Forever connected, a little bit at a time

  • LEFT: WAC veteran Rita Landry (right) with her friend Geraldine “Gerry” Champagne. Courtesy

  • A painting of WAC veteran Rita Landry. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • WAC veteran Rita Landry waves through the window of the Town Hall of the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton on Tuesday, November 10, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 11/10/2020 4:47:34 PM

Geraldine Champagne didn’t need to see her old friend, in and out of her life for 90 years, to know she had been reunited, yet again, with her lifelong ally.

“I know that voice,” Champagne, her back turned to Rita Landry, said last fall without skipping a beat.

“She turned around and we cried,” Landry said Tuesday at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. “And then we hugged.”

Champagne died in March at the age of 92. Landry is a 92-year-old woman whose life intertwined with Champagne’s in a series of wild coincidences, ending with their final destination at the veterans home. Both served in the Air Force at different times, earning their spot in the veterans home two months apart last year.

They had a lot to catch up on during their brief time together in Tilton. Only about six months, but it was obvious that remembering her old friend supercharged Landry.

“Students come in and study the lives of veterans,” Landry said. “I’m always ready to tell mine.”

She reads and writes and converses, her mind moving to the past with ease. Her friendship with Champagne started in Lincoln, on a dead-end street. They did everything together. Babysitting younger siblings to avoid chores, running to school, shooting marbles, playing hopscotch.

“We just skipped up and down the street,” Landry said.

They were one year apart and inseparable. Then, in a world devoid of the instantaneous mass communication of today, the relationship ended, seemingly over, after Champagne and her family moved away. She was 11, Landry 10.

In 1974, though, at an alumni reunion at Lin-Wood High School, Landry went to see her old classmates. Champagne had left Lincoln long before high school, but she went anyway.

They had not seen each other in 35 years.

“We saw each other from across the room,” Landry said. “Honest to God, I could not believe it. We moved toward each other and stood in the middle of the huge hall. It was a three-day affair.  We decided to talk later, on Saturday and Sunday. We were together every minute we could be.”

They learned that weekend that both had enlisted into the Air Force. Landry, who said she did it on a whim, at the suggestion of a friend who was joining, was the secretary for a cigar-chomping lieutenant colonel. Champagne was an Air Force nurse and traveled a lot.

Landry got out in 1950, Champagne in ’60. 

They were in their late 40s at the alumni reunion. They had gotten married, had kids, grown apart. Landry had moved to Canada, married a member of the Canadian Navy, had six children and raised them herself after her divorce.

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to a new relationship, based on regular visits, regular chats, regular blending with one another’s life.

They lost contact. Yet again. They saw each other six years later, at Landry’s 80th birthday, a surprise visit arranged by family members. “Oh my God, she came with her camera,” Landry said. “She took so many pictures. She loved Lincoln.

“She came back once or twice,” Landry continued, “then she was not answering notes or calls.”

Landry moved to the vets’ home last summer, still sharp, but needing a little help at age 91. Two months later, in the craziest coincidence of all, Champagne was admitted to the Tilton home as well.

A staff member pieced together the puzzle, that two women nearly the same age had been raised in Lincoln, a small town. He discovered Champagne had a friend growing up there, a little girl named Rita Landry. He led Landry down a hallway, to Champagne’s new room.

He said nothing about where he was taking her.

“He said I have a surprise for you,” Landry said. “There sits Gerry, with all her girls around her. I said something. That’s when she said, ‘I know that voice.’ ”

Champagne was well enough to enjoy their friendship, and this time it was stronger than ever. They ate meals together. Friends knew where they were when they couldn’t find them. In Champagne’s room. Or Landry’s.

“I was active,” Landry said. “And I would get Gerry to join me.”

Landry didn’t know her friend had cancer. She noticed Champagne rubbing her neck now and then, where a tumor rested, and she noticed more and more family members coming to visit.

“The room was full,” Landry said. “People were coming up to me to say hi, but they would not tell me.”

Landry saw the decline. “I would talk to her when she was awake,” she said.

Champagne died on March 5. Like all veterans who die at the home, she received the Final Salute.

Her body lay on a stretcher, covered with an American Flag, in the spacious lobby. Everyone at the home – patients, visitors, staff, everyone – stood at attention and saluted. Then taps.

The gurney was wheeled into the elevator, on its way outside to the hearse. The doors closed.

“My job was to read the last words,” Landry said. “I thanked the veterans. And I said I’ll miss Gerry.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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