71 years. How many couples do you know that’ve been married for that long? These days you can come across 40 and 50 years with increasing frequency. However, 71 years is quite rare. It says more than just a long-lasting marriage. It speaks of a lifetime shared together, rich with memories, ups and downs, and a perspective that only long life can offer. I figured that there must be some sort of secret to a marriage that can last for such a long time. If I could just ask a few of the right questions to this remarkable couple, perhaps some hidden nugget would be revealed. As a photographer in the wedding business, I wanted to be able to pass on some of that wisdom to my couples. As a married woman, I wanted to know for myself.
So I prepared to make the trek to the home of Dr. Bernie and Mrs. Irene Metrick in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. I was armed with my notepad –scribbled with questions, a digital tape recorder, and of course, my camera. I consider myself a photojournalistic photographer — ready to capture all those fleeting moments with my lens — but this was somewhat different. I was going as a photographer AND as a journalist, which isn’t the same thing. I wasn’t exactly sure how other interviewers typically worked. For my case, I was ready to ask questions and listen attentively to their answers, but I was also prepared to occasionally interrupt the interview for some photos. I was hoping to gleam insights into what makes a successful marriage, generally speaking, while at the same time capture this special and specific relationship.
I debated how I should shoot them. Being so accustomed to shooting engagement pictures, I thought about taking them outside, maybe photographing them in a romantic setting. After all, just outside their home, there’s a charming footbridge that joins Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach. This could be a perfect spot, I thought. However, when I entered the Metricks’ well-lived-in apartment, I could only imagine photographing them in the comfort of their own home, amidst the much-treasured art that adorns their walls and surrounded by albums of photos with time-frozen glimpses of a shared life. I didn’t want anything artificial. I simply wanted to photograph them as they are and as they live. For a couple married 71 years, the romantic artifice of standing on a bridge to capture their love isn’t really required. You could feel it just by sitting with them on their living room sofa.
I’m so used to photographing wedding settings, shoes, rings and bouquets. Here, the details that drew my eye were different. I felt compelled to photograph photographs, albums, and framed pictures. My intention wasn’t to reproduce them. I just wanted to photograph Bernie and Irene looking at their photos, and to capture them as they are today, surrounded by images which brighten any present moment with the immediacy of the past. It was these photos that were the unmistakable essential elements of their life.
I asked them to start the discussion from very early on in their lives. Irene remarked, “We started early too.” She was referring to their crossing paths at such a young age. I meant event further back from when they were born. Bernie chimed in: “I was circumcised after eight days and then I couldn’t talk for two years.” I was happy they shared a sense of humor. It set me at ease. And although they had two very distinct and independent voices, their familiarity with each other allowed them to finish each other’s sentences effortlessly.
She was ten. He was twelve. They had first met in the grocery store where Bernie worked and where Irene’s parents were frequent customers. Irene was a dedicated student, but she was always happy to take a break from her studies if her parents needed her to fetch something at the store. Of course, they were too young at the time to act on these initial feelings, and it would be several more years before the start of their relationship.
It was a fascinating coincidence to learn that Bernie had started out his career in photography. He was only thirteen years old when he started to develop pictures. The difficulties of the Great Depression were not enough to discourage the young entrepreneur, and it wasn’t long thereafter that he opened a photography store which he rented for $10/month. A roll of film cost 25 cents to develop. Then, in an age of 3×5 pictures, he devised a clever promotion that led to a lot of business. He was the first to give away a full 5×7 with every roll developed! It was in that store when he first really “noticed” Irene. She had brought in a roll of film to be developed, and when he glanced through the negatives, he saw a more mature Irene – almost a full 16 years of age – in a bathing suit! He was now smitten and resolved to ask her out. Perhaps unwittingly, Irene knew something about promotion too.
As a wedding photographer, of course, I had to ask details about where Bernie and Irene were married. The venue was a famous restaurant called The Little Oriental, which was located on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. It was an elegant spot, and Bernie remembers it as an expensive affair costing almost $300. Luckily, Irene’s father had a liquor business in Nyack, NY and supplied all the drinks. Still, even with that help, they couldn’t afford a photographer, and Bernie took many of the images himself. He would set the timer on the camera and race into the frame. As there were no readily available color photos in those days, he would have an artist sketch a drawing of the veil and then he would paint the photos using oil colors. Bernie showed me a gorgeous photo – shrouded in a soft dream-like aura – as an example of his work. It was difficult for me to imagine how this was accomplished back then. He was so proud of his skill that he created a colored postcard of the happy couple, and sent it to all his guests after the wedding in appreciation of their gifts. It must have been the first photo ‘Thank You’ card.
As they recounted stories and leafed through the pages of their albums, they would exchange loving glances. A photo of a young couple on Coney Island drew smiles. A photo of Bernie’s mother brought back this memory: When Bernie couldn’t afford a birthday gift, Bernie’s mother had sewed an outfit for Irene that Irene has kept to this day. A photo of Bernie’s Brother reminded them of the obstacles they had faced early on: Bernie’s brother wanted Bernie to meet a wealthier girl and thought his relationship with Irene wouldn’t last too long. There was a moment, when I saw how happy they were surrounded by all these old photos and images, that I felt incredibly lucky to be a photographer. Seeing how important these albums were in their lives and how pleasurable it was to simply sit and reminisce, I admit to taking some satisfaction in thinking that as a wedding photographer, I was capturing similar moments for others to be treasured many years in the future.
As a Yiddish speaker, Bernie read the Yiddish papers that chronicled the increasing mistreatment of the German Jews, and he felt compelled to enlist in the army at 26. I asked Bernie if he feared being killed, and he replied that he only feared being wounded. For being wounded meant an unbearable hardship on his wife and his children. He lamented that today, in the context of wars with far less clarity of purpose, people forget how terrible it is to return wounded. For me, this particular remark really underscored his selflessness and sensitivity, qualities which must be the foundation of a long-lasting marriage.
Bernie was one of the liberators of the Langenstein-Zweiberge Concentration Camp, a satellite camp of Buchenwald. After the success of Allied bombing raids, it was essentially an underground slave labor camp, and decades later, required a tenacious effort on Bernie’s part to properly document its existence. It’s a remarkable story worthy of more than casual mention. I bring it up here in the context of trying to understand if there was anything that Irene didn’t know about Bernie or that Bernie didn’t know about Irene. After all, while they always presented themselves as a single unit – knowing absolutely everything about each other – I had to question whether that level of intimate knowledge was ever possible for any couple. However, no matter how hard I pressed, the only time I could perceive even the slightest gap was when Bernie returned home and life continued without much discussion of what had happened overseas. The horrors of the war were too traumatic to even talk about in the immediate post-war years, nor was it necessary. Irene had treasured the heartfelt letters Bernie sent home during his absence and heard his voice emerge from the words as if he was there with her. In that sense, they were always together without interruption. Now, they were on the threshold of a new and glorious chapter of their life together. The wonderful and prescient dream Bernie had one night while abroad – of a little red-headed girl – was no longer just a dream.
At some point during the interview, I tried to redirect the conversation away from the biographical in order to understand what made their relationship so strong. Did their respective parents set a good example for them? Perhaps, though this wasn’t the reason their marriage was successful. Were they a model to their own kids, all of whom have enjoyed long marriages? They no doubt were positive influences, but as Irene pointed out, a marriage exists only between two people, so marital bliss isn’t something that can be inherited or passed on. Some people are naturally inclined to honor and uphold their commitments, of which marriage is the most serious. Speaking about the Ketubah, Irene said, “A contract is a contract.” Yet, other couples sign their marriage contracts with equal faith and conviction, and their marriages do not last seven decades.
Towards the end of the interview, Irene said something very heartfelt which really struck me. We were discussing arranged marriages, which were popular back then. Irene explained in plain terms: “Unlike our friends, whose friends had piled them together, we had chosen each other and our parents couldn’t do anything about it. Our friends had companions. We were not companions. We were lovers from the start.”
So was it luck? Bernie had talked about luck several times. He spoke of his belief that he had a guardian angel that always looked over his shoulder. He mentioned it in the context of unexploded bombs or incredibly fortuitous circumstances during the war that spared his life. And so perhaps it was a bit of luck – that guardian angel – that also led him to his soulmate so early in life. I couldn’t dismiss the possibility, but admittedly, it wasn’t an entirely satisfying conclusion; that they were just lucky to have found each other and to have been so well suited for each other. I was hoping to pass on something more than just “luck” as advice to my readers.
I can only imagine that when the mind reflects over the time span of many decades, it tends to overlook the bad. We want to remember that the days spent together were only happy days. Surely every relationship has its crises, I thought; those moments when all we see is what’s wrong with our partner and not why we’re so blessed to have each other. And perhaps it’s that accumulation of anger, of insufferable moments, that over time can lead to resentment and break up many couples. Yet, as I got to know the Metricks, I saw that this wasn’t the case with them. It wasn’t the gloss of nostalgia which erased from memory any disagreements and fights they may have had. As part of their daily routine, they truly did set aside their differences. Irene explained that when they argued, they solved the problem, even if it kept them up late at night, and never brought it up again.
Therefore, perhaps more than anything else, this was their secret, perhaps THE Secret to such a long-lasting relationship: that it simply doesn’t pay have big fights about nonsense or to prolong arguments. For it’s that simple understanding that allows for a couple so in love early in life to continue to love and adore each other as the years pass. They were lucky no doubt, but they also had the common sense required to keep things in perspective. After a fight, Irene’s attitude was “that was that,” to never to revisit the same fight again, and she meant it! Bernie added saucily,”You can be angry all day, but you have to make it up in bed at night.” And that’s why, to this day, they still hold each other’s hands as they sit and as they walk, with as much tenderness as those first moonlit Brooklyn strolls.
You can listen to the full interview by pressing Play below:
Those interested in reading more about the Metricks can read Bernie’s newly published autobiography, The Dentist.
Holding their wedding photo. Bernie set the timer and ran into the photo when they couldn’t afford a photographer
Bernie had an artist draw the veil on this photo and then colored it with oil colors.
The other happy couple that shares the living room sofa.
Always holding hands.
The Young Couple
Leafing through their albums
Another hand colored photograph by Bernie
Bernie reunited with thankful survivors of the camp he helped liberate
On his favorite old-school exercise bike, part of his daily routine
Bernie demonstrating how he effortlessly holds a 10 lb weight.
One of Irene’s paintings that adorns their home
Age has not stopped Bernie from mastering computers and the internet
Irene with their two daughters
Bernie holding his recently released autobiography- see the link above to buy it 🙂
Their daughter wearing the same veil Irene wore at her own wedding. It was two veils sewn together, given to Irene by her friends because she could not afford her own. Both of her daughters would go own to wear the same veil at their weddings as it was passed down to them.
Bernie showing off the scotch he drinks everyday – since her was 3!
Irene paging through the book that Bernie published, The Dentist