Names: Cecil and Stella Renfield
Years together: 75
If you ask Cecil Renfield for the secret to an enduring relationship, he has a simple answer: “Single beds.”
His wife, Stella, nods in agreement: “We tried a double bed for about eight or nine months. I sleep like that,” she says, laying her limbs out neatly. “Cecil sleeps like that.” She flings her arms around. “I couldn’t sleep with him, because he tosses and turns and takes the blankets. But I sleep very quietly.”
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They may be on to something: on 15 January 2021, they’ll celebrate 76 years together. In October, Cecil will celebrate his 100th birthday and then Stella her 95th. As Cecil says, they’re the same ages as Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth respectively – but they’ve been married longer.
They met in a dance hall on South Parade pier in Southsea, Portsmouth, UK, in 1944, a few weeks before D-Day. She was 17, he was 23, and they were both in the navy. The dance hall was an Allied meeting place and the dances were “fabulous”, says Stella.
“They were big bands and lots of people. It was a happy atmosphere because we never knew what tomorrow was going to bring.”
They were introduced by a mutual acquaintance. At first Stella wasn’t impressed: “He was too forward. I wasn’t used to somebody telling me that I’m beautiful.”
She adds: “He told me he’s going to marry me the first time he met me. And I said, ‘Please, marriage? [I’m] 17? Go away.’ ”
Cecil shrugs: “I liked what I saw and I saw what I liked. And I said to myself, that’s for me.”
He convinced her to go out with him. At the time Portsmouth was a war town being bombed day and night. The almost constant air raids were a nuisance, says Stella, as it meant everyone had to go back to their own barracks. And while it was scary at times, everyone got used to it “because anything could happen at any time”. They went out when they could, to parties, the cinema or for long walks. “He introduced me to the first liquor I ever had,” she laughs. “It was gin, and I haven’t had another gin since. It was vile.”
They had plenty in common. By a curious twist of fate, they’d swapped homelands: Cecil was born in Manchester, in the UK, but had moved to South Africa when he was a boy. Stella was born in South Africa but had grown up in Edinburgh. Being with Stella felt more familiar to Cecil than the English women he met: “South Africa was sunshine, and everything was bright and colourful – like Stella.”
They also came from similar family backgrounds. “I was from a broken home, I didn’t know my father,” says Stella. “Cecil was from a home that wasn’t broken but it wasn’t close. And I think we found that in each other – companionship.”
And they viewed the world in similar ways. “We were both volunteers during the second world war. We weren’t conscripted. We believed in what was going on,” says Cecil.
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Six months later, he asked her to marry him. They were married in a small registry office in Northampton. At the time it was cheaper for service people to get married than it was for civilians. “So she was a bargain,” Cecil jokes. As they left the registration office, they saw a queue forming in the street. “In those days you saw a queue, you joined it,” says Cecil. “We each got an orange,” says Stella. “That was our wedding breakfast.” They had only 47 hours leave together, then they both had to be back at their posts.
After the war ended, Cecil returned to South Africa. Eight months later, after she had been demobbed in the UK, Stella followed, sailing to South Africa as a war bride.
They set up home in a small apartment in the centre of Johannesburg. They would live here for the next nine years and welcome both their daughters there – but Stella loathed it. “I was 20, I was pregnant, I had no family, … I didn’t have any friends,” she says. Growing up and being in the Wrens, she’d been surrounded by people. Now suddenly she was on her own. Being married and with young children was also a big adjustment: “Not knowing anything about babies or how to bring them up, or how to feed them. It was all very new.”
Cecil enjoyed Johannesburg but he was often working. Eventually they settled but Stella was relieved when Cecil got a job in Cape Town and the family moved to Stellenbosch.
Cecil’s job meant overseas travel. “When Cecil was away for weeks, if something went wrong, I could fix it,” says Stella. She recalls how her youngest daughter, who wasn’t allowed to touch the record player or radio when Cecil was in the house, would break electronics in his absence. “And before he came back, I had to get it fixed. So I was used to doing things. And suddenly this man came home,” says Stella. “So it’s a case of just holding your tongue.”
Living together, they both had to learn to be patient. “Two different people living together, you’ve got different ideas,” says Stella. “[He] used to be very particular. ‘That must be that way.’ “It took some getting used to. But over time, you grow up. You learn it’s not important. The things you think are important when you were young, they’re not important really.”
Trust was important though, to both of them. “I had to trust Cecil with all his traveling,” says Stella. “Because there were parties and dinners. There was always a partner for the odd ones, so I had to trust him.”
They worked and raised their two daughters, building a life together. “We pooled our resources, we built our first home. And I remember the day when we got a letter saying that there was no more mortgage. We’d paid for the house. It was like winning a lottery,” says Cecil.
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A few years later, their oldest daughter married an Australian and when Cecil retired in 1986 their son-in-law sponsored them to move to Australia. Cecil took up glass engraving as a hobby, and Stella continued to work: “I had lots of jobs. I went to Centrelink. In those days, you could do temp work. So I’d finish one job, and another job would be waiting for me.”
Taking holidays together brought them closer. “When Cecil was working and he did all that traveling, he wouldn’t go away on holiday. When he came home he wanted to be home, and I wanted to travel,” says Stella.
Once settled in Australia, they started travelling around the world on cruise ships. It helped their relationship. “Because on a cruise ship, you’ve only got one little room. And if you’re not talking to each other in one little room …” Stella jokes. “On holiday you’re together, and you meet different people, and you talk about different things, and you learn about other people and how they live. It teaches you patience and understanding of other people.”
Back at home, they were adventurous too: a few years ago they went hang gliding and then skydiving. “We became the oldest skydiving couple in Australia,” says Cecil. “At least nobody has challenged us.”
They keep themselves busy these days. They both still drive and Stella goes to her book club and craft centre, while Cecil reads and gardens. They’ve settled in Shellharbour, south of Sydney, and both their daughters and their families live close by. Their neighbours keep an eye on them too. But at 99 and 94 respectivel, they aren’t as active as they’d like to be. “We used to drive up to Sydney often,” says Cecil. “But now Wollongong and Nowra are our limitations.”
Over the years, they’ve grown closer, says Cecil: “I was lucky to marry the right person. Truly, she’s a great lady.” They often think alike, he says. “Stella will start a conversation about something that happened years ago, and I’m just about ready to say the same thing myself. I do believe in some sort of brain waves that connect. It’s proven the way we two live together.”
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They talk about most things – except politics and religion. “As far as I’m concerned, if you’re a Catholic, or if you’re a Greek, it doesn’t matter, it’s your business. It’s got nothing to do with me. And if you’re a liberal or a communist, so be it,” says Stella. “But Cecil gets riled up.”
They try to find common ground. “If Cecil’s interested in art, I must learn little bits of it when he’s talking about it. I can perhaps understand them. Or if I’m talking about sewing, or book reading, I’d say to him, ‘What do you think of this? I want an opinion on it.’ … You have to find out each other’s interests, and try and communicate on that.”
She shrugs when asked if they are good at resolving problems and conflicts. Sometimes it’s better to let things alone for a while, she says. “When you don’t want to see each other, go for a walk. Get in the car, and go to town. Go to the cinema. Just have that break for three, four or five hours. And let everybody just calm down to a simmer. And then you can say, ‘Look, I’m sorry’ – or ‘Are you sorry?’ ” She laughs.
When I ask if they are romantic towards each other, Cecil jumps in: “If she doesn’t give me a hug during the day, I pick her up … Stella will look up to me and say, ‘Hug.’ ”
Stella’s answer is simple: “He does everything for me.” Cecil adds quickly: “Because I love her.”
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