Oxford, 25 July 2013
In a recent Commonplaces entry I mentioned that my BH (Better Half) and I are celebrating our 55th wedding anniversary. This prompted a reply from Doris: “55 years! Wow. Now you know I’ve got to ask what EVERYONE must ask you ALL the time: WHAT’S THE SECRET TO A LONG & HAPPY MARRIAGE??”
Well, you asked for it, Doris, so here we go.
Do you recall the haunting opening lines of Anna Karenina about happy and unhappy marriages? There must be 107 different answers to the secret of a long and happy one. When BH brought the tea this morning, we went giggling down memory lane on your behalf. Here are just a few of the answers that occurred to us.
BH proposed on platform 11 at Waterloo Station when I was 20 and he was 29. Four years earlier I had opened the door of my parent’s house when he arrived for a party given by an elder sister. His very shiny shoes struck me as belonging to a rich and sophisticated man. I had always wanted to get married and have lots of babies asap; but now, grown up and engaged, we decided to wait till I had finished my training in another 15 months.
After about three weeks I telephoned BH and said I couldn’t wait any longer, would he mind if I didn’t qualify? He didn’t mind, and I don’t think either of us ever regretted it. We had a glorious wedding in London – and I just hope I remembered to write to my parents and thank them.
With the optimistic gaiety of youth I assumed that LOVE would carry us through whatever life threw our way. In fact I never thought of anything much beyond the wedding day.
I had always insisted that I had to marry a Catholic (there speaks the recent convert), and BH, who I think was looking for a Natasha Rostov and her family, found me and mine, sufficiently like. I also insisted on marrying someone with the same Rhesus factor. POW! He was a match! He had a good job, I didn’t. My Dad thought he was too good for me, his Mum thought I was an angel. (nota bene: It’s an added bonus if the two families get on together.)
The honeymoon was a disaster: someone ran into our car and the hotel was more expensive than we had bargained for. This led to one long series of quarrels – but the making-up was sweet. Real life began when we got back to our own, rented, apartment. Within weeks I was expecting.
It has been a very un-calculating sort of a marriage, a lot has been left to trust. I always knew BH would “bring home the bacon” according to needs. Although we were never rich, we always had just about enough, and I don’t remember ever quarrelling about money.
I turned out to be an adequate home-maker with a few hilarious false starts. Think of a soufflé one inch high, and when I knitted him a winter sweater, the neck opening nearly throttled him and the sleeves were puffed. He wore it manfully, once. He saw me through four shall we say “challenging” pregnancies, and I think I helped him in some of his less enjoyable situations at work. He never complained about my smoking although I protested loudly about his horrid pipe. He endured my volatile temperament, and I learned to cope with his rare but lengthy Baltic glooms.
Both of us loved to talk at breakfast, still do, and some of our best decisions were taken over cornflakes, toast and marmalade.
I’m a people-person, BH is an academic. We met somewhere in the middle, and as years went by there was a sort of osmosis of these characteristics. We have always entertained huge numbers of family, friends, and friends of friends, from all over the world, and all ages, at all times of day. Our parents did this when they were able, and our children now do the same.
And oh the laughs! Not the same sense of humour (he was in the army…) but complimentary.
We both wanted children and had names for eight when we were engaged. That’s a wish that must surely be mutual right from the beginning. We are very aware how terribly lucky we are to have our four. They are like the binding agent in a recipe, the egg that emulsifies the oil and vinegar. Sounds fanciful but it’s true.
It’s important to agree on the basic principles, to have a common purpose. Certainly having children and religion were key where we were concerned, as was education. Fortunately, I was never expected to contribute to the family purse so I didn’t go “out to work”. (Please bear in mind that this is the ‘fifties, and ‘sixties.)
“You’re unemployable”, a friend said, when I told her I wouldn’t dream of showing up for work if one of my children was ill. Mind you, by staying at home I saved the cost of:
a cook – indifferent
a nanny – good
a cleaner – excellent
a chauffeur – nervous
a part-time teacher – unqualified
a gardener – amateur, “makee learnee”
a laundress – ace.
I loved it all! One hoped to learn to be tolerant and mutually forgiving – that’s so important. No grudges or sulks. (Say sorry before the sun goes down.) One learned to be generous with encouragement and support, and to give praise when due – the latter so necessary to both sides of the partnership.
It never entered either of our heads that there was a way out of our marriage, it was never an option.
BUT, Doris, we both knew how incredibly lucky we were to have met each other and to grow into each other as it were. We know very well that not everyone is as fortunate as we have been and still are.
Making a lifelong commitment with a virtual stranger is a high-risk business, and I just hope we remember to thank God for it from time to time.