A love story that needed a second chapter

“Love isn’t something you find. Love is something that finds you,” actress Loretta Young said. Sometimes that finding is shot like a straight arrow. Sometimes the arrow takes a few twists and turns.

It was 2004. While I was taking the necessary education classes to renew my teaching license, I taught water aerobics at Knollwood Country Club to a group of about 20 senior citizens, male and female. Some of my “students” were a bit cantankerous and inattentive at first, while others were completely endearing from the moment we met. Water aerobics class was held several days a week and I found, as we moved through the water, each of them had layers of wisdom and life experiences to share.

Most likely, nobody else saw the “classroom” within the pool that I immersed myself in, but I did. And I listened with rapt attention from a front row seat. As I listened to their stories, it took my mind off my own, which was dissolving in divorce. I was 47. 

By complete happenstance, I sat directly across from Jackie Lonchampt at the annual water aerobics holiday luncheon, which was held in one of the fancy upstairs rooms of the country club. The place was lavishly decked out in Christmas finery, and to be honest, I kind of felt like I didn’t belong sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the distinguished crew assembled. But I found my smile and thought – maybe nobody would notice.

Both sides of a long banquet table were filled to capacity and there was much light-hearted chatter among us as we waited for food to be served. I couldn’t tell you one thing I ate that day, but I will never forget the love story Jackie shared with me. It was a love story that spanned four continents and 47 years. Even before she reached the end, without warning, emotion spilled down my cheeks.

A Frenchman by the name of Yves Lonchampt was born in Boufarik, Algeria, in 1925, a time when radio was considered to be the window to the world. Before he was old enough to drive a car, he found himself in a pilot’s seat and became a P-47 fighter pilot.  In 1945, after World War II, he was stationed at Selfridge Field near Mount Clements, Michigan. While in pursuit of his law degree he met Jackie Jeanneret, a freshman at Wayne University studying French. Beyond her striking good looks, she was clever, artistic, and effortlessly matched wits with Yves. They fell in love and made plans to marry after they finished their education. 

Upon graduation Yves opened a law office in Algiers, North Africa, along the picturesque Mediterranean coast, 20 miles from his birthplace, and asked Jackie to join him. Her parents swiftly ran interference to this plan as they did NOT want their only daughter so far from their Michigan home. The friction became a weight on their hearts, and caused the lovestruck couple to break up. They parted ways. 

During this time, Yves sent countless letters to Jackie via her parents’ home address, but like a scene from the fictional story The Notebook, Jackie’s mother destroyed them all. Beyond the letters, Yves made valiant attempts to connect with Jackie as he employed the efforts of buddies who were commercial pilots, the Red Cross and even the Detroit Free Press. All failed.

Eventually, life moved on for both of them and each “tied the knot” with someone else.

Mary is flanked by her dear friends Jackie and Yves Lonchampt.

Perhaps it was karma or simply a twist of fate unforeseen by Jackie’s parents when her husband, Oscar Navarro, was given a job transfer that took them to Buenos Aires, Argentina —  5,546 miles from Detroit. They lived there for 15 years. 

In 1981, Jackie’s father came to live with her and husband Oscar after her mother passed away. At this point, the Navarro family had settled into a content, quiet life in Edwardsburg, Michigan. 

The following year, her father received the last piece of mail that was forwarded from his Detroit address. It was a letter addressed to Jackie. Curiously, it was from a French woman who had been working in Southfield, Michigan. As it turned out, this woman was the conduit for a connection with Yves. Jackie promptly responded with updated information, which included her Edwardsburg address and sent it back to this mystery messenger.

Upon receipt, Jackie’s note was tucked into the woman’s satchel. Her intent was to hand deliver it to Yves, who by now made his home in Versailles, France, after fighting in the Algerian war.

En route to France via Montreal, the woman was met with a terrible fate. Victim to a catastrophic car crash, she was hospitalized in a coma for six months. 

At long last, by the end of 1982, the woman was well enough to return to France. Against all odds, she not only remembered the note, but still had it in her possession – and delivered it to Yves. 

Undaunted, Yves put pen to paper and in a lengthy correspondence detailed his life as it had transpired over the last 37 years. It was mailed to the Edwardsburg address.

As might be expected, Jackie’s husband Oscar wasn’t too keen on the renewed contact between Jackie and Yves. After all, Jackie was happily married with three grown children and a couple of grandchildren. Consequently, the only communication over the next 10 years between Yves and Jackie became an exchange of impersonal Christmas cards.

That all changed when in 1990, nine months after Yves was divorced, Jackie’s husband of 38 years passed away. Jackie’s Christmas correspondence in ‘91 explained her current status and that became the springboard to their rekindled romance.

No doubt there were at least a thousand or more things that had changed over the — nearly five decades since they’d seen each other, not the least of which was possibly their waistlines and dashing good looks.

Would the musicality of their lives be as organic as it once was? Would he have the same wry smile? Would kindness still spill from her eyes? There was only one way to find out. And even though it was a time before they could lean on the assistance of cell phones, internet, and social media, a visit was planned as soon as arrangements could be made.

It was June of ’92 when, and at first glance, Yves noticed Jackie had accessorized her dress with the “sweetheart” pilot-wing pendant he had given her in 1945. It was as if they hadn’t skipped a beat.

Just a year later in a charming garden ceremony, gathered with family and a few friends, Jackie said, “I do” to her P-47 pilot. They spent 23 happy years together, traveling, attending the South Bend Symphony, and antiquing. They both became accomplished artists and maintained a beautiful home in Edwardsburg, adored by all who knew them. 

Jackie and Yves became dear friends of mine. Over the years we shared many stories, but none with the gravity of their love story. They muscled through adversity and like cream, rose to the top of it. They inspired me and sprinkled hope into my life – a gift I have cherished ever since.

I often marvel at how the universe brought us together. Yves was the one who attended water aerobics. Jackie, who was terrified of the water, never so much as dipped her toes into the pool. It was my good fortune, nonetheless, that she joined in the merriment of that holiday luncheon in 2004. 

They’re gone now … I miss them. 

July 20, 2016, at the age of 91, Yves lost a brief battle with cancer. Three months later, after a mysterious short illness, perhaps takotsubo cardiomyopathy, better known as broken heart syndrome, Jackie was reunited with Yves once again.

I can still hear their strong French accents, their lively conversation, and their infectious laughter. I can vividly picture the sparkle in their eyes when they recalled their love story with all its twists and turns. In spite of the sheer improbability of it, love found them.