My Great Aunty Barbara was born in 1922. The first world war had been and gone and she was the youngest of four.
Barbara’s the only one still alive. Since my grandmother, Barbara’s sister, the first love of my life, passed away seven years ago, Great Aunty Barbara is the family’s official matriarch. I thought Gran would live forever, and it turns out she didn’t, so Barbara is the only one I can get the stories from. And I do. I go and sit in her flat in North London, and have tea and ask her questions. Questions about her childhood, and her life, and her marriage. She gets frustrated sometimes. She doesn’t remember as much as she used to, and she sometimes gets irritated with me, asking me why I want to know so much.
But her stories are no less compelling for the dubious chronology, or the blanks.
Barbara came to my wedding. Afterwards, she asked me why I spent so much money on one day. She’s blunt, is Barbara. She has a point. But then, there’s always context, isn’t there? She got married in wartime, on 20 December 1941.
Barbara met Dennis when she was 19 years old. They were married for 63 years.
They met when Bounds Green tube station was bombed. Barbara worked in the Post Office on the Euston Road and went home via Bounds Green, so they had to start taking the shuttle bus home from work instead of the tube. Dennis sat next to her in the bus. She thought that was forward. He offered her a licorice. She took it. He caught her when she jumped down onto the street from the shuttle bus. She thought “I like that he does that. He’s kind”.
They started courting. Barbara lived at the very north end of the Piccadilly Line, and Dennis at the very south. Dennis would travel the 34 stops to see her, and the 34 stops back, every week. He first kissed her at the top of the hill of Prince Georges Avenue.
They went on dates every Saturday night to see shows in the West End “Did you spend the week looking forward to your dates, Barbara?” “Yes, dear. But I also spent the week working hard and trying not to get bombed, and dealing with men coming back from the war. There wasn’t much time for mooning”.
Dennis asked Barbara to marry him one day in St James’s Park. He didn’t have a ring; in 1941 there was no chance of finding one. Barbara didn’t care. She didn’t even think about it.
“What did you feel?” I asked. To paraphrase: “Anna, I said yes. He was right for me and it was the right thing to do. Young people today make such a song and dance about proposals and questions. It comes down to common sense. Can you imagine yourself with anyone else? Is he honest and loyal? Decision made”.
I asked her about her wedding dress. She got the material cheap and took it to a seamstress on Upper Street, Angel. I actually have Barbara’s wedding dress in my wardrobe; she gave it to me last year. It’s a beauty, a classic 1940s number. When I held it black and white film images flashed through my mind. It doesn’t fit me, and sadly I’m not sure it ever will, but maybe my children will like it, one day.
“Why wasn’t the dress white, Barbara?” I asked. She looked at me like I was an idiot. “It was wartime. Nothing was white”.
The place in North London where they planned to marry was bombed. Barbara, as you may have guessed, wasn’t fazed. “It was only a wedding ceremony”, she said. “You can do it anywhere. None of that stately home faff”.
They married on 20 December1941 in a Jewish hospital in North London. Their families didn’t attend, because they didn’t see the need. All they needed were two witnesses. The ceremony cost 7 and sixpence…which Dennis forgot to pay and they were promptly chased down the street by the registrar.
“How did you feel?” I asked. I know…you’d have thought I’d have learned by now.
“Hungry” replied Barbara.
They went to Barbara’s parents house and ate a sandwich and had a very small glass of port, because it was wartime and there was no wine or champagne available. They honeymooned in Copthorne, Sussex, at Dennis’s parents’ house.
“What you don’t understand Anna, is that the war overrode everything. I see weddings now, I see all these girls in their finery, and I don’t think I’d have done anything differently”.
When I thought about writing this post, I was convinced I’d find a wartime love story to tell you all. I suppose that’s what I did find. It’s just not the story I had in my head.
What I did realise is this; women have been getting married for a long long time. Barbara’s story is one of thousands and thousands. There is symbolism and tradition that has become entwined around the concept of a wedding, but you could take it all away and it would mean exactly the same thing.
We are lucky to live in peacetime, to be affluent enough to afford a dress, any dress, to throw a party for our friends and family, to pay to have someone document that day forever. We care about rings, we care about how we look, we care about what our choices say to the world.
Somewhere along the line, weddings became something that must represent us, validate us, say to the world “this is the kind of marriage my partner and I want, this is who we are”.
If weddings were just words in a room, no ring, no aisle, no white, no party…would we still want them as much?
If your wedding was something you could barely remember after a year, because there were simply more important things going on…like a war…would you care?
Barbara didn’t have her day her way. She didn’t give a monkey’s. She didn’t feel a failure for it. Women for milennia haven’t had their day their way. They, after all, just got married.
As much as I know anyone who writes for and reads this blog had or hopes for a day full of happiness and love….it makes me question the almost inauthenticity of what weddings have become. Not the feelings. I don’t doubt those. But the institution around the feelings.
We all know the marriage is more important than the wedding. We wouldn’t be reading this blog if we didn’t. But we still use our weddings as a hell of a propaganda tool. Me included.