Mildred & Arthur “Rinkey” Ashton
Mildred and her 16 siblings grew up in Norristown. Being the 15th child had its benefits; by the time she was a teenager, an older brother and sister each had homes of their own in Salem, N.J., and Mildred got to spend her summers there.
She was at her sister’s house one day in the late 1940s when she saw the boy next door cleaning his bicycle.
Arthur, or “Rinkey,” as he was known up and down Union Street, noticed the pretty girl at the neighbors’ house and was determined to meet her. “Hey,” he said, thinking fast. “Will you come here and help me clean my bike?”
Arthur later introduced Mildred to his huge group of neighborhood friends. They walked around Salem and went to the movies together. Even when the end of summer brought Mildred’s return to Norristown, she and Arthur found ways to see each other.
“My brother had a girlfriend in Salem, and I would ride down with him and we would double-date,” Mildred said.
“When she couldn’t get to Salem, I would take the bus to see her in Norristown,” Arthur recalled. It took two hours to travel from Salem to Camden or Philadelphia, then catch a second bus to Norristown to spend the afternoon with Mildred and her family. Once Arthur got his driver’s license, he borrowed a friend’s car.
“She was refreshing,” Arthur, who is now 88, said of Mildred. “I called her ‘Peacock,’ because she walked like a peacock.”
Once they were both 18, the couple could get into bars and other places with music, where they loved to dance. Sometimes they were the ones making the music. “I played the piano and he played the guitar,” said Mildred, who is now 89. “I tried to play the guitar,” said Arthur. “My fingers would not work right.” Regardless, it was during those duets that Mildred realized she loved him.
“There was no engagement, we just decided to get married,” Arthur said. Two months after that decision, on Dec. 8, 1951, they were wed by the pastor of Mildred’s church, Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Norristown. Afterward, family and friends gathered right across the street at Mildred’s parents’ house. “Friends and family made the food, and then we danced,” Mildred said.
Their ongoing adventure
The couple lived with Arthur’s grandparents until 1952, when oldest daughter Patty was born. The growing family then moved around the corner to a tiny apartment above a garage. Orange crates served as kitchen cabinets.
Arthur worked at Gaynor’s Beverage Store and then General Motors in Wilmington. Mildred bottled sauces for Heinz and packed vegetables for Seabrook Farms. They moved to a larger place in a four-apartment property when Arthur Junior was born in 1953. In 1955, the woman who owned the property asked if Arthur and Mildred would like to buy it. The couple, still in their early 20s, was interested but could not qualify for a mortgage. Their former landlord spoke to the bank and helped them secure a loan. Gregory was born the following year and a fourth child, Michelle, in 1957.
Between the births of Gregory and Michelle, Mildred graduated from Apex School of Beauty in Philadelphia. She apprenticed with several established beauticians in Salem and then launched her own salon. Beginning in the 1970s, Mildred was a cafeteria worker, first at Salem Medical Center and then at Salem High School. She continued to style hair part-time until 2010. Arthur retired from General Motors in 1982; then he, too, went to work for the school district, first as a bus driver and then in the cafeteria until his retirement in 2004.
The couple always took their children to the beach and on bigger summer trips, including to the World’s Fair in New York in the 1960s. No matter what, Arthur and Mildred prioritized couple time, too. Friday night was always date night for them, and they spent one of the two summer weeks that General Motors shut down in either Wildwood or Atlantic City.
Even while raising four children, working, and managing the apartments, Arthur and Mildred put in many volunteer hours at several Salem-area churches. Both taught Sunday school. Mildred played the piano, worked in kitchens, and taught vacation Bible school. Arthur did bookkeeping, electrical work, plumbing, and carpentry, and directed vacation Bible school.
Putting their four children through college is among the couple’s proudest achievements. Another big moment for Arthur was realizing a lifelong dream of building his own home. Soon after he retired from General Motors, an old barn behind the apartment building was torn down. Son Gregory, an architect, drew up plans and Arthur, Arthur Junior, some friends, and some hired professionals together built the home where Arthur and Mildred still live.
The weekly date nights out continued until Arthur had a stroke in 2018. Mildred had one about six months later. Daughter Patty moved in to help out, bringing Maltese/Yorkie mix Rocky with her. “We still try to go out every week, or order in, so the cook gets a break,” Arthur said.
Big milestones, big celebrations
Arthur and Mildred had a small wedding, but in the decades since, their children have thrown them several big anniversary parties.
On their 50th anniversary — two decades ago now — a vow-renewal ceremony was held at Mount Hope United Methodist Church, followed by a reception for 300 people. A Philadelphia production company performed Black Nativity — a play telling the story of the birth of Christ. Gospel and other musical selections were performed by church friends and family members in honor of the couple.
In December, Arthur and Mildred celebrated their 70th anniversary at Serving the Light Ministries with a PowerPoint review of each of their seven decades and a luncheon for 75 — smaller than the family would have liked due to COVID-19. A highlight was a seven-layer cake, one for each decade. A picture from their 50th anniversary adorned the top layer, and cake toppers from their wedding and previous anniversary parties were on display.
Earlier that day, at the invitation of the Magic of Christmas Parade committee, Arthur and Mildred led the annual Salem holiday parade as marshals, riding in a car driven by one of their 10 grandchildren. The couple also has nine great-grandchildren.
Arthur and Mildred have enjoyed every day of their 70-plus years of marriage, they say. What’s their secret? “Raising the children together and always supporting each other,” said Mildred.
“Working together, going to church together, and going to dinner together,” said Arthur.