In a World Divided by War, Fate Brought Them Together

You don't hear much these days about white picket fences. They used to be everyone's dream, the symbol of domestic life as we wanted it to be. Then, society either got too jaded or too vulnerable or too hip, and the white picket fence gave way to "Armed Response" as the lawn ornament of choice.

That's why talking to Richard and Stephanie Catena is good for the soul. They live near the end of a block on a Lake Forest street and, if you let them, they'll take you all the way back to a time when boy-meets-girl meant a love story and not a power struggle.

It's their wedding story, a miniseries tale of how they met in post-World War II Europe when he was a dark-haired GI and she was an blond-haired Austrian beauty. Their friends have told them they should put it into a book; they'll have to settle for a newspaper column.

Stephanie was a seamstress living in the Russian-occupied section of Vienna. One night in 1945, she was sewing at her aunt's house, which was in the American zone. Walking home at 10 at night, she came upon a staggering 18-year-old Richard Catena, who she describes as being "drunk as a hoot owl." Struck by her beauty, he asked for a cigarette light and then for a rendezvous at the same place the next night. "I must have been a pretty girl," Stephanie says. "I probably was."

Richard came back the next night--sober this time--but wasn't sure if Stephanie was the girl from his stupor the night before. "Are you the fraulein?" he asked. She laughed and they danced all night at the Tuxedo Club in the American section. The next day he bought her flowers.

"I just fell in love with her," Richard says.

They dated for a year, until Richard's tour of duty was up. He wanted to stay but went back home to Rochester, N.Y., telling Stephanie he'd send for her. He was stymied, however, because he didn't have the money.

Each pined for the other. Stephanie cried to her mother, who would tell her, "If he's meant for you, he'll be back." For the next 18 months, they wrote. The letters must have been special, because the Catenas still have dozens of them in a plastic bag. Richard grew ever more miserable in Rochester until, he says, "I got tired of being the town drunk. I woke up one morning, looked at her picture and said, 'That's it, I'm going back in the Army.' "

He re-upped and was sent to Germany. But in a divided Europe, getting Stephanie over from Austria wasn't so simple. Richard had to keep finding ways to get to Austria. On one visit, he told her he was going AWOL and renouncing his U.S. citizenship.

Stephanie wouldn't let him. Somehow, she says, she'd get to Germany. She eventually sneaked across the border, and Richard kept her illegally in a German home for the next two years. That ruse ended when local police going door to door in search of the mother of an abandoned baby discovered Stephanie and found she didn't have proper papers. She was detained until Richard, posing as an American military policeman, said he needed to question her. Instead, he hid her behind a collapsible backseat in a '38 Mercedes-Benz and drove her back to Austria.

This is only part of the tortured trail that finally led to their marriage in December of 1951, six years after they first met. By then, Stephanie had returned to Germany with proper papers, and a justice of the peace married them. "Richard didn't understand him," Stephanie says, laughing. "He said, 'You can kiss the bride,' but Richard was so excited, he didn't kiss me, so his brother kissed me. I still think I'm married to his brother."

If so, it's been 44 years.

They are not overly analytical about their marital happiness, but they think their circuitous route to the altar solidified their bond. "People today have it too easy," Stephanie suggests. "Whatever comes easy, goes easy. We had to struggle for everything. Like our home, it didn't come easy. There were times when he had no job. Once we had no food and I went next door to a neighbor for a pound of hamburger to make dinner. But we struggled through."

Life sometimes has been hard, they say, but being married has not. "I don't see why you have to work so hard at it," Stephanie says. "If you love each other right from the start and trust each other, why do you have to work so hard? It should come naturally. Why get married to a man you can't trust? You should know that before you get married."

Standing on their front porch and preparing to see me off, Stephanie says she's told Richard many times that if he finds someone better than her, he's free to go.

"Still looking?" I ask him.

"Yeah, looking this way," he says, turning to face his wife.

Give or take a couple other weird twists of the Catenas' courtship a half-century ago, that's their story.

The only other essential detail is that--and I kid you not--a white picket fence rings their front yard.

Dana Parsons' columns appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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