Wise Elder

Inspirational Wise Elders – Hazel Belle Abel

HAZEL BELLE ABEL (1908 – 1999)  My “Very Great” Aunt Hazel – she would be 102 if she was still alive; dying just a few days shy of her 91st birthday. VG Aunt Hazel was my “Spiritual Mother” who taught me everything about creating context for my life when I was a headstrong young married woman of 19. I landed on her door step in San Francisco in 1969 and I spent every weekend for a couple of years with her and “Very Great” Uncle Willard. I was a young Navy wife then and my husband was away serving at war in Southeast Asia. It was a time of great turmoil in our country, with demonstrators in the streets of San Francisco nearly every day and shattered plate glass windows everywhere.  The”tac squad” was in the streets arresting demonstrators and protesters nearly every day. It was not an easy time to be in the military or married to one who was serving our country.  Very Great Aunt Hazel told me  now that I was 19 years old, that I was old enough to begin forming my “philosophy of life”. I stared blankly at her, having absolutely no idea what she was talking about. I thought life was just fired at you point blank, and you reacted. No one had ever suggested that I could construct the context of my life.

I was in my “formative” years and she was an icon in my life. Uncle Willard was one of the founders of Western International Hotels, which later became Westin.  Westin became a client of mine many years later, well after Uncle Willard had died but I guess that was my own doing. Together with Eddie Carlson, Lynn Himmelman, Gordon Bass and Harry Mulliken, they formed an amazing chain of hotels and they were an inspiration to many.  I spent weekends with Hazel and Willard for a couple of years and I’m sure Willard told me a hundred times “Don’t worry about things you can’t change”. Wise advice. Willard also was a grand example of the  importance of integrity and keeping one’s word. To the degree that Willard taught me about business, Hazel taught me about life. Thankfully, I learned at an early age the importance of knowing that we “are all one”….and that whether we’re “management’ or the “worker bees”….that no one is any better than anyone else.

Hazel and Willard had visited nearly every country in the world and I loved to hear their stories and look at their “treasures” from all corners of the world.  Looking back, I realize that I never dreamed about travelling the world like they had….I never even considered that it was possible for me. Looking back today, I see that I have also travelled the world. This is truly a miracle of its own.   

I was lucky enough to travel on weekends now and then with Hazel and Willard. They would be given the Presidential Suites at Westin Hotels and “red carpet treatment”. I remember staying in Tricia Nixon’s bedroom at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles – the Suite was on the top floor and had a grand piano and fireplace and was by far the nicest “digs” I’d ever experienced. Years later I was lucky enough to be given the Presidential Suite on the top floor of the Westin Hotel Seattle for 5 nights – on my own merits, with nothing to do with Hazel & Willard. Back in the late 60s I couldn’t even have imagined or dreamed of the life that I now have.

I remember staying at the best suite at the amazing Awahnee Hotel at Yosemite. I was sent to the airport in a limo once…whereas at home in my modest studio apartment in San Francisco I didn’t even have a car. We were treated like royalty, and yet Hazel & Willard were always “one with the people”. Being “important” or “having status” never meant anything to them. Aunt Hazel taught me to go down the hall at the hotel to find your maid – and introduce yourself. She would say “Hello – I’m Mrs. Abel in Room 1403. Thank you for taking care of us during our stay here.” She would give them a sincere, grateful smile, and a tip of a dollar or two right then, instead of waiting until the end of the stay.  Very wise. They always formed relationships whether with the executives or “the help”. They were down to earth, generous people with a healthy respect for all people. Very wise indeed and I aspire to live my life following their example. After Uncle Willard died and Hazel was in her twilight years, she would occasionally get dispirited. I called her often and still went down to spend the weekend when I could. So did cousins Cathy and Cindy. Hazel lived alone on 40+ acres and didn’t get out much. She and I decided to have our own private “book club” – so I’d get two books and mail one to her. We’d then talk on the phone about the book and do our best to solve the issues of the day and the problems of the world.

Learning to Receive  

Every year or two I would send her a long letter pouring out my gratitude for what I had learned from her. When I had business in the Bay Area, I’d spend a weekend with her and I fondly remember taking her for a ride in a rental car – a red Mustang convertible. She wanted the top down as we drove to Bodega Bay, and her silver white hair was streaming in the wind and she had just the biggest smile on her face.  After lunch we’d always stop for a couple of bags of Salt Water Taffy and she would unwrap them and hand them to me one at a time as I drove home and we’d giggle about how great life was and how much we loved each other. 

My husband John died on January 23, 1999.  Hazel adored John and  was upset that God would have taken him at his age 54 when she was 90 and so ready “to go” any time. Shortly thereafter she had a serious health incident where she almost died from sepsis. I went to see her soon after she came home from the hospital. As was our custom, we’d sit around in our nightgowns talking about the “state of the world” and somewhere in there she asked me why I thought she was “still here”. I said that I thought she still must have something to learn. She asked what could it possibly be, and I said “For many years I’ve poured my heart out trying to tell you the difference you’ve made in my life and I don’t think you have ever heard me. You’d always say “Oh go on Evie, I’m not THAT great. So I told her I thought she would not be allowed to “move on” until she heard what I had to say.  She looked rather sheepish and related a story from the 1920s or 1930s when her son’s violin teacher in Santa Barbara told her she needed to learn to receive. Swallowing her pride and with an open heart, sitting there in her nightgown, she said “OK Evie, tell me once again and this time I will try to hear you”.   So I told her one more time and thanked her for what she had taught me, and for always believing in me no matter what. She listened intently and this time I believed she had heard me at last.  

A few weeks later I received the news that she had died. She had worried about dying  alone in her home and not being found, yet she wanted to be at “Windy Hill Farm”  that she loved.  Apparently she hadn’t been feeling well and asked a neighbor to take her to the doctor. She got herself up and situated on the examining table and the doctor came in and said “Tell me Mrs. Abel, what seems to be the problem?” She opened her mouth to speak and had a massive heart attack, dying instantly right there on the table.  The poor doctor was beside himself and rightly so – but I had learned from the death of my beloved husband that learning to receive just might be every person’s greatest challenge. So I couldn’t help but break in to a smile, knowing that she had heard me at last.  I have a “Very Great Aunt Hazel Angel” now.  No wonder I am forever being upgraded and taken care of so well wherever I travel in the world. How grateful I am to have spent time with my Very Great Aunt Hazel and Very Great Uncle Willard.

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