She Lived A Legacy of Love, Strength and a Joie de Vivre

Friday, January 1, 2021

Born in Canada in 1910, Antoinette Durocher, lived a life that was surrounded by family and built on hard work, quiet strength, and determination.   Antoinette was my great aunt and her story is as colorful as her eyes shone blue, a story that begs to be documented.


Antoinette (my Aunt Twin) was born in Clarenceville, Quebec in 1910 to Ovila and Essie Comtois. Mr. & Mrs. Comtois lived on a farm in Clarenceville in a brick house with no electricity. Heated with wood, the family of 5 daughters and 5 sons made their livelihood farming. Antoinette and her siblings walked two miles each day to a one-room schoolhouse, unless the weather was so inclement that they got a ride with a horse and buggy. Antoinette shared in the chores by milking cows, feeding the chickens, gathering firewood or working in the fields. For fun in the summer, Antoinette and her siblings swam in the river and in the winter they ice skated. Now ice skating on the farm was a little different than the ice skating most of us experienced. Ice skates for nine kids would have been pretty costly, so Antoinette's father came up with a thriftier solution. Ovila would dry out the bones from slaughtered chickens. Once the bones were dry, he would strap the breast bone of the chicken to her boots and voila...she had ice skates. The resourcefulness didn't end with the skates - the ice on the farm consisted of frozen cow manure and if your 'skate' broke it wasn't a problem, you'd just get a new one the next time a chicken was slaughtered. With nine children in the family, money was not plentiful. Antoinette's wardrobe consisted mostly of hand-me-downs. She got her first 'new' dress when she was 16.

Antoinette's family immigrated to the United States in 1923 when she was 13.  According to Ancestry.com, Ovila worked as a farmer, a blacksmith and later a mechanic.  Antoinette, like most women in Cohoes at the time, worked in sewing mills.  In fact, she retired from Cluett Peobody in Troy in 1972 when she was 62 years old.  She was a talented seamstress and made many of her own clothes long beyond the time when that was common.  She was also not a stranger to heartbreak.  Her sister Ann Marie died in her very early 20's of some sort of respiratory condition and her brother, Halsey, was killed in WWII while he was stationed in Italy when he was just 32 years old.

Along her path in life she met my grandfather's brother, Henry.  Henry was also from a large family, the baby of 7 children, 4 boys and 3 girls.  The Durochers had also immigrated from Canada, in the 1880's.  On November 28, 1936, Antoinette and Henry (Harry) were married.  

Unlike the large families they came from, Twin and Harry did not have any children, but their life would be full and surrounded by extended family.   They were both friendly, social folk and the many photos I've been lucky to inherit illustrate a life that frequently involved Harry's brothers and sisters and their spouses.  As an only child, I'm a little envious of that, but the company they enjoyed the most was each other.  Actually, if Harry had his way, their life would have been perfect had it only been the two of them.  

Sisters perhaps?

8th Grade, Antoinette front seat, left row


Niagara Falls


Even as a young girl, I recognized the closeness Twin and Harry shared with Harry's siblings.  Elmira and her husband, Marcel, owned a house right next door to Twin and Harry's.  My grandparents lived in Cohoes too and sister, Edna and her husband Charlie, lived in Latham.  My Uncle George was drafted just a few months after his wedding to Aunt Harriet, so Uncle Harry and his siblings took Harriet under their wing for the three long years he was off to war.  She lived alone in their apartment, but George's siblings helped with rides and made sure she wasn't alone for holidays.  Perhaps that's where the family togetherness began, but it's clear from photos that a lot of fun and memories were made along the way. 

Twin, Harriet, Elmira, Irene

Marcel, Elmira, Harry, Twin, Charlie, Harriet, George, Irene, Stanley and My Dad in Front


Elmira, Harriet, Twin, Irene (my grandmother)

Irene, Elmira, Twin, Harriet

Irene, Stanley (my grandfather), Twin, George, Harriet


Irene, Twin, Harriet, Elmira

(left to right) Twin, Irene, Elmira, Harriet
Throughout life, Twin stood in Harriet's shadow.  Like Harry and Twin, Harriet and George did not have children, a result of Harriet's polio.  Harriet had gone to business school and worked for a Commissioner in the state.  When George came back from war, he eventually got a job at the Watervliet Arsenal.  I don't think one couple was wealthier than the other, but I know one brother had a tighter fist with his cash than the other.  Harriet, an equally talented seamstress, ordered beautiful fabrics from New York City and made herself fancy dresses and business suits for work.  She studied Architectural Digest and decorated her little Cape Cod home in Latham with the latest trends and carried herself with poise and confidence, even though her bout of polio as a child left one of her legs atrophied and slightly shorter than the other.   Twin's wardrobe was modest but fashionable.  Her home, also a small cape but lovely and meticulously kept, was every bit as cozy and pride worthy.  Twin had no reason to feel less than, and Harriet was never the sort to think of herself as better than anyone, but we all have our insecurities.
Growing up, I don't remember ever going to George and Harriet's home, but we visited Twin and Harry often.  Aunt Twin had a special box for me in her hallway closet, a box filled with treasures that I couldn't wait to open.   Inside this large, flat box was a coloring book, a small box of crayons, chalk, a small chalk board and cardboard stencils.  Nothing in that box was special or fancy, but for me, it was a treasure just waiting for me each time I visited.  Aunt Twin may not have had her own kids, but she would have been a great mom.  She taught me games like, Button, Button, Who's Got the Button and Cat's Cradle.  When I was little, she'd tape a magazine picture to the bottom of my glass - a cat or dog or other cute picture - so that I'd want to finish my milk to see what was on the bottom of the glass.   I wasn't too wise because she tricked me into finishing my milk every time!  
Twin's kitchen, me on the left corner, my grandmother, Irene, and my Dad and Harry


Twin cutting my mom's hair in our kitchen.



Aunt Twin may not have felt fancy compared to Harriet, but she was skilled in many areas.  A sportswoman in her own right, Twin swam, ice skated and golfed.  She was also our unofficial family beautician. For many years she cut my mother's hair and mine.  I still have her 'barber kit' complete with comb, scissors, thinning sheers, cape and powder-filled brush for removing hair from necklines.  She had a green thumb, was a great cook and an accomplished seamstress who could whip up window curtains or drapes just as easily as a skirt or jacket.  Perhaps the thing I most remember about Twin was her ardor for neatness and organization.  She was a 'recycler' before it was fashionable.  Never wanting to waste, Twin cut up her old compression hose and used them for tying things....many things.  Old bread bags were cleaned and folded neatly in her kitchen drawers ready to be reused ....for disposing of wet garbage, leftovers, whatever needed containment.  Her clothes were meticulously kept, never wrinkled, always looking perfectly fitted and spotless.  Even her diary (used from 1969-2004 to record life events, illnesses, deaths, and doctor appointments) was orderly and concise.  All of her old photos have descriptions on the back of them!  Twin was the original perfectionist.   She had a sense of humor, a twinkle in her eye when she laughed, she loved to dance and sing along to familiar tunes.  She was loved and adored by everyone she met.  She was sentimental and thoughtful and always interested in hearing what was new in the lives of others.  Self centered would never describe Antoinette.  
Many a good times were had over the years - at our camp on Saratoga Lake, then our home there.  Once Twin and Harry retired (Uncle Harry worked at the water power plant in Cohoes), they and Harriet and George went to Florida for four months each winter.  They rented places close to each other and socialized and golfed with their mutual friends.    Here she is with Aunt Harriet and Leo Durocher..... Uncle Harry's 1st cousin when he was managing the Houston Astros.
When they weren't in Florida, they went out to lunch nearly every week day and many of those days they would run into, and join, Harriet and George.  Both couples frequented the same few local restaurants - The Lobster Pound, The Century House, The Oaks, and Krause's.  Harry may have been thrifty and may have kept Twin on a tight budget, but there were a few things he enjoyed .....lunch out, winters in Florida, golf and new cars.  He and George had a thing for new cars and one might say a competitive spirit when it came to buying them.  Every couple of years Harry or George would pull into our driveway driving a shiny new car (often Gran Marquis, Gran Torino or something similar).  The new car was always a well kept secret, especially from the other brother, and it would vary as to which brother would be the next to up the ante.  It was a friendly but quietly serious competition that was entertaining to witness.  Despite this rivalry and a few short disagreements over the years, it's obvious from both memory and endless photos - the four of them were thick as thieves and that bond continued long after the brothers were both gone.

Harry, Harriet, George, Twin and Stanley
Twin battled her share of health issues over the years...acute diverticulitis, gall bladder, glaucoma macular degeneration and a pacemaker.  Harry was always worried about losing her, convinced her death was imminent for years.  He treasured her so, she was definitely the sugar in their twosome.  He was well aware of that and that her sweetness compensated for his sometimes prickly nature.  He also knew he probably couldn't live without her.  In February of 2000, Uncle George passed away from lung cancer.   Once again, it was Twin and Harry and Harriet....just like when George was off to war.  Only this time, all of the other siblings were gone, and had been for some time.  
Aunt Twin and Uncle Harry by now had sold their home and moved to an apartment.  Always in charge and bent on doing the 'right' thing, Uncle Harry wanted to be proactive and responsible by emptying his own house, and not leave the burden to others.  They sold their beloved home on Columbia Street and moved to an apartment in Ballston Lake.   When Coburg Village, an upscale independent living complex, opened, Twin and Harry moved in, but that lifestyle didn't last long.  Harry and Twin, now in their late 80's, didn't like being around the 'invalids' with their walkers and scooters, so in August of 2003 they moved back to an apartment.  Uncle Harry passed away in April of 2004 at 91.  Twin was legally blind by then from the glaucoma and macular degeneration and had never driven or had a license.  Within a month of Harry's passing, Twin moved into the Home of the Good Shepherd, an assisted living facility.  She was happy to move so that her needs would be met without being a burden on anyone. Even then, when she had people to cook and clean for her, Twin washed her own clothes in her bathroom sink and made her own bed every morning....because nobody made it quite right, quite as pristinely as she did.  
For five years after George's passing, I was Harriet's companion.  Though my mom and dad managed her financial affairs and assisted in areas that George would have, I did her cleaning, cooking, shopping and chauffeuring.  When it became clear that she needed more care than we could provide, Harriet moved to the Home of the Good Shepherd where she would be reunited with Twin for the last chapter of their lives.  


Harriet and Twin in 2007


Twin & Harriet at Laura's Wedding in 2007 (Twin was 97, Harriet 96)


Eventually both of them ended up in Schuyler Ridge Nursing Home.  Harriet left us first in August of 2011 at 100 years of age.  Aunt Twin carried on the legacy and lasted the longest of all of them passing in October 2012 one month shy of her 102nd birthday.
Twin on her 100th Birthday!


Twin on her 101st Birthday

Twin and Elena just two months before Twin died.


 My dad, her nephew, was more like a son or grandson to Twin and Harry and was the person who would look after them in their old age.  If it weren't for my mom, I don't know who would have navigated the world of assisted living and later a nursing home for Twin (and Harriet).   My dad was an only child and since neither Harry, George, Edna or Elmira had children, I imagine my dad was more like their grandchild than their nephew.  I inherited that special place in the family.  Growing up their devotion landed on me, not such a sad thing for an only child.  The four of them were such an integral and unified part of our immediate family, visiting often and present for most holidays and birthdays, all of my life feeling more like grandparents than great aunts and uncles.

I realized as I got a short way into this story about Twin that it was impossible to write about her without also writing about Harriet, George and Harry.  While they were brothers and sisters-in-law, their lives and their stories are so infinitely intertwined.  Sorting photos, reading journals, and reminiscing the past, I am reminded what a blessing they were to each other. While the brothers did have their spats and disagreements over the years, they shared almost a century of friendship, family and memories.  Harriet and George were married for 64 years upon George's death, Twin and Harry were married 68 years.  Together the four of them were role models of a life well lived, dedicated to their spouse, making the most of what life had to offer.    She was definitely an inspiration and I am blessed to have had her in my life for 58 years!

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