A writer reflects upon how her 50-year marriage survived cultural and religious differences and stood the test of time.
Next year my husband and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary, a number I can’t begin to wrap my brain around. What’s even more impressive is that we are of different cultures (my husband is British) and religions (I’m Jewish, he is Church of England, close to Episcopal). That means we’ve beat double the odds that something would go awry, and for that reason, this is a tale of modern love.
The first signs of our cultural differences began appearing early in our marriage. My husband worked at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. Back then we lived the diplomatic life that dominates that unique city. Our social scene was formal and obligatory with dinner parties comprised of colleagues and their spouses, carefully balanced by gender so that seating arrangements could alternate males and females.
For many years, I was happy with that sort of thing. Twice a month we entertained, if not lavishly at least with style. Our candlelit table was set with flowers, fine china and silver, and salad always followed the main course, European-style. In the early days, I actually kept a guest book, although now I shudder to confess it. But I drew the line at “hotting the plates,” a class-based tradition in England so that hot food is not placed upon cold dishes. (Similarly, one must heat the teapot before brewing tea, and “bring the pot to the kettle” so that not a minute of boil is lost.) Eventually, I drew the line at living in Washington.
Later, once we had escaped the diplomatic scene, my husband began to accept American informality. We hosted picnics and barbeques. But there were still challenges. My cardinal sin on such occasions was to use paper plates and plastic utensils. “It’s tacky,” my beloved said. “It’s a picnic!” I responded. “You’re supposed to use disposals at a picnic! Otherwise, it’s just a dinner party on grass!”
Rituals around food were not our only point of contention. There were honor codes and language issues, humor and personal habits to be reconciled. My husband once nearly threatened me with divorce because, from his perspective, I had tried to cheat British Rail. We were in England and I’d taken a trip to visit a friend in Devon. Back in London I gleefully waved my return ticket at him. “Look!” I said. “The conductor forgot to take my ticket. We can get the money back!” I felt like I’d just won at Ascot. His take was different. “Absolutely not!” he said, horrified. His British accent made me feel like the world’s worst miscreant. “That would be dishonest!”
As for language, I can’t count the times I had to translate for our children when they were young. The boot, the biscuit, and the bypass all had to be interpreted. Bangers and mash needed explaining. “Taking the mickey” and “a piss up in a brewery” begged for deconstruction. No wonder our offspring took pride in their linguistic abilities, my daughter claiming to be bilingual at the age of five. “I speak two languages,” she said proudly. “English and American!”
On the issue of humor (or humour), suffice to say that my husband still doubles over with mirth when he watches John Cleese in Fawlty Towers reruns. He finds Mr. Bean hilarious, leaving me to wonder if all Brits are puerile. In his defense, however, he can quote Shakespeare, Wordsworth and the War Poets and I don’t know one American who can do that.
Over the years, I’m happy to say, my marriage and my partner have evolved nicely. He no longer worries when I ask guests to pour their own drinks and I’ve gotten used to the soiled handkerchief he tucks under his pillow every night. He finds potluck suppers fun and when I cheat the system occasionally, he applauds me so long as I’ve done it out of a sense of justice. For the most part we now speak the same lingo and laugh at the same jokes. We celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, Passover and the Easter Bunny with equal and ecumenical enthusiasm.
I no longer “get my knickers in a twist” over little things, and I love being called “Darling” or told that I look “smashing.” I’ve relished our regular journeys to the British Isles and take pride in our children’s dual heritage. I wouldn’t dream of Sunday nights without Masterpiece Theatre. I adore scones. My husband swoons over hamburgers.
After nearly fifty years of marriage, I treasure the traditions we’ve built based upon the best that both sides of the Atlantic have to offer. As I look back over our years together, I’m reminded of a splendid epic poem, “The White Cliffs”, by Alice Duer Miller, an American woman who married a Brit in England just after World War II. “I am American bred,” she wrote. “I have seen much to hate here, much to forgive. But in a world in which there is no England, I do not wish to live.”
Nor would I have wanted to live my life in a world without a certain Englishman, because God knows, marriage is hard enough. At least married to a Brit I got to share my life with someone who has “the good manners of educated Englishmen,” as American writer Margaret Halsey wrote. “It’s all so heroic,” she said. It’s also—despite the challenges of any long-term relationship—warm and wonderful, and with very few exceptions, remarkably good fun.
Elayne Clift is a writer in Saxtons River, Vermont. Her latest book is Around the World in 50 Years: Travel Tales of a Not So Innocent Abroad (Braughler Books, 2019). Her regular columns appear on her blog “Criminally Elayne” at www.elayne-clift.com/blog .
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