By the time I came along, they were old: white-haired, bodies softened by age and weakened by disease; tested by hardship, war and the Great Depression. As the youngest of their eight grandchildren, I knew them as Grandma Long, who still spoke with the strong accent of her native France, and Grandpa Long, who moved with extreme difficulty because rheumatoid arthritis had attacked his spine.
I could not see until many years later and after the death of my grandfather that theirs was truly a love story; two people brought together during the Great War, whose devotion to each other never wavered during months of separation and uncertainty, and then 50 years together.
It started with a chance meeting: Richard Donohue Long, a tall, good-looking American soldier from Syracuse, New York, walked down a village street in France, just as Leone Sicre threw open a pair of wooden shutters to shake out a duvet cover. He ducked; she slammed the shutters closed.
After the war, Dick wanted to marry Leone, but she refused to be a war bride like so many girls in her village who seemed to be going off with soldiers they barely knew. So Leone sent Dick home to think about it, not fully comprehending the distance between France and New York State. For six months he wrote and despaired when he never got a reply (his letters were intercepted by one of Leone's sisters for reasons that were never quite clear). In the one letter that finally reached her, Dick said he would stop writing and accept her silence as final rejection. She quickly wrote back and agreed to marry him, but only if they could live in France.
Dick and Leone married in 1920, and lived in Paris for two years, before moving to the U.S. with their baby daughter because Dick's mother claimed to be dying -- until she threw open the front door to welcome him home, with a frosty reception for his foreign bride. When they needed a home of their own, Dick bought the first farm he could find in a remote, rural area of northern New York State.
For Leone, it was a long way from France, and her many brothers and sisters, the parents she never saw again, and life in a bustling village. Instead, she learned to milk a cow, churn butter and tend crops. By the time the Depression hit, Dick and Leone had three little girls; my mother was the middle child.
In the leanest Depression years, the farm put food on the table, but there was no money; soon, the bank threatened foreclosure. Come December all appeared lost, but Leone had a plan: She cut willow branches, shaped them into circles, and wrapped them with ground pine. Sitting up all night, she made wreaths until her hands cracked and bled. Early in the morning, she packed the wreaths into a hamper basket fitted with leather shoulder straps. With that basket on his back, Dick caught the milk train to Syracuse, where he walked door to door, selling wreaths right up until Christmas. Week after week, they finally made enough to pay the interest on the mortgage, with exactly one dime left over, which Dick spent to buy Leone a powder puff.
After the Depression, Dick got a job as a state highway foreman, and the couple moved to Oswego, New York, living a few miles from the city limits. Their last home was an old farmhouse heated by a coal stove in the kitchen. I can still picture Grandpa sitting at the table with his sketchpad as he drew landscapes, deer and birds from memory, a postcard, or a photo in a magazine, and Grandma bringing him a cup of coffee and telling him his latest picture was her favorite. He called her "Cherie," and their private conversations were always in French. Even we grandchildren could see they were each other's first priority.
When my grandfather died in 1970, sadly on my grandmother's birthday, they were no longer the tall, handsome American soldier, and the coquettish French girl with the chestnut hair. Time and toil had worn them down, but their love was unchanged and, no doubt, eternal.
Portraits of a true love story, see the slideshow: