Wednesday 26 April 2017

Loves young dream

Fifty years of marriage have been a blast for Valerie McGrath. Her secret? Luck, love -- and never feeling a day over 30

Valerie McGrath

On Monday -- Valentine's Day -- Eric and I will have been married for 50 years! Our Golden Jubilee: I can hardly believe it. I have always looked at those photos of married couples celebrating their jubilees and thought how old and decrepit they were. I don't feel old and decrepit.

It's a funny thing about age -- your mind seems to zone in on a particular age and, no matter what the calendar says, that becomes your mental age. My mental clock stopped somewhere in my 30s.

The camera, of course, would say otherwise, and, accordingly, Eric and I made an agreement, some time ago, that photos were a big no-no. So, Madam Editor of 'Weekend', no, I won't give you an up-to-date pic of us.

You are, however, welcome to one taken 50 years ago as we departed for our honeymoon in London, at 3pm, absolutely delighted to leave all our friends and relations behind. If they wanted to dance till the small hours they were more than welcome.

We had other, far more exciting things to occupy our minds. Because, like most young people getting married then, our major anxiety was that we might die wondering. But the wedding was done and dusted and, short of a plane crash, we were likely to discover what it was all about in a couple of hours.

I think the success or otherwise of a marriage is due, almost entirely -- certainly 99.9pc -- to luck. And we, thank God, had good luck. We both had interesting jobs, though compared with today's workers they weren't particularly well paid.

But we didn't really want or need much. A good education for the kids (three of them) was the main thing. All three went to private schools, which wasn't really out of the way because free secondary education wouldn't come in for another 15 years.

I worked from home and my job, with this newspaper, was always interesting and varied, so I was more caught up with kids and work than with worrying about Eric getting on my nerves.

He worked as a counsellor with the Travellers, and that was constantly exciting. He was so involved trying to organise portaloos (so that they didn't have to relieve themselves behind a hedge), or with providing them with broken stones on which they could stand their caravans (so that they didn't have to step out into a puddle of mud) that he didn't have either time or energy to get annoyed at my slovenly housekeeping.

I kept him well fed, keeping in mind my mum's mantra, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."

And then, of course, there was -- and still is -- his sense of humour and sense of the ridiculous. It got us through so much.

Looking around at our friends, of the 120 that were at our wedding there were only two break-ups, and they were after many years. All the rest lived together relatively happily for the rest of their lives.

The sex issue -- which seems archaic to today's young people -- had its part to play in the relative stability of marriages. Because most of us didn't have sex before marriage, the first few years after the wedding had a special bloom. It was really great fun!

Then, besides our new, liberated 'pastime', there was the novelty of keeping house. Almost all young city people went straight from their parents' house to their married home. Only those from the provinces who were obliged to come to the cities for work lived in flats. We townies regarded flat dwellers as very dashing and sophisticated.

And, indeed, they were way ahead of us when it came to housekeeping. They had learned how to budget, cook and clean, while we were complete rookies.

Most of us couldn't cook because, in girls' schools, there was usually a choice to be made for the Leaving Certificate between Latin and Domestic Science, and you needed Latin for university. Not that many of us went to university!

So the first time most young couples would occupy the house together was when they came home from their honeymoon.

The houses were sparsely furnished, usually having floor coverings in only one or two rooms. Everything was so expensive that most people, Eric and I included, furnished the house over five or six years. No one cared -- we entertained each other at home and our culinary mistakes were regarded as a great joke.

The point was that there was always something new to look forward to, and that was before we even had babies. They occupied us, almost totally, for another half-dozen years or so. No pill, no contraception other than condoms, and no one had the nerve to buy them.

So we had no time to cast the eye around. And, besides, since we were stuck in the house, there was no one around but the milkman!

Like all our friends, we both drank and smoked too much. No wonder we both enjoy 'Mad Men' so much, because that's just the way it was. The clothes, the drinking, the smoking, the sexual overtures; that programme has it spot on.

I cringe now when I think of how often I drove the car after having a few drinks. We wouldn't have dreamt of getting a taxi. Young people nowadays would be horrified. Different times, different crimes.

Social life in Dublin was quite hectic in the 1960s. This was the time of formal dress dances. The main hotels -- the Shelbourne, the Gresham, the Royal Hibernian -- were venues for big occasions and young people gravitated to them. For the girls, the style and the dressing-up was exciting in itself.

Dresses were all full-length and had been, in almost every case, made by mothers, grandmothers, dressmakers, or sometimes by the girl herself. It meant every dress at a particular occasion was original.

Seven years into our marriage, we decided to cut out the drinks and the smokes. Cigarettes were by far the hardest -- even now both of us long for a fag occasionally. This, understandably, changed our lifestyle somewhat. We started to favour outdoor life -- walks in the mountains and holidays in Connemara with our extended family (Eric is one of six siblings).

But a walk without a dog is only half a walk, so we decided to get two dogs -- West Highland white terrier bitches -- and we bred from them. It was the greatest fun. In hard times, those dogs got us out of many a financial tight corner.

They had large litters -- usually six each. We had them mated once a year, so we had 12 puppies to sell every 12 months. We kept them in the kitchen and the six weeks of puppyhood were hilarious.

When those two dogs died at the ripe old age of 16 we got another two, but they weren't good breeders and we had them neutered. But they were still great to walk the Dublin Mountains with.

The first problems with boredom arose when the children went to school and the house was suddenly empty. This was a bit of a crisis for most girls. In my case, it didn't happen because I was continuing to work from home.

Mind you, I was the only one of my group who worked -- there was still the Marriage Bar -- and I had to defend my position so often that in the end I wrote an article upholding my right to work after marriage.

These days, girls who choose to stay at home have to defend their positions. What is it about people?

And so the years went on. There were major problems every so often, but somehow we muddled through.

The thought of starting again with someone new is exhausting!

Its so hard to believe we are 50 years together. Its been a blast! That's not to say that Eric won't fall for a sexy blonde tomorrow, or that I won't take on a toyboy.

It doesn't do to be complacent, but, meanwhile, Monday -- St Valentine's Day -- is our Golden Jubilee.

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