touch.
The family stays close, said Mojica, sitting on her living room couch recently and reminiscing with her mother about her long life. “We communicate constantly by phone. They call to check up on her.’’
Several family members joined Mojica last week with a reporter to share stories of Jennie DeJesus’s life.
The family dining room table was arrayed with photographs of Jennie and her family throughout the years. There was a picture of her before she was married, dressed like “a flapper,” said her grandson John. Her wedding picture showed her as a dark-haired beauty.
A picture from her 100th birthday bash at the Newburgh Crossroads Assembly of Godchurch, where her son, the Rev. Manny Montalvo, is pastor, showed her sitting at a table with three cakes in front of her, forming the number 100. There was also a card on White House stationery, signed by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama marking her 100th.
Other pictures showed pre-pandemic family gatherings, with dozens of people filling the Mojicas’ living room. “We always get together for the holidays,’’ said Mojica.
The last big gathering, thanks to the pandemic, was when Jennie was 105.
Interacting with the family matriarch has become more challenging in the past several years as her dementia has grown more severe, said Mojica. There are times, she said, when her mother does not recognize her or other close family members.
To share her mother’s story, Mojica asked her mother questions in Spanish, trying to help her recall her younger days. Jennie was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and came by “a big boat, a tourism ship” to New York City when she was 12.
They traveled “first-class, she always told us,” said Jennie’s grandson John DeJesus, who has conducted genealogical research into his grandmother’s life and helped fill in some details.
Jennie made the five-day journey with her mother and some of her young siblings. A few of the older children had already moved to New York after their father died and they could no longer take care of the family’s two farms in Puerto Rico.
In New York, “She said they were one of the first Puerto Rican families in the neighborhood,’’ said grandson John.
He said Jennie was married in New York on June 1, 1935, to Manuel DeJesus. For a time, before Yvonne was born, the couple served as missionaries in Mexico.
The family moved to Walden in 1963. Manuel died in 1972; Jennie never remarried.
In 2001, Jennie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“She’s still here,’’ said Mojica. “She beat cancer. She was 86. She had two great doctors and here she is.”
These days with her memory clouded, Jennie doesn’t remember much about those major events she lived through. When her daughter asked her about life during the Great Depression, Jennie spoke of food shortages and remembers it as a sad time.
Interpreting for her mother, Mojica said Jennie described the way it felt not to have enough to eat. “She says you feel kind of like when it’s time to eat and you have no food. She said the government started to help so people wouldn’t have to suffer.”
Today, as she nears her 107th birthday, she can remember some family members more than others, at least for a time.
Her 84-year-old son Reuben visited from his nursing home recently. “She knew him for just a moment,’’ said Mojica. “They embraced with the masks on and I think seven minutes later she didn’t know who he was, though he continued to talk to her.”
“Healthwise, she’s better than all of us. She just had a doctor’s appointment two weeks ago. Her blood pressure is better than all of us. He checked her heart and said, ‘Her heart is better than mine and yours.’ She only takes one medicine, that’s it. For her thyroid.’’
“One of the most important things about her,’’ said grandson John, “is that she raised five great kids. All of them were pretty successful. No problems. She and her husband raised a great family.”