NEW YORK—Three decades after New York State Sen. Thomas Duffy passed away, his wife, Helen Duffy, at 106 years old, is still wearing her red Elizabeth Arden lipstick for the public eye.
On days when the weather is pleasant, Duffy is spruced up in a modest skirt, sheer knee-high stockings, and a pair of sunglasses. She sits on her porch in Jackson Heights, Queens, and waits for the succession of visitors who will inevitably stop by.
“Everybody in the block comes,” said Yolanda Rivera, 52, who has been Helen Duffy’s home health aide and de facto best friend for the last three years. “She’s the star. Every neighbor says hello to Mrs. Duffy.”
“How do you do,” Duffy smiles and says to passersby. Her presence feels ethereal.
Duffy has a mirthful disposition that seems to convey that life is too short not to live it to the fullest. And she’s lived for 106 years. (Albeit, sometimes, she confuses six with nine and tells people she is 109).
Until recently, Duffy still got her hair and nails done at the beauty salon every week.
The taxi driver would whisper “God bless her” as he dropped her off and watched her fragile body cross the street with Rivera in tow.
Although Duffy’s body is frail and her skin is pale, her wizened face does not take away the mirth from her blue-gray eyes.
But two years ago, Duffy stopped leaving the house because she found it difficult to walk down her front steps. Hence, the beauty parlor came to her instead.
Every Tuesday morning, Nina, a blonde Italian, arrives at Duffy’s house to style her hair into little curly, voluminous tufts.
From the very beginning, Duffy had always made the most of her life with grace and grit.
Helen Duffy met her late husband on 86th Street and Lexington Avenue. It was a summer afternoon. They fell in love over coffee cakes.
“He was extremely good looking,” she recalls. “He was friendly and he promised to take me to nice places.”
Arguably, perhaps it was Duffy who took him to places.
She supported him through popular legislations, and the unpopular ones.
In 1950, Thomas Duffy, as an assemblyman from Long Island City, introduced a bill that proposed to make it illegal to picket within 1,000 feet of a court house.
The public did not respond positively.
“We feel, at times, that these pickets are behaving in a manner not to the benefit of the United States. But we agree with the bar association that the bill limits too much the freedom of speech,” the Cortland Standard wrote in 1950 in response to the bill.
Nonetheless, Thomas Duffy had a successful career as a state assemblyman, state senator, and civil court judge.
And Helen Duffy played a large role in that, her sons say.
“I learned to have grit and determination from her, that all obstacles are surmountable,” said Edmund Duffy, one of her three sons.
Edmund Duffy, an education philanthropist and a semi-retired lawyer, recalls a special election that his father lost in 1952.
“He was disappointed. But my mother wouldn’t allow that attitude at all,” Edmund Duffy said. “Surely enough, he won a seat in the Senate six months later.”
In 1965, Thomas Duffy lost his judgeship election, which was something that had been a life-long goal.
Again, his wife pushed him back in the game with her persistence. He ended up serving as a judge for the civil court in Queens from 1967 to 1976.
Continuing to Inspire
When Rivera, a Puerto Rican woman with kind brown eyes, met Helen Duffy for the first time in 2012, she was shocked by her mental alacrity.
Rivera has been a home health aide for 18 years with Partners in Care, a licensed home care agency, which is a part of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. But she said she’s never met someone quite like Helen Duffy.
At night, Duffy judges the temperature of her room and picks which of her 10 night gowns she should wear.
“She knows where everything is. Her memory is perfect,” Rivera said. “And she is so strong.”
Rivera bathes her in her bed most of the time, but every now and then, Duffy will say she feels like taking a shower. And so she takes one, standing.
Over the last three years, they have become very good friends. With help from a sound amplifier, a microphone, and headphones, Duffy spends her time reminiscing with Rivera.
They talk about, well, everything, from politics to mortgages to life philosophies.
The secret to longevity is to “just be good and kind and remember that other people have feelings just like you have,” Duffy says.
“This lady is 106 and she enjoys life to the fullest. It makes me think, what do I have to complain about?” Rivera said.
Last Two Major Hospitalizations
Rivera was heartbroken when she heard the news that Helen Duffy was hospitalized in 2014.
She was NYU Langone Medical Center’s oldest patient ever when she went to the emergency room for pneumonia and the flu.
“No one thought she was going to make it. She got very skinny. She was in a very critical condition,” Rivera recalled. “I was worried. For me, she’s very special.”
To the hospital staff’s surprise, Duffy survived and walked out the hospital.
In some ways it’s not a surprise for her family, for Duffy also survived closed-heart bypass surgery in the same miraculous way just before her 97th birthday.
Her replacement valve was made of pigskin. “Now I have my little piggy,” she said upon leaving the hospital, and gave her heart a little pat.
Today, Duffy is “taking it easy,” she says, and spends her time watching golf and political talk shows.
During Duffy’s 106th birthday party in November, she gave her whole family an expressive thank you speech.
“We were all surprised. I couldn’t have written a better speech myself,” Edmund Duffy said. “I wish we recorded it.”
The family said they will be prepared with a video camera for her 107th birthday.