Spanning Three Centuries of Service

16 Shea Place ~ New Rochelle, NY 10805

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Norma J. Abele

Norma J. Abele

Norma June Abele has taken her final breath — marking the end of a century-long life that touched many.

Born in New Rochelle, New York, on June 18, 1922, she lived until August 31, 2022. Shaped by the austerity and resiliency demanded during the Great Depression and World War II, and the death of her mother when Norma was just 5 years old, she embodied the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps credo.

With stubbornness imbued in the family DNA, Norma met the world as though her genes were given a double dose.

She was the daughter of Ada (Wagner) and Frederick Abele and later stepdaughter of Zelda (Miller) Abele. She had two older brothers, Kenneth and Warren Abele, and a cherished younger half-sister, Zelda (Miller Abele) Gordon. She outlived them all.

She lived in only three places her entire life — the first house she was born in on Treno Street in New Rochelle, the second on Fifth Avenue, just across the backyard fence, where she lived for more than 90 years, and the third came when, at the age of 97, she reluctantly moved about 2 1/2 miles away to the Wartburg senior living community in Mount Vernon, one short Westchester County train stop away. “I should have done this 10 years ago,” she said soon after settling in.

Though cloistered in her choice of residency, Norma traveled the world. Starting in her 40s and into her early 90s, she sought out and booked intriguing tours with tightly scheduled itineraries that left little for independent exploration but still were packed with plenty to see and do.

In all, she journeyed to more than 60 countries — her first Bermuda, her last at the age of 92, a visit to Ecuador and Guatemala. She watched the sunrise at the Taj Mahal and rode an elephant in India, jockeyed a camel in Egypt, cuddled a wombat in Australia, climbed the Great Wall in China, soared in a hot air balloon over the Kenyan Savanna and walked the rocky coastline of the Galápagos Islands. She possessed an uncanny resemblance to Queen Elizabeth II, and even posed with the Queen’s Foot Guards at Buckingham Palace to the delight of camera-wielding tourists.

Despite her global travels, she retained an unadventurous palate, happiest with a piece of white fish and wedge of lemon or a turkey sandwich with mayo on soft bread. It was unlikely that she ever had a clove of garlic or a spicy pepper in her house. And no matter what meal of the day, she drank a cup of coffee — black, extra hot, and always could be counted on to indulge in a sweet treat.

Norma attended Mayflower Grammar School, Albert Leonard Junior High School and New Rochelle High School. After graduation, she enrolled in the Katharine Gibbs School to learn secretarial skills. She spent her 60-plus-year career working in a urologists’ office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; her starting salary $18 a week. The patients who walked through the door included Wall Street titans and famous playwrights and painters. For Christmas one year, Edward Hopper gave her a signed lithograph of a lighthouse inscribed to her.

No matter the season — in blizzards or sweltering heat, or during the temperate months of spring and fall — Norma’s commute included walking the mile each way to and from the New Rochelle train station — usually in high heels and at a fast clip that she called “the New York stomp.” Depending on the weather, she’d either walk the 3-mile round trip between Grand Central Station and her office or take the subway, which, when she started her career, cost a nickel a ride.

She attributed her long life to plenty of walking, her belief in God, never having puffed a cigarette and her nightly cocktail before supper — a gin and tonic or chilled rosé in the summer or an old-fashioned, Manhattan or straight rye when the weather cooled. When visiting family in California for two summer and two winter weeks every year, she enjoyed margaritas blended by her sister, with salt on the rim of the glass.

Norma had no hesitation eschewing her own comfort or a little inconvenience for a good bargain. And while frugal when it came to personal indulgences, her munificence to others was immense.

Despite her modest salary, she gave generously to numerous charitable causes. Among them: The Salvation Army, the New Rochelle Library Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx Zoo, the New Rochelle Opera and Meals on Wheels. She also tithed religiously to her longtime family church, North Avenue Presbyterian, now known as the Presbyterian Church of New Rochelle.

But more meaningful than her monetary contributions, she unstintingly gave her time and energy.

During World War II, she hand-crafted trigger mitts for her brother Warren and other Army infantrymen to use during the freezing European winters. For decades, she knit scarves and hats for the midshipman in the U.S. Merchant Marine. And for more than 30 years, she volunteered at New Rochelle Hospital, greeting visitors and helping them find their way to loved ones’ rooms.

A favorite volunteer stint was with the New Rochelle Humane Society, eagerly bringing well-behaved shelter dogs around to nursing homes where both the institution-bound residents and the four-legged visitors could get extra love. It was through that program that Norma met and adopted her beloved dog, Sam.

Over the years, Norma served in leadership positions with her church, the New Rochelle Women’s Club, the Beechwoods Cemetery and the Garden Club of New Rochelle. She also was an active participant in LIRIC (Learning in Retirement at Iona College), where she excelled at writing short stories, often ending with a clever twist.

Throughout her life, she cultivated a wide circle of friends through church, civic organizations, the neighborhood, her work life and her travels. Her besties were friends she first met as a young girl. When her sister passed in 2015, Norma inherited her cat, The Missus, who became a loyal and loving companion.

Never married and with no children of her own, she was an aunt extraordinaire to her nieces and nephews and their families. She treated them to Broadway shows, memorable trips, knitting lessons, games of croquet in her backyard and root beer floats at her kitchen table with the ubiquitous WCBS radio playing in the background.

The desktop calendar she kept on her kitchen table remained packed until the last couple of years when COVID restrictions put the kibosh on most in-person social interactions.

Her last weeks were tough, wearily and fiercely battling pain stemming from bum circulation and finding a path to letting go. But among her last words shared with her nieces Sarah and Rachel at bedside, as peace settled in, were these: “I had a happy life. Tell people I love them.”

Norma is survived by her nieces Kathy Abele, Sarah Stegner (Tim Stegner) and Rachel Gordon (Liz Mangelsdorf); numerous grand nieces and nephews and their offspring; sister-in-law Thelma Abele; and her half-century-long travel companion, Judie Smith. She was predeceased in death by nephews Warren and Rodney Abele. In her later years Norma relied on and enjoyed the support and companionship of Michael Muller and Zulema Reyes. Norma also met many new friends in the Wartburg community.

The family thanks the amazing team of compassionate and hard-working nurses and aides led by Medical Director Frank Polcari at Wartburg Rehab who helped care for Norma at the end. We also thank Calvary Hospice Care and the supportive ministry of pastors Tom Buchanan and Kimberli Lile.

Per Norma’s wishes, no formal services will be held; her cremains will be buried in the family plot at Beechwoods Cemetery in New Rochelle on Tuesday September 6th at 1 pm. Our dear Norma will be missed. Please raise a glass and toast a life well lived.

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