Living happily ever after

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Margaret Kaylor didn't much care for Donald Mergler when they were growing up in Havre de Grace.

He was mischievous, frequently getting into trouble. One time, he removed the wheels from her new baby buggy and used them to make a scooter.

But after he saw Margaret play an angel in a church pageant, Donald changed his act.

"It was like she was a real angel," Donald said.

Donald stopped his antics and began courting Margaret. Shortly before they turned 18 - she on April 20, he on April 23 - he bought a 10-pound chocolate Easter egg and had their names inscribed on it. He gave her the egg and asked: "Would you like to be Mrs. Donald Mergler?"

She said yes.

The year was 1926.

Today, the couple - both 98 - are finalizing plans for an 80th anniversary celebration in September, a milestone that could rank them as one of the world's longest-married living couples.

However, for the Merglers, the anniversary is about much more than a dinner party or pursuit of a record. It's a celebration of a marriage that has endured an extraordinary test of time, thriving despite the attendant peaks and valleys, and serving as a reservoir of emotional strength.

"Being together has always felt right," Margaret said.

Many details of their wedding day - Sept. 4, 1926 - have long faded from their memories. No photographs were taken, but Donald clearly recalls how he felt that day.

"I remember feeling so good," Donald said. "Everything felt right in the world. It's a feeling I can't put into words, but I've never lost it."

Perhaps as a microcosm of the married life that would follow, the wedding day had its ups and downs.

The Merglers wanted to wed at the Methodist church to which Margaret belonged, but their request was denied because Donald was a jockey and the church opposed gambling. They settled for a ceremony at the home of Margaret's family.

"But we didn't care," she said. "We were young and ready to face the world."

They embarked on a honeymoon trip by train to Harrisburg, Pa. Margaret remembers the Baltimore & Ohio train in which they traveled, with its red velvet curtains and elaborate dining car. She also remembers that Donald was required to present a marriage certificate before they were allowed to share a room.

From 1926 to 1934, the couple lived out of suitcases. Donald, an accomplished jockey who worked for such prominent people as Ralph Parr, a Baltimore banker, had to travel the racing circuit. His work took them to tracks in Baltimore (including Pimlico), New York, Toronto and Florida.

"We moved about every 30 days," said Margaret. "We had two wardrobe trunks that we never unpacked. We lived like gypsies and we made home wherever we lived. Very few people have lived as exciting a life as we have."

Margaret quickly grew accustomed to the lifestyle and the attention that comes with being the wife of a successful jockey.

"The fact that Don was always looked up to as a jockey was just a feather in my cap," Margaret said. "Don was so prominent that everyone back then knew of him, and at first I was jealous. But I overcame it."

She recalled a time when Don told her to buy something new and pretty to wear to a race. Margaret bought a $99 suit and made a hat to go with it, she said.

"I went into the box with Donald's boss, and there was a lady wearing the same suit I had on, wearing a silver fox fur and diamonds," Margaret said. "I was just on top of the world."

They had a daughter in 1930, and named her Barbara. In 1938, the Merglers moved back to Havre de Grace. Donald continued to work in the horse industry in various capacities, and Margaret became the supervisor of classified mail at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

They have seven grandchildren - including a set of twins - and 10 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.

A long marriage is predicated on a long life, and for the Merglers there have been health struggles along the way. Margaret battled cervical cancer in 1952, breast cancer in 1972, and colon cancer in 1992. "I survived because we found out right away that I was sick," Margaret said.

Their daughter, Barbara, died in 1993 of cancer at age 63.

In 1998, Donald underwent bypass surgery.

Margaret attributes the longevity of the marriage to open communication, a mutual understanding about finances and an understanding mother.

"When I first got married, I had this idea that when I said 'Jump' to my husband he was supposed to say 'How high?'" Margaret said. "My mother explained the way it really was. Donald wasn't from a loving home, and he had to grow into ours."

Which he had no problem doing.

"I became Ma's little son-in-law," he said.

Margaret agreed.

"Don is the very tops, and it didn't take long for my mother to love him, too," she said. "Words can't describe him."

"You have to give and take in a marriage," said Donald.

Margaret learned early on the importance of communication. Too many young couples fail at marriage because they don't talk, she said. And they don't agree on finances early on, she added.

"Couples today overbuy," she said. "They buy cars and houses they can't afford and want things that are not within their financial reach. They fight all the time, and they end up divorced."

She and Donald are admired for making it work when many of their friends are divorced.

"Today, people's words mean nothing," Margaret said. "When they say 'til death do us part,' they don't mean it; instead they are thinking about divorce in two weeks. Donald and I meant it."

A Rhode Island couple married for 83 years holds the record for longest-married living couple, according to Selena Gray, a communications officer for Guinness World Records in London. The wife - Amelia Rocchio - died in June, according to an article in The Providence Journal, which would put the Merglers on track for a record.

The Merglers' celebration dinner is set for Sept. 3 at the Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace. After the couple celebrated their 75th anniversary at the restaurant, owner Lou Ward told them the dinner, decorations and musical entertainment would be on the house if they made it to 80.

Ward, 57, grew up in a house a block from the Merglers.

"They were always so kind to us when we were kids," said Ward. "This is just my way of giving back to them."

The event will include an open house at which the public is welcome and will include hot and cold hors d'oeuvres and desserts. Then Ward will serve dinner for immediate family, a group of about 50.

"I recently met with them to finalize the details and told them I would treat them again on their 85th," Ward said.

After the celebration, Margaret said she plans to relax and enjoy her life, however long it lasts.

"I think God will have room for me soon, but I plan on having fun until then," she said.

And Don said he plans to be right there with her. He envisions card games, weekly senior group meetings, and good times for some time to come.

"We have a few more years of fun in us," he said. "And we're going to keep on living our life together as long as we can."

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