04 September 2013

On the 70th wedding anniversary of Gwen and Claude

My grandparents, Gwen and Claude, were married on this day in 1943, 70 years ago. The ceremony was conducted at a little old stone church, St James in Mangere Bridge, which was built in the 1850s. Both were married in uniform, as was the custom of the day, and because it saved a little money, which was scarce at the time.

Claude was listed as a 26-year-old compositor, but he had spent the past three years serving in the Army overseas, mostly with 5 Field Ambulance of the 2NZEF. He had been lucky to return to New Zealand on furlough, escaping the North African desert and the imminent slog of the Italian campaign, and then he was drawn in the lottery for an honourable discharge from the Army in recognition that it was time for the younger men to serve their time. Three years away was quite enough.

Claude had corresponded with his young sweetheart Gwen while he was in North Africa and the UK, and she is listed on the marriage certificate as a 21-year-old with no profession. This is not quite true, because Gwen had enlisted in the services herself while Claude was away, and worked in Auckland in a variety of roles.

Both Claude and Gwen's parents are also listed: the fathers by their profession (fellmonger and labourer), the mothers by maiden name (McCarthy and Powdrill).

In the following years Gwen and Claude moved from their first home together in Waterview to the state house in Onehunga that would be their permanent home together for over 50 years until Claude's move to the Ranfurly Veterans Home in Mt Roskill several years ago when infirmity and the lack of easy access to the house meant he would be better cared for by professionals. In the Onehunga house, distinguished by its atypical sky-blue paint job, now flaking and worn but still vivid, Gwen and Claude raised their three children.

At first the lack of a fridge meant daily visits to the shops at Tin Tacks Corner to stock up on provisions, which went into the cold safe that is still in use in the kitchen. Later a garage was built (which still bears the mark of an unscheduled Mini collision many years ago), and eventually when I came along a white metre-high chain-link fence was added to the front of the property to stop me running out onto the street. The house became a place for children and grandchildren to visit, and for Gwen and Claude to practice their daily ritual of an early dinner followed by washing and storing away the dishes in plenty of time for the six o'clock news. The ancient Shacklock fridge from the mid-1970s still keeps the milk cool in the kitchen, and the busy patterns of the brown carpet still remind visitors that floor coverings can last for generations if you put your mind to it.

All these reminders that nothing ever seemed to change in the house - apart from the one big upheaval of Claude's removal to his new home at the Ranfurly - disguised the fact that by all accounts Gwen and Claude's marriage was steadily building into an institution that stretched across the best part of a century. When they were wed, the world was still at war against Hitler, New Zealand still had 17 years to wait before it got a television service, and the quickest way from Onehunga to Queen Street was by tram.

And at the weekend the small but moderately vigorous clan gathered in the Ranfurly billiard room to commemorate 25,568 days of marriage. There were children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There was a message of congratulations from the Queen, which I had applied for some months back, plus additional messages of congratulations from the Governor General, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Internal Affairs, and the local MP, which were added to the mix. The occasion was perhaps a little taxing for the guests of honour, but then they do have a combined age of 187.  

The Governor General Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae included a poem in his card, which I thought was quite commendably literary for an ex-military man. Written by local Wellington author Emanuel E. Garcia, it observes:

Why is it difficult to see that love
Depends not on alacrity but most
On kindness' depth and the compounding trove
Of stored affection to restore its host

Gwen & Claude snapped on Queen St.

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