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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I’m one of the many who got up at 5:30 in the morning to watch Queen Elizabeth’s final journey. It was not something I planned, but my sister and a friend were visiting, and they were determined to watch. So, I rose and joined them. It wasn’t exactly riveting television. The BBC broadcast was more like a series of tableau paintings than television. The camera lingered on the same images, the black and white squares of Westminster Abbey’s stone floor, the soaring vaults of the roof, the red coats and bearskins of the Guards, the blues of the navy uniforms. But, to my surprise, I didn’t get tired of these quiet, still images at all. Instead, I found myself silently reflecting on the Queen’s life and my own family’s.

Watching the serious faces of the young sailors as they pulled the gun carriage, I could feel the bite of the cap around my own forehead and the clumsy, leather boots on my feet. For I had also marched in many Ottawa parades toward the Cenotaph wearing exactly the same uniform. These young sailors pulling the Queen on her final journey felt so natural, so right that it seemed I was also there.

But what surprised me more than anything was remembering how the Queen’s presence had inserted herself in the life of our family in spite of living in another country and having no direct connection whatsoever. My mother was never a Royal fan in the sense she would hive off to be present at one of the many visits the Queen made to Canada. But she was also English and, like the Queen, a war bride; mom had grown up in London and tended to call Buckingham Palace, “Buck House.”

The Queen came to incarnate Englishness, which was important to my mother, who, in spite of marrying a French Canadian Catholic and raising three Canadian children, also remained fundamentally English. She attended Church of England services no matter where she might be, never lost her English accent and had that stubborn English sense of fairness that leads to boycotting bullfights and protesting nuclear weapons.

Most of all, the Queen’s final journey reminded me of my mother’s Aunt Dorothy (Dolly). A single and eccentric English school teacher from a long line of English school teachers, whom all her nephews and nieces loved, and was once put on the Queen’s spring list to receive “Maundy money.” Maundy money is a medieval hangover from the days the monarch graced the poor with a small monetary gift. It’s called Maundy Money because the tradition is it is given on the Thursday before Good Friday. It is still minted as maundy money but is no longer convertible currency, instead, it has become a ceremonial gift to recognize a person’s contribution to the community.

Aunt Dolly had spent her whole life teaching generations of children in a small school in a small English village. One day her neighbours wrote to the Queen and asked if Dorothy Oliver could be put on the Maundy Thursday list. The Queen wrote back. She said “yes.”

Her neighbours were thrilled, but no one had ever asked Dolly if she wanted to go to London to meet the Queen. She did not. She wasn’t fond of London, she was busy with her chickens and such, and couldn’t be bothered. Dolly’s neighbours did their best to persuade her to go, but Dolly Oliver was her own woman and remained adamant. She wasn’t interested in meeting the Queen.

The neighbours persisted. Finally, Dolly relented a little and said “if Katherine would go with her, she would go.” This was clever. My mother was Katherine Oliver and lived in Ottawa. Dolly figured there was no chance she would fly back to England, but the neighbours stubbornly wrote to her niece to explain their problem

Mother wrote back, promising she would talk to Dolly and that was it. She booked a flight for London and flew over the pond. There, she got her Aunt togged up in garden party clothes, bused with her down to London and they attended the Queen’s garden party. The Maundy Money was given to Dorothy Oliver in a beautiful teak wood case. Pieces of which I have to this day somewhere in the house.

When Dolly died my cousin Kevin received the other half of Aunt Dolly’s Maundy money. Kevin was my favourite English cousin and had become a renowned gilder and church decorator working all over England. I knew he had done some work at Westminster Abbey on what he called the “great lanterns.” Throughout the ceremony I searched for them, and finally, I saw Kevin’s lanterns on the top of the gate posts at the entrance of the Abbey – clearly visible in the tableaux. How fine it was to see them and remember him!

I thought a good deal about all these things because the Queen lived so long that not just her generation has gone but many of my own. Kevin died suddenly from cancer a few months after his last visit to see me in Cape Breton. All these old memories pressed on my mind as I watched the slow, quiet, beautiful unravelling of the Queen’s final day.

This little story is of no consequence to anyone but the Oliver/Doucet family, but it made me think about how many of these stories the Queen must have been at the centre of for 70 years. How she must have connected and enlivened the lives of so many different people in a positive way.

Would that our modern politicians had the same gift.

Clive Doucet lives in Grand Etang, Inverness County, N.S.