It took ten years and two children together before my husband and I were newlyweds.
As bride and groom heading for the age of 40, secure in a relationship that had endured serious sickness and enjoyed years of health, we tied the knot retrospectively. By the time we got round to the wedding ceremony itself, our vows had been made in practice, rather than promise, and the wedding was more about practicality than romance.
My grandmother (right) wearing the wedding ring (right hand) that is now mine. A kind Welsh woman (left) took my Austrian grandparents into her house in 1940, just a week before my mother was born (snugly swaddled in the centre).
When it came to the nuptials, we headed for the registry office on a Monday morning while our eldest daughter was at nursery and wedded in the presence of our five-month baby and two friends. It was an entirely unceremonious ceremony.
For our generation, most elements of married life come before the marriage itself. There are those who make a principled decision not to marry and then there are those, like us, who are just rather lazy. By the time we get round to the wedding, our homes are furnished and feathered, our holiday annals epic enough to rival any honeymoon, and honeymoon overlooked because there are children to consider. The ceremonial words intended for the genesis of a relationship sound misplaced, pledging a future together that for many newlyweds is already history.
According to the ONS, if the declining trend in marriage continues, by 2016 more than half of all children will be born outside wedlock. But while many relationships will come to a conclusion without an official certificate, there is also a trend for weddings some way down the road. With no taboo about sex or children outside marriage in our society, defining moments are harder to find.
When two sets of friends announced recently they’re tying the knot after 18 and 19 years together, I wonder why we didn’t all do it sooner. And then I wonder why we bother at all. Because nothing has changed since the day I married my husband – not even my name.
Just in case I should lose sight of love and cite paperwork as the reason I am wed, I wear a wedding ring. My ring once belonged to my grandmother, and if rings could talk, its story would be a remarkable lesson in love.
Inside the band an engraving begins to give away its history: Georg 08.10.38 – my Jewish grandfather. And inside my grandfather’s ring: Inge 08.10.38 – my Viennese grandmother. The date is critical. In March that year, the Anschluss – the union of Nazi Germany and Austria – marked the descent to the Second World War and the Holocaust. The couple escaped the Nazis and came to Britain in the nick of time, where they married. For the love of a man, Inge said auf wiedersehen to her parents, four sisters and brother and became a refugee. It would be nine years before she would see the survivors of the family she left behind.
In September 1939, as war broke out, Inge gave birth to their first child: a boy. But this was not a joyful conclusion to a love transcending race; the baby was strangled by the umbilical cord during birth. My stillborn uncle. Three months later, my Austrian Jewish grandfather was interned by the British in a prison of war camp. Inge was left alone on enemy territory.
In the short time between the death of their son and separation by internment, Georg and Inge had conceived another child. Pregnant and desperate, Inge wrote to Winston Churchill. Please, she begged, could she have her husband back, for she was pregnant and needed him. He posed no threat – he was Jewish, not a Nazi. She was amazed when a reply came from Churchill to say her husband would be freed to join the war-effort. Georg returned just six weeks before their baby – my mother – was due.
Georg was offered a position as a wood-cutter in Wales. It was difficult to find a place to live, with German names and German accents. But a kind family offered them a room to live in, just a week before my mother was born.
Some days, I twist the ring upon my finger and feel I may rouse the ghosts of its previous life. I wonder if my grandmother found comfort in its embrace, or just a reminder of her lost child and absent husband.
Although the meaning of marriage hasn’t changed over the past 75 years, today we don’t actually need to be married to experience it. When my husband and I finally wed, we were not blinded by love, but our eyes were wide open.
In case our incidental wedding demeans the significance of my marriage, I look to my grandmother’s wedding ring, rather like a wise old sage upon my finger. Across the generations it encompasses profound parallels that remind me to appreciate what I have. This ring has borne witness to so much joy and heartache, and still its experience continues to grow, now with its 21st century incarnation.