Ninety-five flamigos celebrate 95 years
KNOX — Helen Coulter lay in bed on the morning of Aug. 7 in the house where she has lived for decades — the first she’d lived in with indoor plumbing — the house where she and her late husband had raised five children.
She hadn’t slept well that night; she’d just had her teeth pulled and it hurt.
“I struggled to get up,” she recalled.
“Then I lifted up the shade and there they were!” she exclaimed, a look of delight filling her face.
They were 95 pink plastic flamingos — one for each year of her life — spread across her lawn.
“She yelled, ‘There are my birds,’” recalled her daughter Betsey Bartley with a laugh.
“She’s always liked things on her lawn,” said her daughter Pam Izzo. “She never asks for much. She never wants something for herself.”
At a gathering at her grandson’s house last year, Coulter made a stray comment. “I said, ‘If I live to be 95, I’d like to look out my bedroom window and see 95 flamingos sitting in my yard,’” she recalled.
She sat on her porch, her favorite perch, on Friday afternoon wearing a blouse the color of a flamingo, a word derived from the Latin for “flame.”
The story of her life unfolded in bits and pieces as members of her family listened, adding their own reminiscences.
Coulter was born “just up the Hill,” she said, pointing west along Township Road. Her family moved often in her childhood, but always stayed in Knox.
“My father was very old when he married my mother,” she said. “He had been a wanderer...He was a carpenter till he fell off a barn roof and was injured; he couldn’t work any more.”
Her mother, Bertha Quay, “worked and worked and worked,” she said. Coulter was the second oldest of the seven Quay children — five boys and two girls. Her youngest brother, Richard, is the only one still alive today besides herself.
She says of her childhood, “We were typical country kids. We made our own fun. We built tree forts and swings, we caught frogs and fried their legs.” She hesitated as she reached for words to describe the taste of frogs’ legs.
“They say everything tastes like chicken,” said Bartley.
“Light” was the word her mother finally chose.
There was also work to do as the children helped with chores, especially piling wood to burn to stay warm in the winter.
Because she was so tiny —the tallest she grew was 4 feet, 11 inches — Coulter didn’t begin school until she was 8, attending a one-room schoolhouse in Knox.
Her first teacher was Milton Quay. “He was a very old man,” she said. “He was pretty good with the older kids. But, by noontime, he was dozing at his desk.”
This didn’t create a free-for-all in the classroom, however. “In those days, you didn’t dare misbehave too much,” said Coulter. “We might have gotten out of our seats and talked.”
If there were any misbehaving, she said, “Your parents were tougher on you than the teacher.”
During recess, the children jumped rope and a favorite game was Annie, Annie Over. “Half the kids got on one side of the school and half on the other. Then someone — usually a boy — would throw the ball over the roof, and you’d run around and try to tag each other.”
Finally, she said, in the case of Milton Quay, “The school board decided he wasn’t doing his job.” The board replaced him with Dorothy Kingsley.
“She was good and strict,” said Coulter.
The room was filled with pupils of all ages and levels of learning.
“I learned a lot just by listening to the other classes,” recalled Coulter. She loved to read.
When the central school opened in Berne, Coulter and her classmates went there instead. “They evaluated all the kids and I was put in the seventh grade,” she said, although she was younger than the typical age for the grade.
Described by her daughters as a quick learner, Coulter enjoyed school. She had a special friend, Clara Zimmer. They were now taught in classes divided by subjects. Coulter’s favorite was English.
She graduated in 1938 as valedictorian of a class of 15. Several of her siblings, in different classes, were top scholars, too.
Coulter was not afraid of giving a speech at her graduation ceremony. But, since she was wearing an academic robe, she said, “I was just afraid I was going to fall going up the stairs to the stage.”
After graduating, she got a job as a nanny for a doctor and his wife who lived in Elsmere. She lived in an upstairs attic room in their house. She enjoyed the child care, but then the doctor’s wife found out she could cook.
Her daughters said she was a good cook.
“A great pie maker,” said Izzo.
“Especially elderberry pie,” added Bartley; her mother would pick the berries herself.
The doctor’s wife kept having her do more work without more pay. “I had one day off a week, and she wanted me to work on that day, too,” said Coulter. “I rebelled. ‘What I do on my time is my business,’ I told her.”
Often, on those days off, she would walk to Albany where she would visit an aunt or see a movie.
After three years at the doctor’s house, she got a job in a state laboratory on New Scotland Avenue. “I cleaned petri dishes and washed and sharpened needles,” said Coulter. “I pity anyone who had to use a needle that I sharpened.”
She liked that job better than her first because it gave her a chance to meet people and she earned more money. “If you got $20 a week, that was a lot,” she recalled.
Coulter shared an apartment near Washington Park with her good friend, Clara Zimmer, and another girl.
Then she got a job at General Electric doing file work and came back home to Knox to live with her family.
It was then that she met Walter Coulter, the man who would become her husband. He worked for the Locomotive Company, also in Schenectady, and was friends with her brother, Thad. The couple met at the roller rink in Duanesburg. He was better at skating than she. He had his own lace-up skates while she got “the kind that clamp on your shoes,” she said. “They fell off.”
Of their relationship, she said, “We grew into it.” At six feet, he stood more than a foot taller than she. “He had a car; you could go places,” she said.
They went square dancing and to the movies. She particularly remembers Gone With The Wind. “I wanted him to go with me to the opening. I was enthralled,” she recalled. At the intermission, he said, “Let’s go.”
She said, “What do you mean?”
“We went, but I resented it,” she said.
She got over the resentment in time for his proposal as they sat on a bench in Washington Park.
“I said yes,” Coutler stated simply.
That was the beginning of all this,” she said, gesturing to the daughters, grandchild, and great-grandchild on her porch.
The couple raised five children in the house at 1576 Township Road that came with 100 acres; they also raised beef and pigs and chickens. Walter Coulter worked then as a mechanic for the state. Helen Coulter returned to working for the state, too, once their children were old enough.
She worked her way up from a mailroom job, passing Civil Service exams to be a file clerk, senior file clerk, and finally principal file clerk, retiring when she was 62.
The Coulters’ daughter Jean Hofmann was born first, in 1945. She died of cancer at age 36. Jerry Coulter was born in 1949 followed by Betsey, Jill Fassett, and Pam — all in the 1950s.
“When they were little, I let them grow,” said Coulter.
“She would take us in the back to have picnics,” said Bartley
Her daughters also fondly recalled treasure hunts where their mother would write the clues as jingles.
“She was creative,” said Izzo.
“The treasures weren’t much,” said Coulter. The fun was in the hunt.
Sew a fine seam
“She was an excellent seamstress,” said Izzo. “She made all our wedding gowns.”
Coulter first learned to sew from her mother, a practical skill in hard times. When she went to the central school in Berne, she had to make a skirt in her home economics class. “The teacher was telling us to mark the pattern a certain way. I said, ‘It’s using way too much material.’ I didn’t have any more material.”
She used what she had and she thought for herself.
“They were very poor but they didn’t know anything else,” said Izzo.
Her skirt turned out fine and she wore it with pride.
Later, she made clothes, cut from the same bolt of cloth, for her children. The matching patterns and colors made it easy to pick out family members when they were out.
“We’d be matching when we’d go places,” recalled Bartley.
Coulter was such a skilled seamstress that she could make wedding gowns and clothes for the entire bridal party. The first wedding dress she made was her own.
She was married on Christmas Day in 1943 in a long white satin gown with a flared skirt. Her bridesmaids wore her handiwork, too — summer dresses.
“I blame it on my sister-in-law,” said Coulter with typical good humor.
Her fiancé was serving in the Army in the midst of World War II — he was a radar technician in the Philippines. “Walt’s sister said, all the families will be down on Christmas with their sons away. Why don’t we dress up the day and have the wedding on Christmas?’”
Although Coulter had planned her wedding for June, she went with the idea and lived happily ever after.
“Let it be”
She was married in the same church where she had been baptized — the Knox Reformed Church.
“I’ve spent many hours there,” said Coulter, with the Sunday school, Bible school, and singing in the choir.
Her favorite hymn is “How Great Thou Art.”
Although she now has difficulty seeing well enough to read, Coulter said, “I read the entire Bible.”
Of her favorite part, she said, “I always go back to Corinthians.” She likes the verses, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Coulter has exercised both her patience and her perseverance in her old age, staying in the home she loves. Her daughters have made that possible.
Bartley moved into the old farmhouse to take care of her mother and father; her father died of Parkinson’s in 2012. Then her younger sister, Jill Fassett, moved in, making a household of three women.
Coulter loves her children, who all settled nearby — “She’s a good mother,” said Izzo — and especially enjoys visits from her grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren, who live further afield.
Her days pass with a certain regularity.
She enjoys watching television, from game shows to crime dramas.
Her favorite place to be, though, is on her front porch. She likes to watch the hummingbirds flit about her feeder. And, next to her chair, she keeps a bag of potting soil and her gardening tools.
Hanging pots of begonias and fuchsia grace the porch, and along the front rail are more plants, including just ripening cherry tomatoes.
“She has a very green thumb,” said Izzo.
“She’s the only one,” said Bartley, noting that Coulter’s children will bring her dying potted plants to be nursed back to health.
When it comes to eating, Coulter sticks to what she knows. “I ignore all my daughters’ healthy tips,” she said.
Bartley said her mother likes white bread and ice cream.
“I’ve lived long enough,” said Coulter. “I’m going to eat what I want.”
The secret to a long life?
“These days,” said Coulter, comfortable in her porch chair, “I just let it be and come out here and take a nap.”