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Fairfield couple gives thanks for 80 years of life together

Updated 4:00 pm, Wednesday, November 21, 2012

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  • Ann and John Betar of Fairfield often hold hands and engage in displays of affection even after 80 years of marriage, according to members of their family.  Fairfield CT 11/15/12 Photo: Meg Barone / Fairfield Citizen freelance
    Ann and John Betar of Fairfield often hold hands and engage in displays of affection even after 80 years of marriage, according to members of their family. Fairfield CT 11/15/12 Photo: Meg Barone

 

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Thanksgiving Day dinner at the Betar family's table in Fairfield may be cold by the time John and Ann Betar finish counting their blessings.

They have a century of things for which to be thankful, including their family of five children, 14 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, their health, their longevity of life and a marriage that has outlived the average lifespan of many Americans.

The couple will celebrate their 80th wedding anniversary Sunday.

Having spent virtually a century on Earth -- Ann is 97 years old and John celebrated his 101st birthday in July -- has given each of them an unusual perspective and an optimistic outlook.

Since John Betar and Ann Shawah said "I do" in 1932, they have weathered many storms, some personal, some societal, and yet still greet each morning with eagerness and gratitude. They have lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and two powerful hurricanes, the most recent of which damaged many homes in their Fairfield Beach Road neighborhood, where they still live independently.

"This is the worst ever. We were in the 1938 storm, too. That was supposed to be the top ... This was even worse," John said.

"It was heart-aching to see what was touched. It was really a sight we didn't see before. Piles of old furniture two blocks from the water, and I kept thinking, `Where is it going?' " Ann said.

Although water roared through their front door, they did not lose family photos -- including their wedding portrait, and the foresight of a grandson to detach their new furnace and move it to a higher floor saved them great expense. "We lost the whole cellar, everything that was in the cellar ... The cellar got flooded right to the top," John said.

But even Superstorm Sandy, which forced their evacuation and continues to displace them temporarily, did not dampen their enthusiasm for living near the water -- and life in general. They view the power, beauty and devastation of storms as a metaphor for life.

They love the ocean. Their first vacation was to Hawaii in 1967, 35 years into their marriage.

"We've been on the beach 44 years," said John, who turned their family beach house into a year-round residence.

"That's part of our life," added Ann, referring to the shoreline. She said she can look at the seascape just outside her window every day and see something different. "It changes, everything changes," she said.

"You should be there in the winter when it snows. It's a beautiful sight. And to wake up every morning and see it all there, it's worth all that's happened now," Ann said. "We've made it (the coast in Fairfield) our home ... I'm grateful to it and I'm not a bit sorry that hurricanes come by and knock us down because you can get up again."

She and John know that sentiment well.

"The worst thing that can happen to two people is to lose a child, whether they're two years old or 60, and we've lost two of them, and that's been the hardest thing to face," Ann said. Their daughter Joan died at age 68 in 2006 and son John died in 2000. He was 60.

"You see too much when you live too long," John said.

Water has always figured prominently in the Betars' lives. John was born in Soueidie, Syria, and came to the U.S. as a child via boat. "I came over when I was 10 years old in 1921. I was a refuge in World War I. I lost my mother there," he said. "The only language I spoke was Turkish. We were under Turkish control." When John shared with his great-grandson Crawford that the journey took about 30 days, Crawford asked, "What did you do, row?" It was that ocean-crossing that brought John to Bridgeport, where he fell in love with the girl across the street. "We were from the same Arabic community. They all lived in the South End" of that city, John said.

"He was the boy across the street, not next door ... He used to drive me (to school). He had a (fruit peddling) route going to Greenwich on his business and I was at Bassick High School. He would drop me off there and go on," Ann said.

"I had a Ford Roadster and she loved the Ford; $539 I paid for it. That was my first car," John said. He bought that vehicle with money he earned delivering newspapers. "The Bridgeport Post, Post-Telegram, 2 cents," John said.

Ann's father had arranged a marriage for her and she was engaged to another man when she and John snuck off one night. A complicit friend picked up Ann and brought her to Greenwich where John was waiting for her.

"We eloped. We went to Harrison, New York, and we got married there," John said. She was 17. He was 21. "They said it wouldn't last," said John, who supported his family with his Betar's Market on Broad Street and South Avenue. He closed the market in 1963 and became a real estate agent.

Ann Betar said she remembers one customer saying, " `What a year. They shot Kennedy and the store is closing.' Imagine connecting a president's death to a store closing," she said.

Heather Mitchell of Fairfield, the granddaughter with whom the Betars are staying until they can return to their storm-damaged home, said she has learned much from her grandparents.

"Isn't there a saying by Mickey Rooney, `If you want wisdom, sit at the feet of an elderly person?' But I don't think of them as elderly," Mitchell said.

"You don't ever expect to have the luxury of knowing different stages of your parents' life through extreme old age," said daughter Judy Metro, who lives in Washington, D.C. Metro doesn't really think of her parents as elderly, either. Last year, as the family prepared for John's 100th birthday he climbed a ladder in the garage to retrieve a tool. "Dad, you're not 80 anymore," Metro reminded him.

"They had five children and very busy lives and managed to make every one of us feel special," Metro said.

"Each one of my children was an only child," Ann said.

Family has always been important to the Betars.

"That's what makes life what it is. We were fortunate enough to live long enough to see this ... and it's really one of the most gratifying things in the world to see your great-grandchildren, to see your grandchildren become adults," Ann Betar said.

"That's what keeps us alive. We live for them," John Betar said.