It is never easy saying Goodbye to a close friend especially ones that you have known for thirty years. I know that the holidays are never easy but when you had to attend as many wakes, Memorial services and funerals as I did this year, it puts the holiday season into perspective.
The toughest is when you lose a friend who has seen you from everything from the beginnings of your career to the loss of a family member and all your successes and failures in life and at the same time never judges you for it but still offers sound advice. That is what a real friend does.
I just lost two friends I have long mentioned in my blogs, Helen Chao and Lillian Heckler, who have known for thirty and twenty-five years respectively.
Helen, I had met on my second day of work at R. H. Macy when our Executive Training Program class took our tour of the Herald Square store. We started at the bottom the store and worked our way up the eight floors of selling space. One of the stops was in the Visitors Center on the Mezzanine of the store. We were introduced to the people who worked there and took some time to look around.
Helen Chao, my ‘Macy Mom’
One of my best friends was living in Singapore at the time and I wanted to get him a store directory in Chinese as a gift to show him where I was working. So, on lunch hour I doubled back to the Visitors Center to find one. This is how I met Helen. I asked her where I could find one and at the time there was none in Chinese only Japanese. Since he spoke both French and English on top of Chinese, I got him the directories in English, French and Japanese as a gift.
We just got to talking and we ended up talking the whole lunch hour. Later on, that week I stopped by again to say hello and that started the friendship between myself, Helen and another woman, Linda, who also worked in the Department. We just got along so well that I would stop by every once in a while, when I was in Training Squad classes.
That blossomed into a long friendship between the three of us that lasted until Linda left the company three years later. When I returned from a two-year job experience in our New Haven store (now closed) as a manager and then was promoted back to the Herald Square store as an Assistant Buyer, Helen and I resumed our friendship. We would go out to lunch when the two of us had time and would visit the store for the Flower Show and for Christmas when we were both off from work.
Helen, Linda and I at Linda’s ‘Going Away’ party in 1988
Over the years, we exchanged laughs and lots of stories. Helen told me how her family had come to America after the Cultural Revolution and her father had been an educator and had to leave the county. Her mother was Japanese, and I am sure that did not make it easier for the two of them in those difficult times. I always found the stories about her life fascinating. She would also give me the latest stories of her children and grandchildren and their doings.
Helen and I at the Macy’s Herald Square Flower Show 1988
After her retirement from Macy’s and her family’s move from Valley Stream, NY to Flushing, NY admittingly like a lot of friends the connection that bound us, Macy’s, was gone and she was not in the City as much. Still over the years we kept in touch and would meet to see the Macy’s Flower Show in the Spring and in Chinatown for Dim Sum when she was at a doctor’s appointment. As time went on though, these became less and less as work and commitments took away our free time.
Helen and I towards the back with members of the Macy’s Visitor Center Staff at Chinese New Year in 1994
In the later years, we saw one another at least once a year and I always called her on her birthday (we were ten days apart), Chinese New Year and Christmas and I always sent cards out to her. I had seen her for the last time in 2015 when I read about a Dim Sum Palace in Flushing that was noted as the best in the City and we decided to meet there. It was nice to see her again but even I had to admit things had changed. We ended up talking about the past and she wasn’t as chatty as she used to be. We had a nice time but it did not seem the same. The sad part was one month after our lunch, Helen suffered a stroke. I found that out about four months later when I was finally able to reach her husband.
Helen at one of our lunches after her retirement. This is us on Park Avenue
Having taken care of my own father after his stroke and being the primary caregiver (Visit my blog, ‘BergenCountyCaregiver.com’ on WordPress.com), I was Helen’s biggest cheerleader. I would call at the holidays and her birthday to encourage her, send her cards to cheer her up and just be a friend. I always got the impression she did not want me to visit her so I respected that.
Me on Park Avenue that afternoon of our lunch
The last time I talked to her was on her birthday on October 1st, 2018 and we had a nice conversation. I could tell she was tired but she was happy I called and told me she had gotten my birthday card. She thanked me for always remembering after all these years. I did not realize that she had turned 90.
Justin Watrel at the Macy’s Herald Square Flower Show in 1988
My last phone to Helen was on December 22, 2018, right before Christmas. I would be visiting my mother and our family at the holidays and would not have time to make my traditional phone calls Christmas morning as I had done the previous four years. This is when her husband had told me that she had passed away the night before. We had a very heartfelt conversation that lasted almost an hour and I gave him my condolences. He said that she always appreciated all those years of phone calls and cards and how much it meant that I never forgot her at the holidays and her birthday.
As we said our goodbyes and I wished him and his family a happy holiday season in these difficult times, it was surreal to know that I would not be talking to her again after thirty years of friendship. The one impression I got was that in some small way I was cheering her up and encouraging her all those years and maybe that made a small difference in her life that a friend did not forget her. I was glad she was part of my life.
My friendship with Lillian happened many years later when I was a Manager at FAO Schwarz Fifth Avenue, the upscale toy store on Fifth Avenue. I had worked at the store as a manager from July of 1995 to February of 1996 right before I left to attend the Culinary Institute of America. I had casually met her and talked to her when I ran the Boy’s Action Department which was right next to the Pre-School Department where she worked.
Lillian Heckler, the ‘Grandma’ of FAO Schwarz
How I got to know Lillian better is when I had to leave school in 1997 to earn money for my last semester and went back to FAO for seven months to work the holiday season as a full-time manager. Management placed me in the Pre-School Department as a Manager as some of the other managers in the store said it was ‘difficult to work there’ because of all the long service employees that dominated the department. I ended up blossoming in the department and it was one of the best managerial experiences I had had in years.
Barbara Gurtov, Lillian and myself at Christmas dinner 2007
Lillian greeted me in the Pre-School Department with “Hi Justin, I’m Lillian but you can just call me ‘Grandma’ if you like.” I told her I preferred to keep it professional, and I would just call her ‘Lillian’. I loved her energy and the fact that she was 77 at the time and she could ring circles around most of the staff in the store. She and the other long service employees in the department Barbara, Clover and Shirley I found to be a real asset to the department in that they never called in sick, knew their merchandise, knew how to merchandise and could sell up a storm. We did a lot of laughing as well.
After I finished my holiday stint at FAO, I continued to stop in the store on my weekends home when I was in the City and would visit the ladies. We would still continue our conversations and I would regale my stores of what was happening in cooking school. Later on, after graduation, I would work in the store again for another four months for the holiday season and would cover the department again. It was nice to work with that staff for the holidays.
Lillian, myself and our friend, Barbara Gurtov
After that, I moved on to Hawaii and California after graduation but I still kept in touch with Lillian and Barbara until they both retired from the company and eventually FAO would close the Fifth Avenue store after bankruptcy. Lillian, Barbara and I would continue to meet up in the City about four times a year for lunch and dinner and I would visit Lillian in Astoria, Queens when she got into her late 80’s and early 90’s. She lived by herself until she was 95.
A broken hip that year and some time in rehab led Lillian to an assisted living facility out in North Shore of Long Island near the fork of the North and South Shore of the Hamptons. I started to visit her again to catch up with her. After my own father passed (who this blog is dedicated to), I started to visit her more often especially close to her birthday and the holidays.
Lillian and I with our friend, Barbara Gurtov at the Bryant Park Grill for Lillian’s 90th birthday, June 5th, 2008.
The last two years I had spent Easter, her birthday in June, Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas events and at least one day during the summer to visit her. I always brought out lunch for us (she liked to have Italian and Chinese because the facility did not serve the types she liked) and baked goods from the local bakery. In the warmer months, I would take her to the courtyard or patio and we would talk and converse with other caregivers and their families. We continued to have our long talks, our heart to hearts and laugh at old stories.
People at the facility that she was living at I could sometimes see could not understand why we were friends. This was considering the fact that I had known the woman for twenty-four years and we had seen each other through the ups and downs of life. I never saw Lillian as being her age, I just saw her as being Lillian. I spent her 100th birthday with her on June 6th, 2018 (See Day One Hundred and Fourteen of “MywalkinManhattan.com”) and she had just as much pep that day as she always did. I drove her around the facility with balloons on her wheelchair and the staff and residents alike wish her a Happy Birthday. I could see the lives she touched there as well.
The last time I saw her was in December for the “Family Dinner” we had on her floor at the facility. I gave Lillian a choice when I came out to visit for Christmas, I could come to the dinner or to the concert the next week. It would be hard to do both with my work schedule and we chose the dinner. We had such a nice time (See Day One Hundred & Twenty-Four of “MywalkinManhattan.com”) and did a lot of laughing and talking. My visits always cheered her up:
Lillian and I at the Christmas Dinner in 2018 with the gift I gave her, Penelope the Pup from FAO Schwarz, a toy she sold many times
Something struck me though on my way to the facility. As I got closer and pulled off the highway, I had the sinking feeling that this was going to be the last time I would be visiting. It had really struck me hard.
I shook it off and decided to just have a good time. After the dinner was over, I headed home because I had to work the next day. Before I left, I talked with Lillian’s roommate’s daughters who joined us for dinner and gave them my number and my email address and asked them to contact me if anything were to happen to Lillian. It was them who told me that Lillian had passed.
I went to Northport for the wake and funeral and met Lillian’s grandchild and great grandchildren. We spent the night of the wake just sitting around talking. There were no other visitors besides myself and her family. We told our ‘Lillian’ stories. After the wake and her family left, I took a ride around Northport, NY and did not realize that such a pretty shore town existed.
Since Lillian had passed during the Epiphany, the town’s Christmas tree was still up at the harbor and I could not believe how beautiful and picturesque it was that night. I though “Lillian would have loved this”. I think that was the last gift she gave to me. They had a beautiful service for her and I said my goodbyes.
The Northport, NY Christmas tree added some cheer on a gloomy evening
It was a tough time before and after Christmas but I am the one who was blessed with two wonderful friends who saw me through the beginnings of my career, my years in school and develop into the person I am now and was glad went through all the steps along the way.
Myself, Lillian and Barbara in Bryant Park for Lillian’s 90th birthday
So, with much love, I dedicate this blog, One Hundred and Thirty and my midpoint of the island of Manhattan of my walk at 59th Street, to two very special “Ladies” in my life, Mrs. Helen Chao and Mrs. Lillian Heckler. Ladies, thank you for your love and friendship both for over twenty-five years. You are the best and I will not forget you!
With all my love, your friend, Justin!