Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The day I (almost) shook hands with the King of England

The British are celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, a momentous occasion.  Sixty years on the throne.  She is the reigning monarch of 16 sovereign nations. And they still like her.

In 1939 I (almost) shook hands with King George VI.  Kings and queens were mysterious,  distant figures in my young mind.  I had played with paper dolls resembling their two young daughters Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, but it was hard to imagine what they were like in real flesh.

Then, in the year I began high school,   George and Elizabeth visited Canada.  A few years earlier he had ascended to the throne following the abdication of his brother Edward,  who declined the position in favor of “the woman I love,” Wally Simpson.  That  created quite a furor in the commonwealth. 

We children were quite excited to hear that the king and queen were coming to Saskatoon, and that we would be trucked (literally) into the city from our little village of Blaine Lake if our parents weren’t able to drive us there.  Each town had been given its allotted spot along the parade route to watch the king and queen in their open vehicle smile and do the royal wave.  It was a quick drive-by.  Now what?

Someone shouted that the royal pair would be leaving from the Canadian National Railways train station shortly.  We young teenagers rushed there, and sure enough, the king and queen showed up in the open rear platform and waved once again.  And I, having squeezed myself in front of some adults,  stood as close as six feet from them.   
That fall, as Hitler’s armies invaded Europe, including England,  King George VI spoke to his people scattered over the world by means of radio, quoting Minnie Louise Haskins: “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.”

The English people walked in darkness that fall as the bombs fell on London  and their king gave them hope and courage.

I recall his death due to lung cancer and the ascension of the present Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, a very charming young woman.   But then our family moved to the United States and keeping track of British royalty was a little more difficult. Americans put their energy into politicians, not a royal family.

I returned to Canada regularly to visit parents and siblings.  In 1994 as my mother lay dying in the hospital, each evening my sister Anne and I returned home to watch Anne of Green Gables videos together and retrieve memories of these wonderful novels about a vivacious but courageous  young girl. 

One evening we came home to find out that Princess Diana, the people’s princess, had been killed in a tragic car accident.  Her marriage  to the Queen’s son had become unraveled earlier.For the next weeks back home I watched the people grieve for this young woman and the tragedy of her life.  Queen Elizabeth found it hard to accept this and her son’s affair with Camilla. But in the extended royal family, something was always happening.

I watched the wedding of her grandson William’s marriage to Kate from my easy chair and scanned all photos to catch glimpses of familiar faces and how they had changed.  I couldn’t get over my need to keep  track of British royalty.

Now it is sixty years since Elizabeth II took over the throne,  making hundreds of trips to all the  countries we children studied in geography classes.   The  sun never sets on on the British Commonwealth, we were told.  The map of the world showed a lot of “pink,” the color of British-controlled territory.  Much of that has changed, but the tradition of British royalty goes on.

The queen is the titular head of these 16 sovereign nations.  As such she is the symbol of tradition and  stability,  accompanied with a lot of pomp and splendor. And lots of money. The upkeep of royalty  is expensive. 

Prime ministers come and prime ministers go, but kings and queens go on for forever, unhampered by political bickering and jostling, as was the custom several centuries ago.  She binds the people together. 

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