Warmed by An Old Flame

updated 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Their first brush with forbidden love came early. Seated next to each other in third grade in Syracuse, Donna DelloStritto and Murray Jacobson would hold hands beneath their desks. "One day the teacher saw us," recalls Donna, "and scolded us in front of everyone."

Donna still recalls the affection she shared with that earnest, dark-haired boy back in 1955. It was, she says with a sigh, "the most romantic thing." Given what would happen to both of them over the next four decades, those words aptly describe the love story of Donna and Murray.

Like most families in the 1950s, Fred and Ann DelloStritto and their adopted daughter, Donna—strict Roman Catholics who lived in a working-class neighborhood of Syracuse—seemed the picture of stability. They spent quiet evenings at home, took family vacations and regularly attended Sunday mass at St. Peter's Church. Donna was also happy at Sumner Elementary School, where she shared confidences with her best friend, Murray, the second son of Frank and Beatie Jacobson, a religious Jewish couple who lived nearby.

But Donna's world was shattered after her father died of a heart attack when she was 14. "I don't ever remember a day that felt so bad," she says softly. "It was like the end of my life."

That fall, while both were students at Levy Junior High, Murray became Donna's emotional mainstay. "He would just talk to me, and listen," she says. "He was kind and understanding." As time went on, the two teenagers swam at the beach, went to school dances and sometimes, Donna recalls, laughing, even wore matching outfits—"white shorts with those yellow knit golf shirts that were so popular at the time." Then, when both were 15, Murray pledged his adolescent troth. As Donna sat on the couch at a party chattering with her girlfriends, Murray, in front of everyone, walked across the room, dropped to one knee and, in a quavering voice, sang, "Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone/Without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own...."

Even in those days, says Donna, she and Murray talked about the future, "hoping that one day we would be together." But as the years went by, Murray's parents began to object to their son's obvious—and growing—affection for the young Catholic girl. "My father had a sternness when he said, 'You should marry someone Jewish,' " says Murray. "And when my father said something, my mom always went along with him." In turn, Ann DelloStritto began to oppose the match. "She said, 'Well, if you're not good enough for them, then I forbid you to see him. You're not going to be hurt,' " Donna remembers.

Though neither was the rebellious type, the kids were forced into what they perceived to be their only option: seeing each other in secret. Sometimes they double-dated with friends as a cover. Other times, says Donna, "we'd sneak out to meet at a friend's, or a dance, or the show." And whenever their parents became suspicious, "we would just kind of back off. It was frustrating. And sad."

On snowy nights in Syracuse, "I'd take her to the door, and then I'd have to leave," says Murray. "But we'd stand in the hallway for hours, hugging each other." Once, says Donna, Murray gave her an especially meaningful treasure: a garland of glass beads for her family's Christmas tree. In 1965, after they graduated from Nottingham High, Murray went off to study at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Donna, who was living at home, worked at a nearby bank and took college classes at night. Though the two kept in close touch, Donna's mother was still against the relationship, and Donna remained a dutiful daughter. So, in August of 1967, when Murray told Donna that as soon as he graduated and got on his feet, he wanted to marry her, she turned him down. For Donna, whose infancy had been spent in a series of foster homes before she arrived at the DelloStrittos' at the age of 3, the fear of losing family was more than she could bear. "The idea that Murray's family might somehow be split apart was worse than anything," she says. "And I couldn't take that risk. I didn't even give him an answer. I didn't even say no. I just shut down emotionally."

Murray's heart was broken. "So many men would have just said goodbye, put on the armor. But I kept calling and calling," he says. "Finally, I just closed the door. I buried myself in college. That's how I managed."

A short time later, Donna received another marriage proposal, this time from John Stachnik, her boss at the bank. "He was six years older, stable and secure," says Donna. "And religion wasn't a problem; he was a gentile. So I said yes."

Over the years, Donna, who settled with her husband in Syracuse, had three sons and made peace with her choice in life. She firmly believed that her marriage would last forever. But, for his part, without the girl he loved, Murray was restless. After college, he moved around the country, sampling 45 out of 50 states. He worked as a hotel manager in Chicago, a ski instructor in Colorado and sold real estate in Upstate New York. He was involved in a number of relationships, and twice came close to marriage. But each time, he says, "it was as if something seemed to step in the way."

For 15 years, Murray and Donna neither saw each other nor spoke. Still, says Murray's cousin Mark Jacobson, a childhood friend of Donna's who remained a link between the two, "she would always ask about him, and he would always ask about her. There was never a time I talked to either of them that they didn't want to know about the other."

In 1974, when she was 27, Donna had learned that she was suffering from Raynaud's phenomenon, a debilitating circulatory disorder made worse by the cold or by sudden changes in temperature. Her doctor warned that unless she moved to a milder climate, her condition would worsen. By 1992, her marriage, like her health, had begun to deteriorate, and when she announced that she intended to move to San Diego, she and her husband decided to divorce.

In the meantime, Murray had returned to Chicago, where Mark was living with his wife, Linda. When Mark learned of Donna's divorce, he immediately told Murray, and soon after that, Donna's phone rang in Syracuse. "A voice said, 'You don't know who this is, do you?' " she recalls. "Then he said, 'Sweetheart, it's Murray.' I put my hand up to my face and it felt so hot. I was blushing—just at the sound of his voice."

Several months later, Mark invited Donna for a weekend visit, at which he reunited his two pals. Each was surprised at how little the other had changed. "His hair was still curly," says Donna, who in turn had "more rosiness in her cheeks than I remembered," says Murray. "That, and her smile was brighter. I guess it was because we had had a lot of sadness in those early years." During the weekend, the two went for a six-hour boat ride on Lake Michigan and talked about the past—and their future. "Murray," said Donna, "I don't expect you to understand. But I need to tell you why I did what I did and to ask you to forgive me."

Not long after, Murray moved back to Syracuse to be nearer to Donna. "He called," she says, "and told me that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. He asked if I would marry him." This time, Donna answered without hesitation: "I said, 'I let you slip away one time, and I won't let you slip away again.' "

Murray next asked permission from Donna's three sons, Mike, 26, Fred, 23, and Mark, 21, who all happily gave their blessing. "We knew it was what Mom wanted," says Fred, "and all we want is for her to be happy."

The entire family helped plan Donna and Murray's wedding, set for Aug. 14, 1993, in Syracuse. But fate still had one more remarkable surprise in store for the long-separated couple. The day before the ceremony, while he was helping with decorations, Mark casually mentioned to his elderly father that Donna was planning to convert to Judaism. "My father just blurted out, 'She doesn't have to,' " says Mark. "I asked him what he meant, and he said, 'I knew the girl who gave birth to her. She was a Jewish girl. So Donna is actually Jewish.' "

Stunned, Mark summoned Donna. "I said, 'I think you'd better sit down for this,' " he says. "And then my father told her." Donna's reaction was immediate. "She said, 'I've got to go tell Murray.' "

To this day, no one understands why Murray's uncle never before volunteered that information. "When I asked why," recalls Mark, "he just said, 'Because it wasn't my place to.' "

It took both Donna and Murray time to absorb the implications of the revelation, to make sense of the forces that for more than two decades had kept them apart—and to forgive their parents, all of whom, except for Murray's elderly mother, have since died. For a time, "I was in shock," says Donna. "I felt sad for the loss of all those years. But at the same time, I thought, I have three precious sons, and I thank God for them—and for keeping Murray for me."

Murray, too, says there is no room in their lives now for bitterness or regret. "We were watched over and brought back together," he says. "Who knows what might have happened if we had married back then? So many of my friends got married and divorced. At the time, there were things we just had no control over. Things now are all the happier and sweeter for it. We have so much more joy. "

Twenty-six years to the month after Murray first proposed to Donna, the two finally spoke their wedding vows. Today, they are living happily in San Diego, where Murray sells real estate and Donna's health has dramatically improved.

"When we got back together, I told Murray, 'God kept you for me all these years,' and at times I still can't believe the miracle of it all," says Donna. "Sometimes I wake up in the night and look over at him. And I touch him to make sure he's really there."

Sometimes in the night, Murray confesses, he also watches silently as his wife sleeps beside him, thinks for a fleeting moment that it might all be a dream and then reaches out gently to touch her too.

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