Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship. This is the 100th and final installment of the series.
This week she talks with two women who were brought together by an extraordinary act of courage: During World War II, Clémentine Lestang’s great-grandfather, a member of the French resistance, rescued Meredith Moseley’s grandfather, a U.S. Army pilot, after he made an emergency landing in German-occupied France. The French family hid the American from the Nazis in plain sight until he could escape. The two families have been close ever since, and Clémentine and Meredith have forged a special bond of their own. In this interview they discuss how their families’ history shaped their lives, and their friendship.
Clémentine Lestang, 31, a watchmaker who lives in Les Rousses, France
Meredith Moseley, 43, a teacher who lives in Sunnyvale, California
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Clémentine’s answers have been translated from French.
Julie Beck: Tell me the story of your grandfathers.
Meredith Moseley: It’s my grandfather, her great-grandfather. The story begins on July 4, 1944, when my grandpa was a pilot in the United States Army Air Forces. He was flying back to England and had engine trouble and ended up having to bail out over Normandy. He knew that the area was occupied, so he didn’t pull his chute until the very last second, so he wouldn’t be seen by Germans. He ended up parachuting into the orchard of Clémentine’s great-grandfather. Her great-grandfather, in this predawn moment, came out and stood over my grandpa, who was frantically curling up his parachute. When my grandpa tells the story, he says, “I didn’t know if I should shoot him or ask for his help.”
Luckily, Clémentine’s great-grandfather was working with the French resistance. He brought my grandpa into the farmhouse and introduced him to his wife and reassured him that they were going to help him. That is the beginning of how our families became intertwined.
My grandpa was hidden for a couple of weeks until they could forge papers for him. Then he lived with Clémentine’s great-grandfather’s family for two months, posing as a deaf-mute.
Clémentine Lestang: Did you say that his name was Louis?
Meredith: Louis is the name that they gave him on his false papers. His name is Lonnie Moseley. The family calls him “our American son.”
Beck: How did your grandpa escape?
Meredith: He heard that there was an Allied front moving through the area, so he went in character as a deaf-mute, and walked to where the Allies were advancing. When he got close enough, he just sprinted right toward the soldiers, expecting to feel a hail of bullets at any moment. As he approached them, he said, “I’m an American, I’m an American.” Eventually they returned him to his base in southern England.
Clémentine: My grandparents and my father always told this story. We really hold it close to our hearts in my family. We really kept this connection.
Meredith: Clémentine’s great-grandparents had two children, a boy and a girl. The boy was about 19 at the time, I think. His name was Bernard. The girl was about 10, and her name is Lucienne. She’s still living.
Clémentine: My grandfather is Bernard, and my grandfather’s little sister is Lucienne. She was 10 years old during the war, and for that reason, it was absolutely necessary to hide from Lucienne who Louis was—she was too little—so that she didn’t mess up and talk about Louis. When she heard Louis speak for the first time, she was afraid because she thought he couldn’t speak.
Meredith: He knelt down and said goodbye to her in English. She was really scared and ran away.
Another story about her is that, back then, parachutes were made of silk. So for Lucienne’s first communion, her mom made her dress out of my grandpa’s white silk parachute. Lucienne still has the dress.
Beck: How did the families stay in touch through the generations after Lonnie came back to the United States?
Clémentine: I have mail from Louis’ mother, who wrote to my family, who sent presents.
Meredith: She was so grateful that this family had saved my grandpa’s life that she started sending care packages to the family with things that were hard to come by after the war. Certain fabrics, sugar, things like that.
Clémentine: And shoes.
Meredith: In the ’50s, when my grandpa was stationed in Germany, he said, “I’m going to go visit the family.” He sent them a telegram and said, “It’s Louis. I’m coming.” He showed up on the train and they were reunited. And he attended Lucienne’s wedding. From then on, the families have kept in touch by writing letters.
Beck: Did the two of you ever write letters before you actually met?
Clémentine: Meredith writes a letter every year.
Meredith: I would send a Christmas letter. It’s not really a thing in France, but I would always send mine.
Clémentine: And your grandparents wrote too. I found letters from them. My aunt wrote more than my parents. They don’t speak English; for them it was difficult.
Meredith: We actually first met when Clémentine was quite young, in 1999.
Clémentine: Nine years old.
Meredith: I was 21 and I had come for the summer. I knew Bernard and Bernadette, and I knew their three children, including Clémentine’s father. But I wasn’t quite clear on who all the kids were. Clémentine was pretty young at the time, and didn’t speak English, so we didn’t get to know each other until I went back to France in 2003 with my brother. On that visit, when Clémentine was a teenager, we talked a little bit more. Her father and her brother are both quite the jokers. Even though my brother didn’t speak French, he understood a lot of the humor.
Clémentine: We had a family meal. It was really fun.
Meredith: I remember a lot of eating. Those are my first real memories of Clémentine. It wasn’t until around 2013 that we connected on Facebook. I was trying to reach out to her and her cousin—that generation—to make sure that we stayed connected. My grandparents were getting older, and they really felt it was important that we keep the family connections strong. And I was the only person in the family who’d studied French. We started corresponding quite often on Facebook. Her cousin came to California in 2015 for a month in the summer, and Clémentine came the next summer, 2016, for about three weeks. That was the trip where we really became friends.
Clémentine: Meredith is so interesting and surprising. She really helped us discover a big part of the United States. We were always received like kings, all of our family.
Meredith: You just never know until you meet someone if you’re going to click with them. Just because we have this family history doesn’t mean we’re going to be best friends. She showed up, with her friend, and it was obvious right away that we were on the same wavelength. I had a lot planned for them, and road trips can be tricky. You never know if someone is going to be up for the adventure or if they’re going to be out of their element.
The first night, we drove up to the Tahoe area. I had an SUV and I had rigged it so that you could sleep in the back, but they didn’t know that. So we parked in the woods, and I started putting the seats down and taking these foam mattress pads out, setting up the back. And every time I did a new step, they were like, “Oh, this is great! Magnifique! Formidable!” They slept in the truck and were happy as could be. That’s the night that I knew that we were going to have the best trip ever. And we did.
My grandpa had passed away the year before, but we got to visit my grandma on that trip, and look at a lot of the letters and artifacts and even the clothing that my grandpa wore when he stayed with Clémentine’s great grandpa.
Clémentine: That meeting made an impression. She knew three generations of my family before me, and it was truly a goal for me to meet her. At our first meal, we were all at the table holding hands, and Carol was saying a prayer, and she started crying, because she was thanking my family for having saved her husband. Seventy-two years later, it was still so moving. It was such a great memory. There you go, I’m crying. She was 93 years old, but she was very dynamic. It was amazing to meet her.
I came back again the following year, to see Meredith in New York and Washington.
Meredith: That was a fun trip. She was going to go visit a friend in Canada and seemed interested in New York. And I was like, Why not? Let’s meet in New York. We spent a few days there doing tourist things, had a great time speaking a lot of Franglais. And then we took the bus down to Washington, D.C. My mom and brother live near there, and we stayed with my mom. She loves Clémentine.
Beck: If you had met another way, do you think you would have been friends, regardless of this amazing history?
Meredith: When you think about what makes people click in terms of friendships, we had this history, of course. But after it brought us together, we saw that we had a lot in common in terms of our outlook on life. We both love to explore and travel.
When we’re apart, we keep in touch mostly by text message. The last couple years, a lot of our messages were about the pandemic and loneliness, what her experience of the pandemic was like versus what my experience was like and how are our two countries dealing with the health crisis. It was interesting to be able to have those conversations with somebody that I knew pretty well and trusted.
Clémentine: A year ago I lost my grandmother, Bernard’s wife, and all of Meredith’s family contacted me and sent us money for flowers. During COVID, Meredith also sent me a package with a puzzle, ketchup, cat treats, a mask to wear too. And a comforting letter.
Beck: Has knowing that this one act of courage and kindness in the past had these effects that lasted for generations shaped your worldview at all?
Clémentine: I think for you, Meredith, it greatly influenced your life. You became a French teacher.
Meredith: I was briefly a French teacher, and I chose to study French in the hopes that someday I would be able to actually have authentic conversations with the French family members. That dream came true.
When my grandpa died in 2015, my dad gave the eulogy. My dad is a stoic type; he doesn’t express his emotions readily. The eulogy was in large part about Clémentine’s family and the sacrifice that they made to save my grandpa’s life. When I tell people the story, they think, That’s amazing. Which is true. But what’s even more amazing is that our two families have stayed in touch and that we love each other like family. It’s not just an interesting historical story for us. Knowing that there are people on the other side of the world who are so much like me, so generous, so warm, and so funny, it’s a reminder that there are people like that all over the world. It’s shown me the extent to which human beings can be extraordinary to each other.
Clémentine: They are really good people, and beautiful friendships exist.
Beck: What have you learned from your friendship?
Meredith: You don’t need to be in the same community or state or country, even, to be really good friends with somebody. Friendship can take very different forms. You can be really good friends, even if you only communicate every now and then. I’ve been able to reach out to Clémentine during some tough times over the past few years, and she’ll always listen. And I hope that I’m the same for her.
Now that her grandmother has died, our parents’ generation is the oldest living generation, and the ties between our family have changed. But right now, she and I are actually the two strongest links between the two families, and hopefully we’ll keep this relationship going for many, many more years.