Lost loves connect in twilight of their lives

My family has one member of the Greatest Generation left. Aunt Shirley suffers some frailties of old age, but her mind is totally sharp. Her role of late has been as wise matriarch — to advise the rest of us on our revolving and evolving relationships, messes and issues.

Then Jack turned up, and Aunt Shirley was transformed from observer of others’ romances to key player. Now pushing 90, she is living the fantasy of so many — the never-married, divorced, widowed — that they will someday connect with a lost love of long ago. In Jack’s case, we’re talking 70 years.

We knew about Jack Stettner because he lived forever near the front of Aunt Shirley’s photo album. He was that magnificent pilot in Air Force uniform.

One photo showed them grinning in front of the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island. In another, they posed with a tiny airplane that Jack trained on. Aunt Shirley said he took her up in it and let her work the controls. She never learned to drive but said she enjoyed “flying” Jack’s plane. In her words, “Unlike driving, there was nothing to hit up there.”

We had questions: Where did they meet? They met passing on the boardwalk. Aunt Shirley was with a friend, and Jack with his brother. We knew that Jack called her Paddy, a nickname taken from her last name, Paderofsky. They were obviously smitten.

It was wartime, and Jack wanted to get married. Aunt Shirley said that at 18, she was too young at the time. But they wrote letters back and forth as Jack went off on very dangerous missions flying B-24s on bombing runs over China and navigating over India’s treacherous “hump,” the sky-piercing Himalayas.

He had named his airplane “Paddy.” On one trip, realizing that the crew didn’t have enough fuel to make it over looming peaks, they all bailed out.

Jack spent the night in a field sleeping in his parachute before being picked up by friendly Chinese. He mailed Aunt Shirley his parachute, covered in China’s red dust, and the keys to the plane. One crew member was never found.

What happened to Jack? We kept asking. Is he alive, and if so, where is he? Aunt Shirley had no answers until last year, when Jack’s children tracked her down online, beginning with her father’s address listed in the 1940 census.

Their lives had gone separate ways. Aunt Shirley married another Brooklyn neighbor, a soldier serving in Europe. Jack eventually returned, remaining active in the Air Force.

As the war ended, a plane taking Air Force personnel back home crashed into Mount Tom, in Massachusetts. Jack married the sister of one of the airmen who had perished. They enjoyed a long relationship, which ended in his wife’s death in 2008, the same year Aunt Shirley lost her husband.

Jack’s three children knew about his long-ago love and went on an exhaustive search for “Paddy.” It turned out she was living in Boynton Beach, Fla., only a few miles from Jack in Delray Beach.

A reunion was arranged. When they met, Jack kissed Aunt Shirley and said he’d always loved her, which he repeats after each meeting. He carried the letters she had written him seven decades ago. Recently turned 90, Jack has lost some hearing, but he’s still upright and handsome.

Jack’s family is now our family, and we are their family. Both elders need help getting to places, and they have it.

Where does this relationship go from here? What does it matter on a circle? As is said, “hearts can be broken, but circles go on forever.”

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Follow her on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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