Monday, October 1, 2007

39 happy years

Written by Sally Osborn from New Marriages and Old Families

On my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary my parents decided to throw them a surprise party. They used to visit us quite often for Sunday lunch anyway, although it was difficult to vary the standard fare of roast meat, roast potatoes and vegetables, since the only other main course my grandfather would countenance eating was shepherd’s pie. None of this curry stuff or any other new-fangled rubbish.

We invited all the aunts, uncles and cousins, and they were hiding in the dining room when my grandparents drove up in their Hillman Hunter, and there was much merriment at the expression on my grandmother’s face when she realised what was happening. But she turned the tables on us a bit later when we were about to toast their 40 happy years. ‘Um, we really need to tell you all something,’ she started, unusually hesitantly. ‘We’ve kept it a secret all this time, but it’s actually only 39 years…’ You could see the cogs turning as all the adults worked out there were then only six months between their actual wedding date and my mother’s birth.

Every family has secrets, but I hadn’t realised quite how many my grandparents had until I started researching my mother’s side of the family tree. My mum’s paternal grandmother had always maintained an air of absolute propriety and starched linen, but it turns out that her husband was born illegitimate, to a mother who had the temerity to have another son on the wrong side of the blanket before she actually got married. And what’s more, said grandmother was housekeeper for the widowed local vicar for years, who on his death left her, by then also a widow, his sizeable house and all its contents. I’m sure we can all draw our own conclusions.

On my grandma’s side, we knew her father was somewhat feckless but mum had always been told he was a schoolteacher and a methodist preacher, so reasonably respectable. Turns out he was really a jobbing gardener, and while he probably was a lay preacher he was also a wife-beating alcoholic who was inconsiderate enough to die at 52, leaving said much younger wife with nine children under ten, including twin girls born after his death. The older children, including my grandmother, were put into service as soon as they were old enough, which in those days was about 11 or 12, otherwise the family wouldn’t have survived.

And my embarrassed grandparents? My mum told me very recently that not only had they obviously slept together before the wedding, he’d also had a roll in the hay with one of grandma’s sisters. Not that she took that kind of misdemeanour lying down, if you’ll forgive the pun – on one occasion she came across him sitting with another girl on the river bank, presumably up to no good, and she pushed him in the water!

Sally Osborn is a writer and publisher from London, recently married for the second time around. Her blog is about the ups and downs of merging two families, as well as her and her husband’s search for the roots in their families’ histories.


Liz said...

What's interesting is that this story, while scandalous to one generation, would elicit just a whisper of interest from a younger generation. Premarital sex just doesn't have the stigma it once did.

In fact, just last week I had to look up the definition of "adultery" --- my father drilled into my head that adultery included all variations of premarital relations.... I'd been carrying around all this guilt completely unnecessarily!

Thanks for sharing.

Mama Zen said...

Great story! I wonder why they decided to tell after all those years?

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