Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years.
My grandparents, Frederick and Joy, were married in March 1956. The day, they say, was brisk; the blossoms just beginning to unfurl. They had met by chance one night in a London dance hall, my grandfather home on leave from his conscription to a ruined Lüneberg. When we ask of the courtship, the proposal and the long months that followed, torturously, languidly, while my grandfather completed national service, we are told: Oh, but it was all so long ago now! We can’t remember that far back, my grandmother flashing her wide, bright smile, lips painted always a pillar box red. I think there’s a wonderful story kept just for the two of them behind all that purported ‘forgetting’. Sixty years on, they still smile more than most anyone I know and tease each other with unceasing abandon. In twenty-five years I don’t think I’ve once seen them argue. One Friday in July, to celebrate these sixty years (720 months!) we filled a room with sweet peas and black and white Polaroids and toasted to their union and the family – us! – they have forged.
They are babies of the second world war, marked by their modesty, their thriftiness. They’re far from flashy, ostentatious folks. They grew up in the 1940s counting rationing coupons, evacuated to the countryside to escape Luftwaffe shells, my grandfather arrived at his barracks in Hamburg in 1950, not a house left standing after the Allied bombardment. So everyone wondered if they’d mind the surprise. Would they even like a party thrown in their honour? Would they balk at all the attention? Turns out, being surprised by a room full with the people you love most in the world is a trusted way to plant a smile on a face, modest or no. My great-aunt Janet, Joy’s loquacious worldly counterpart, came all the way from Toronto. Her nephew flew direct from Vancouver. Friends not seen for many years drove hundreds of miles, despite the weak ankles and failing eyesight common to many eighty-somethings, to be present. It was the loveliest time and I still smile just thinking of it. After the initial shock wore off, my grandmother Joy embraced the whole shindig, cracking her particular brand of dry wisecrack and hugging all of her friends tightly, leaving red imprints of her lips on cheeks throughout the room.
I snapped photographs, beamed so widely my cheeks began to throb and reduced the average age by about five decades. I listened to the flurry of stories flying around the room, which seemed to me like agile songbirds fluttering above the tables; stories I had never heard of my great-grandfather Claude’s kind, gentle soul and Aunt Janet’s playtimes spent sorting through shrapnel. My great-grandmother, Alice, I learnt, refused the march to the air raid shelter as the sirens blared. If I’m going to die, she insisted, I’m going to die in my bed, not ten feet underground. My father’s cousins played with Claude as he lay dying of lung cancer, confined to his bed in the north London terrace and made him smile.
In the party’s final hour, Mary (a long-lost colleague of my grandmother’s, distinguished by her toothy, cheeky grin) produced a set of tiny prints photographed on a long-obsolete Kodak Brownie. They were taken during a summer holiday on the Devon coast. My grandparents were not quite newlyweds, accompanied by Mary and her then beau and now husband of many years. The days looked sunny, the shingle empty – and there they all were, in 1957; my grandmother running across the bare shingle in a black one-piece years before Marilyn, the boys playing tennis in white lace-ups and shorts. The penultimate shot showed my grandmother, eyes locked on the lens, tugging mischeviously at the waistband of Fred’s swimming trunks. The final picture in the set was the pair of them, his curls as blonde as her hair was dark, arms entwined, a year married, perched on a southwestern clifftop, gazing into each other’s eyes, into one another. It struck me then, like the waves that still crest and break on that patch of Devon shore, that not much has changed at all, fifty-nine years later.
In a time when nothing is more certain than change, the commitment of two people to one another has become difficult and rare. Yet, by its scarcity, the beauty and value of this exchange have only been enhanced.