A Love Story for the Ages - Harriet and George Durocher

Monday, February 15, 2021

Valentine's Day.....not one of my favorite holidays, but I love what it stands for and when I think of what it stands for - LOVE, I'm often reminded of one particular love affair that stands out.  That is the love affair, the marriage, the partnership of my Uncle George and Aunt Harriet.  Theirs was romantic and enduring....lasting 64 years, until death did them part. 
I've told Uncle George's story here on the blog and it would be impossible to tell Harriet's story without sharing their incredible love story, so what better day to do that but Valentine's Day.  

Aunt Harriet was born in Cohoes, New York on June 9, 1911 to Robert and Harriet Ann Campbell.  Robert was an immigrant from Scotland who made a living as a loom fixer in the Harmony Mills in Cohoes.  He and Harriet were the parents of 8 children.  Young Harriet was the fifth born of those 8 children whose ages covered a 22 year span. When Harriet was 13 she became a victim of polio which had reached epidemic proportions in the US in the early 1900's.  Perhaps to lessen the risk of contagion and to provide better, one-on-one care, Harriet went to live with her oldest sister, Ruth, and her husband.  Ruth, then 26, was married to John King, an attorney in the city of Cohoes.  Harriet lived with her sister and brother-in-law for about a year of her convalescence during which time she recalled laying on an ironing board with weights on her one leg to encourage its growth.  During that year, she remembered her mother only visiting on a few occasions; her father visiting more often.  She assumed her mother was busy caring for her three youngest siblings who were 11, 9 and 4. 

Harriet recovered from her polio with a slight leg differential and an inability to conceive children but neither of those stopped her from living life to its fullest. Her sister Ruth paid for Harriet to attend business school, a privilege not available to many during that time. She made the most of her education landing a job as a Dictation Machine Transcriber for the NYS Department of Tax and Finance, in the late 1930's. She'd go on to be promoted to secretary to the Commissioner of Tax and Finance. He and Harriet retired in 1971. In her 90's, Harriet still made personal notes in shorthand.
Harriet and her boss at retirement party

I began this story promising a love story and that love story began when Harriet met my Great Uncle George (my grandfather's brother) in the early 1930's.  Uncle George was a quiet guy but excelled in speedskating and baseball.  He may have inherited that gene since Leo 'the Lip' Durocher was his second cousin. George and Harriet had a beautiful courtship and on November 16, 1935, they eloped.  It was during the Depression so after exchanging their vows, George and Harriet returned to their respective homes, keeping their marriage secret, so they could continue to help with finances.   Months later, they announced their news and moved out to begin their life as a married couple.

1935 Their Wedding Day

In 1939, George registered for the draft and in 1943, at the age of 36, George was drafted into the Army where he served in WWII in the Pacific Theater for three years.  Harriet did as so many women probably did during that time, she held down her job and maintained the homestead while George was off to war.  That may sound like an easy task, but it had its challenges.  Harriet didn't drive, or own a car.  She had to walk several blocks to take a city bus to Albany to work.  Often her walk home at night was in the dark, sometimes in challenging weather conditions.  She had to shovel coal through a window into the basement, where the coal stove for heating the house was.  Once her daily chores were done (hand washing, cleaning, preparing her clothes for the next day), Harriet ended her day - everyday - writing to her far away true love.  She recalled waking up in the morning, pen in hand, ink stains on her sheets. Three long years of this routine, I can't begin to imagine, but the time and distance did not diminish their love for each other. Theirs was a love I've not often seen or experienced.

George took hundreds of photos during his time away.  He'd write love notes on the back of them - all tiny prints about 2" x 3".  Harriet would do the same.  

 She'd share her everyday experiences, attest her love and assure George that their family members were taking care of her in his absence.  Finally George came home and their love story continued.  

In 1954, they built a small cape in Latham, NY.  George went to work for the Watervliet Arsenal.  Both George and Harriet loved to golf.  They shared household duties, inside and out and Harriet loved to share stories about things that most couples would consider mundane.  Her journals are filled with detailed descriptions of their weekends, who did which chores, Georgie making a delicious stew, how many geraniums they planted and other such activities which Harriet clearly relished as long as George was by her side.  After they retired, they'd lunch out most every weekday, either after golf or after chores.  Often they'd bump into George's brother, Harry and his wife, Antoinettte (Twin), who also dined out daily.  The four of them were very close; all of them wintering in Florida for many years.  George was quiet, much like my John.  I have such vivid memories of being at my parents home and George and Harriet would be there too.  George would begin telling a story and before long, Harriet would interrupt to add a detail and would routinely hijack the tale, as if it were her story to begin with.  George would just stay silent, sometimes playfully rolling his eyes until eventually Harriet would realize what she'd done - again. That realization would always result in her uproarious laughter at her own faux pas.  George never once displaying annoyance.  I think he enjoyed her version anyway.  

I don't remember them ever fighting but one day, probably when they were in their 70's or later, George needed to take the car for an oil change.  Harriet wasn't ready.  She had developed a habit of needing some coaxing.  Well George coaxed and prodded to rush Harriet, and that day, he had enough. He left Harriet home while he went for the oil change.  I'm not sure what the outcome of that consequence was, but I would guess it was more painful for George than Harriet and I'm doubtful it ever happened again.

Harriet lost her Georgie to lung cancer in February 2000.  All of us who knew and loved them, and knew of their deep and enduring love, worried that Harriet wouldn't be able to go on without him.  Their 64 year marriage was all she knew.  George was her rock, her best friend, her soul mate.  At 89, Harriet was tired and worn from the past months of watching her true love slip away.   The aides who had been helping them were not as reputable as we thought and my folks were not able to care for Harriet, so being ready for a change, I quit my job and picked up where Mom and Dad and the aides left off.

At first it was just a few hours Monday-Friday, doing chores, cooking meals, grocery shopping.  It was not my first experience with helping the elderly, but Harriet was definitely a dream to work for.  Sometimes people of that age can be cranky or fussy or nervous.  Not Harriet.  She was as calm as can be and so appreciative of every little thing done for her.  There was not a meal prepared for her that she didn't compliment.  "What a colorful meal" she'd say if her lunch happened to be a combination of colorful foods.  She savored and complimented every meal even if was something as simple as soup and a sandwich.  When she had regained her strength, once a week we'd go out to lunch.  Lunch didn't just involve eating.  For Harriet lunch meant a little shopping, a good meal and always, always dessert.  Harriet loved dessert.  I'll never forget this one day we were out to lunch.  As always, we ordered dessert, and on this day we ordered a slice of carrot cake to split.  Well, our carrot cake arrived and as the waitress made her way to us, every diner's eyes were peeled to our dessert as it was delivered.  Our cake, all 6 layers of it, was the size of a dinner plate!  We laughed till we cried over the massive, and undoubtedly calorie-laden dessert that cost more than either of our lunches.  

Another day we were sitting on Harriet's deck enjoying the early summer warmth.  I turned to go back inside to fix lunch when I realized the lock on her storm door must have been nudged on our way out and the door was now locked.  I immediately panicked.  I feared not only how she'd handle our predicament, but wondered how we'd get back in.  Harriet giggled and sat back, face to the sun, and just settled into her situation, unfrazzled in the least about her fate.  This would not be the last I'd witness Harriet's 'take life in stride' attitude.  Another day we were out for our weekly shopping/lunch outing.  We were driving through the Colonie Center parking lot when my cell phone rang.  This was before cell phones were common place.  My cell phone was an emergency phone; no one called unless it was an emergency and only a handful of people even had my number.  I pulled over and retrieved my phone from my purse in the backseat and answered.  It was my mom. It seems that Harriet had forgotten to do her weekly Lifeline check on her equipment so Lifeline had called to be sure Harriet was 'ok'.  When Harriet didn't answer, they assumed she must be on the floor unable to get up, or worse, and they proceeded to contact her 'first' emergency contact, her widower neighbor.  Bill dutifully unlocked Harriet's door and let the emergency personnel in to rescue their unresponsive victim.  Harriet was not unresponsive at all, in fact when she heard what was unfolding at her house, she laughed uncontrollably for a long time, stopping only to exclaim, "I'm glad we made the bed before we came out".  That was Harriet....never fretting or worrying.  Always seeing the bright spot in a situation.  Her mission was to savor life, every ounce of it.  And savor it she did.

One of our regular lunch destinations was the Scrimshaw Room at the Desmond Hotel and as much as Harriet loved fancy places like that and the Century House, she also loved more casual places like Friendly's.  There her favorite dessert was always a Happy Ending Sundae which she'd relish, as she carefully maneuvered long strands of drippy caramel into her mouth, rarely missing her target. She savored that like a gleeful child having a forbidden sweet.  Harriet loved her family, her friends and regularly kept in touch with so many.  For many years, George and Harriet attended George's annual reunion with his fellow war comrades.  Even when they were no longer able to attend, they exchanged cards and letters.  Harriet was a avid reader, loved Maeve Binchy novels especially, and loved PBS on tv.  She was a colorful storyteller.

Harriet was an expert seamstress and in her early adult years, she would order fabrics from New York City and make beautiful suits and dresses.  Her favorite magazine was Architectural Digest and though she lived in a tiny one-bedroom cape, she had fine taste in furniture and accessories.  She often made her own draperies.  George darned his own socks, a skill he learned while in the South Pacific when his soggy sock would wear thin.  She was also an avid gardener and tireless shopper.  Even in her 90's she loved buying new clothes.  Her favorite color was pink and when I once questioned why she buys so many pink tops, she answered, 'because as you get older, pink looks good and adds color to your complexion.'  She would sit in George's leather chair and roll her hair in pin curls - without using any mirror.  Her appearance never became unimportant to her.  When it became too difficult to do her own hair, she bought a wig.  Every morning before Harriet got out of bed, she did her morning stretches.  There were only two things in life Harriet couldn't do - complain and cry.  Even when George died, not a tear left her eye.  Her eyes would get red but not one drop would escape. Perhaps she used up her supply of tears those years when George was away in the war.  

I cared for Harriet for 5 years until it became necessary for her to have a higher level of care.  Again, Harriet accepted her situation and without whine or whimper, she moved into the same assisted living as her sister-in-law, Antoinette.  Later both of them moved to the same nursing home where Harriet lived to be 100.  Antoinette died a year later at 101.  I learned many things about and from these two ladies, too many to list.  Harriet, without being a perfectionist, was a role model when it came to doing what you love and doing it to the best of your ability.  I don't think I can point to anyone I know who embraces the joy of life more than Harriet. She harnessed joy, and happiness came naturally to her, or maybe she just wouldn't settle for anything less.  She focused on people's attributes and didn't acknowledge her awareness of anything beyond those.  She didn't sweat the small stuff but she embraced with open arms every big and little beautiful thing or experience life offered.  Perhaps it was her positive attitude that got her to 100.  

Twin, Leo Durocher, Harriet

Harriet and Jack Feeley (her boss) celebrating retirement

Self Portrait
My mom and Harriet, 2004

Harriet (l) Twin (r)
From their days as young women married to brothers, to the end of their days.....
Twin (97) and Harriet (96) in August of 2007

A love for all eternity.......George and Harriet......64 years of earthly love. 
Looking at her photos, Harriet's love of life is evident in every photo.  She was a shining example of confidence, style, enthusiasm, laughter (especially at herself) and a genuine embrace of all life had to offer.  Her love affair wasn't just with her Georgie, it was with everyone and everything life offered her and what more could any of us hope to achieve?

To read George's story:

and Twin's:

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