As co-founder and co-owner of Elegant Eating in Smithtown, Myra Naseem is accustomed to special occasions. At the end of October, instead of being on the planning end of a party, it was her turn to be honored as friends and family celebrated her 80th birthday.
Naseem, who goes all out to decorate the interior of her house every year for Halloween, commemorated her milestone one night with family and friends at her home with a costume party. The next day she, her two daughters Lyla and Kaneez, granddaughter Giselle and female friends enjoyed a tea party at the Smithtown Historical Society’s Frank Brush Barn.
The historical society’s executive director Priya Kapoor is a friend of the octogenarian and was on hand for the festivities. She looks up to Naseem, she said, and described her as a mentor.
“She is my biggest cheerleader who supports me no matter what,” Kapoor said. “She is my person no matter where we are. I feel home when I am around her.”
Naseem’s daughter Lyla Gleason said she, her sister and daughter read 80 things about their mother they loved at the tea party. She said they were touched as many of her mother’s friends, impromptu, stood up and added to the list of things they appreciated about Naseem.
Gleason remembers when her grandmother turned 80 years and was already retired and living in Florida. At the time, she thought 80 was old, but looking at her mother, she doesn’t feel the same way.
“She’s still in the prime of her life,” Gleason said.
With the pandemic’s negative effects on businesses, Naseem could have retired from her off-site catering business. She admitted she enjoyed some downtime during the shutdowns. However, she continues to run the business with partner Neil Schumer. She also attends events to ensure everything is set up to meet a client’s expectations.
Naseem credited her successful partnership with Schumer to always coming to a solution even though they sometimes disagree on the best approach. He is like family to her. For Schumer, the feeling is mutual.
“After 40 years we are best friends, we are family,” he said. “We have a bond that can’t be broken. With Myra, her heart is to make everyone happy. She always says the positive. I couldn’t ask for a better partner, better friend, better family.”
Kaneez Naseem said she admires that her mother continues working and attending social events outside of her job.
“I’m glad that she’s where she is in life right now,” she said.
Kaneez Naseem recognized her mother could have fully retired when the pandemic hit, but she said it’s hard to imagine her not working. The daughter added she loves when people tell her how much they enjoyed the parties her mother has catered.
“She puts such care into every party as if it was for me or Lyla,” Kaneez Naseem said. “She’ll always want to make it like home and perfect.”
Myra Naseem said when she was younger, she had no idea that people would hire someone to cook for a party.
“I didn’t even know there was an industry called catering,” she said. “It was just a fluke.”
The former home economics teacher and Schumer started the business in her Smithtown home. The venture started after Naseem prepared a few menu items for her older daughter Lyla’s bat mitzvah. The caterer she used, who Schumer worked for, asked her to work for them. She did for a while, and when it was Kaneez’s turn to have her bat mitzvah, the business owner couldn’t have it at his place, so Myra Naseem catered it herself.
People from her temple started asking her to cater their parties, she said. Naseem began catering on a regular basis while still teaching for the first six years she ran the business.
“I liked it right from the beginning,” she said. “I think it’s very intuitive. It was almost like a very easy segue. Whether you’re running a classroom or you’re running a party, everybody gets a task and everybody’s doing their thing.”
In 1987, after her youngest graduated from Hauppauge High School, Naseem and Schumer opened their first storefront in Stony Brook, and the business officially became Elegant Eating Ltd. As the business grew, they moved to its current location on the Smithtown Bypass.
With both girls away at college, she said it was easier to juggle teaching and catering. By the time she retired from teaching in the 1990s, she had already been working in the New York State education system for 30 years, with 24 of those years being spent in the Central Islip school district.
A graduate of SUNY Oneonta and New York University, where she obtained her master’s, Naseem said she grew up during a time when young women were made to feel they could only become a secretary, nurse or teacher.
“I think that today the young girls have a very different footing,” she said, adding the best advice for the younger generation is to remember you have to start at the bottom and work your way up.
“You need to see the foundation before you can be at the top of it,” she said.
Naseem’s parents were business owners, too. Born and raised on Long Island, her family moved to Patchogue when she was 5. Her parents owned a dress store in the village and decided to sell it and moved to Smithtown when she was 18. They opened a new dress store on Main Street, where Horizons Counseling and Education Center is located today. When her brother died at the age of 25 after an automobile accident, her mother wanted to leave New York, and her parents moved to Florida. At the time, Naseem was divorcing her husband, and with her daughters only 2 and 3 years old, she moved into her parents’ Smithtown home.
Kaneez Naseem said growing up, she didn’t realize what a positive role model her mother was.
“I don’t know that I appreciated it as a child, but I certainly do now, when I look at her and the way she lived her life,” she said.
The daughter said she realized how courageous her mother was to divorce when she was so young. She said if her mother ever struggled, she never showed it.
“It was us three girls,” Kaneez Naseem said. “It was me, Mommy and Lyla. That was normal to me.”
Gleason agreed, and as she looks back, she too has a deeper appreciation for all her mother did and achieved. When she was younger, she said, she thought what her mother did was normal, but over the years she has come to realize she made some bold moves.
She described her mother as a pioneer who was liberated and empowered.
“Women weren’t supposed to be empowered in those days,” she said. “It was unusual to see a woman take charge and start a career and do all these things without a husband.”
Gleason added her mother taught her daughters that a woman could do things in life with the support of family and friends and didn’t necessarily have to have a romantic partner. She said it has made her and her sister the independent women they are today, and Gleason is now teaching her daughter the same.
“Your life is not all about being in a marriage or partnership,” she said. “Your friends and family can be just as important and supportive as a traditional husband.”
Looking back at life, Myra Naseem said while there were tough times both personal and in her career, she said it was important to stay positive and always realize how fortunate she is. She compares herself to the Weeble toys that are built to wobble but not fall down.
“I always come right side up no matter what happens to me,” she said. “Whether I have a terrible experience or something gets broken or I’m sick or I have to make a big decision and maybe don’t make the best decision, I always come up straight. I always come up headfirst.”