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December 10, 2020 at age 82. Predeceased by her parents, Charles & Rebecca Hessel, brother, Arthur Hessel. She is survived by her loving husband, Arnold; devoted daughters, Susan (Charles) Chekow Lusignan & Laura Lyn Chekow; adored grandchildren, Talia & David; sister, Jaclyn Gottfried; & loving primary caregiver of three years, Erin Jackson. Natalie always proclaimed a great appreciation for the life she had and would say, “Not bad for a girl from the Bronx!”
Daughter, Laura’s Words:
Sunday, December 13, 2020
My Mom was not my best friend.
She used to make a point of telling me this. She wasn’t very good at
admonishments; it wasn’t her strongest suit, and this was one of the
few I remember with any regularity over the years. “You know”, she’d
say, “I’m not your best friend. That’s not my job! I’m your Mother!”
Instead, she was – and remains- my favorite person.
I was always a bit in awe of Mom’s ability to be so clearly and
completely content with her life; she’d often say how lucky she was to
have what she did, having been a teacher, having my sister and me,
getting to live in a few different places, still adoring my Dad after so
many decades together – “not bad for a girl from the Bronx!” she’d
laugh! In that way she had grounding, and a freedom from the
trappings so many people fall into judging themselves against their
perception of others’ lots in life. As my Dad summarized, “she had an
extraordinary talent for living a very ordinary life”.
Mom was happy because she always actively chose to be. She was
fun to be around. I “got” her; her mischievous smile when she was
perceived as rebellious for the silliest things – “it’s too stupid!” she’d
say. A photo hangs on my wall of her entering a hat contest in the
eastern part of Long Island and showing up thrilled to be sporting her
home-made upside-down plant-holder fashioned entirely, and quite
reflectively, out of aluminum foil. Showcasing actual plants growing
out of it that she watered from time to time with a can she carried like
a purse for the afternoon. Someone with very fashionable style and a
terribly expensive chapeau won first prize. And Mom came in second
or third (in truth I don’t recall – and does it even matter?) for having
“the most whimsical interpretation”. That was her signature.
Although with all of her joy, at the same time, ironically, she had a
flair for not quite fitting in anywhere. She had very few truly close
friends so the people she found to be kindred spirits stood out all the
more for being chosen; Carol Rossini in Port Washington, Inge
Kouloganis in The Berkshires, (may their memories both be for
blessings) and Erin Jackson here in Rochester. She was different in
her own way. She had “personality” and she never asked much from
others, finding daily life enough to amuse her and engage her sense
Mom had a knack for a wide variety of crafts and would famously
within our family try something – like her one and only painting class
– and make a piece we marveled at, and have shared over the years
– swapping it between our homes – although she was particularly
fond of enameling, from jewelry to framed pieces. Yet Mom never
referred to herself as “creative” or “an artist”. She had no need for
labels of any kind.
My Mom was someone who for the most part “stayed” and yet she
always encouraged me to “go”. Never clipped my wings. “If it is what
you need to do”, she’d say, “I shouldn’t stop you.” Whether it was
calling her to say I wanted to extend a post-college trip to Scotland
and let my friends return without me, or moving to two states other
than NY. “You have to do what is right for you”, she’d say. And once
in a rare while, I got to repay her for it. Giggling loudly like schoolkids my parents, literally refusing to “hush” in an otherwise serene
and meditative Redwood Forest on their visit to California, my Mom
suddenly turned to me. “I wrote about visiting these Redwoods when I
was in elementary school!” she blurted out, remembering something
she’d never spoken of before – “and here I am with you!”
Or calling me back after I had insisted in numerous conversations
years later that yes, I really meant it when I invited her to join me in
my drive back from the West to the East Coast. “You know what? It
occurred to me that my grandmother was very old at 65 – and I don’t
want to feel very old so I’m going to take you up on it after all!” Having
my sister agree on a moments notice to fly out and join us as a
surprise because Mom was coming – a road trip for all of our lifetimes.
She and Dad broke out of their tried and true “NY” identities and
moved to Western Massachusetts which I had fallen in love with, and
spoke of how they never before imagined leaving their “native state”.
I am proud of those ways I could concretely own that I had made an
impression on her life, too.
Mom was a Gemini, something I paid attention to far more than she
did. She was distinctly of two personalities. The “artsy” as my niece
Talia, named in her honor, would say, as well as the bold. I’d swear I
can still recall how it felt to hold onto her back while she taught me to
swim as a little “pischer”, and how proud I was of how strong she
seemed when playing paddleball at the public courts near our home
in Queens. Many people were unprepared for her strength, distracted
by her offers of “Heavenly Hash” ice cream (her favorite). How
resilient and yes, stubborn she could be (which has its place in life),
and her will to live, which she was very keen on doing.
We look for blessings in the saddest of moments and the toughest of
times and yet I’m not “fibbing” as Mom would say, when I embrace
the fact that it took her ongoing struggle with a heartbreaking and
somewhat unique disease – vascular dementia – for that aspect of
her personality to really shine. I can’t tell you how many people over
the last three years have said to my sister and me, “oh, your Mom
has moxie! She’s one strong woman, that “Nat”! She keeps rallying!”
And in a way I am grateful that in the final chapters she got to show
everyone what she was made of, and remind the world that being
kind, and happy, and fun and crafty, and strong and resilient and yes,
heroic – in the understated version of the word; heroic for facing her
own challenges with unrelenting grit and good spirit, both – none of
those things are mutually exclusive. She was all of those and if you
didn’t notice she had nothing to prove to anyone anyhow. I can hear
her say, “I really can’t be bothered with any of that”. She was
transparent and also a bit of a mystery and I both liked her and loved
her throughout my life.
Mom in her way was the most loving person I’ve yet to meet. Never
holding back her feelings or impulse to hug, or handhold. Even in St.
Johns there were people, Yvonne, Joan, Karima Martha, and Elise, in
particular, who indulged her in that instinct. Mom was just as
generous with affection as with her joy. And because of that, my
sister and I know (and knew) that we were her favorite people, too.
“Not bad, Mom, for your life’s legacy. Not bad at all.
Daughter, Susan’s words:
Sunday, December 13, 2020
My most vivid memories of Mom all reflect her signature traits:
Her energy … joy … resilience … contentment … strong will … naughtiness …
rebelliousness … wicked sense of humor … happiness when interacting with people or
teaching someone a new skill … and her proud assertion of her individuality.
Natalie Chekow always stood out in a crowd.
As a child I took that for granted.
As a teenager it humiliated me (like when she affixed multi-colored toy pinwheels –
and bells!-– to the antennas of our family’s 17-year-old car to pick me up from High
School on my birthday).
As an adult and now a parent myself, that unapologetic individuality is one of the
qualities I most admire about her.
She loved being a wife, teacher, mother, and grandmother. She relished being Natalie!
And even when a cruel, unrelenting disease whittled away at her ability to speak or
function in her typical ways, glimmers of her personality were still always present.
Without words she critiqued my outfits with a smile or a stern glare and tug at my
clothes; when denied physical therapy in the hospital, she stubbornly threw her legs over
the metal bar of her bed and followed the P.T. session of the person in the adjoining
space; when suffering from 4 cracked ribs she simply paused to hold her side during her
many hours of walking the halls of the Nursing home.
She still appreciated beauty, and music. She responded to photos, a pop-up book of
butterflies and beautiful imagery. She could become transfixed by an artful tattoo. And
would dance – shaking her “tushy” – given any opportunity.
I’m grateful for the memories of Mom reading to both of her grandchildren; carefully
selecting the cherished plastic silver trumpet for David when he was a toddler; and then
dancing with joy and abandon at Talia’s Bat Mitzvah just a few years ago.
Everyone who knew Mom will miss her.
Natalie Chekow was unique.
She was wonderful. She was caring. She was a “tough cookie.” And she was loved.
Husband, Arnold’s words:
Sunday, December 13, 2020
It’s customary for family members to say a few words at a funeral
service. The convention is to offer a eulogy. Extolling someone’s virtues.
What I have to offer is different. Instead, it’s to share a personal story. A
unique one about the shaky start to a love story and a romance which
lasted for more than half a century.
I first met Natalie Hessel when she was thirteen and I was fifteen. We
lived a few blocks from one another in the East Bronx. I didn’t know her,
except from the neighborhood by sight. By chance, I took her photo when
we were each visiting the Bronx Zoo. And, I kept that photo in my wallet for
several years. There was something about her. A dare in your face kind of
smile which I felt the photo caught and I was smitten from the start.
For the most part I’d see her on the subway train returning home from
Manhattan where we each had part time jobs. Working in Department
stores after school.
Several years later I got to the point of asking her for a date. It might have
been excusable for being impulsive but I did something on that first date
which was surely the wrong thing to do. It threw our potential relationship
into a tailspin and took many weeks to get past. What I did was ask her to
marry me on our first date.
She thought my suggestion meant that I was peculiar and wouldn’t risk a
second date with me. It took a lot of talking on the phone to finally get her
to consent to a nominal second date. Which I pitched as benign. Harmless.
A lunch at a place in her neighborhood on a weekday afternoon. When she
ultimately agreed to that lunch I remember thinking at the time “Natalie, it’s
all over for you.”
And, so it was. We got engaged in the Spring of 1959 before I left for the
army. When I returned from my duty as a reservist in September we got
married. Just a few months later. It was the end of January in 1960. We
were happily married from that point on. I’ve lived a long life, done a few
good things and some not so, but by far the best thing I ever did was that
day in 1959 when I convinced Natalie Hessel to let me have a second date,
and ultimately become Natalie Chekow.
More than a half century with a person is a long journey. A person’s
passing is always sad. In this case the sadness is overridden by the
confidence that it’s the right time. Natalie passed away knowing she was
loved by her husband and two daughters who did all they could do for her
and then some until there was no more to do. She brought her fighting spirit
and fought until there was no more fighting to be had. Yes, we’re grieving.
We’re grieving but at the same time we are here grateful that we had
Natalie for all the years of companionship, of joy, and of love that she gave
to us and the memories of being with her that will stay with us. Forever.