For several days, the world watched a farewell as unique in form as the monarch being celebrated. No one expected anything less than British regiments engaged in elaborate pomp and pageantry alongside London commoners queued up all day for the fleeting privilege of passing the casket of a queen – their queen. Elizabeth II, universally-respected across the island nation and around the globe, has been for a very long time a reigning sovereign – and something of a beloved Grammy to generations in the United Kingdom and beyond.
Although any royal wedding or tragedy found me glued for hours to the telly, I watched much less coverage of the Queen’s passing than I expected. At the official announcement of her death, my mind had already slipped back to one of my favorite girlhood books, one that I read multiple times: the story of a very young Elizabeth, before she ascended the throne. I cannot assign a year or specific event to date my discovery of this young person’s biography. I am certain, however, the book has long been out of print.
I do clearly remember the first time I borrowed the book from the county library on Market Street. In the back of the library sat a single rack of kids’ non-fiction books enticingly near the adult stacks – which were off limits to children. It was there I spied a slender volume with a red cover. Adult books suddenly forgotten, I gathered up my find – which may have been entitled The Young Elizabeth – and marched excitedly to the checkout desk. I had heard of Queen Elizabeth and had undoubtedly seen her picture on TV. With predictable enthusiasm, I probably started reading about Her Majesty in the car on the way home to River Road.
The biography contained many photographs, including some of her wedding to Philip in 1947, just three months before I was born. And the now King Charles and sister Princess Anne appeared as toddlers in the garden with their longtime nanny.
Calculating historical math and my reading level, I assume I read the book for the first time as a third or fourth grader. I was most interested in Elizabeth’s childhood, as I fantasized about living the life she led.
First and foremost, she and I shared the name Elizabeth. She called herself Lilibet, which remains to this day the best name ever! Her younger sister Margaret was more adventuresome and less authoritative than the older Elizabeth – pretty much the dynamic between myself and my nearest sister in age. The royal siblings received their lessons at home from a private tutor.
Life changed for the entire family and the whole of the U.K when her Uncle David – King Edward Vlll – stepped down from the throne. Not only did her father unexpectedly become King George Vl, not only did the family move to Buckingham Palace – Elizabeth learned at the age of ten that someday she would become the Queen of England! Wow!
Although I was always a 4-Her, I knew there were also lots of Girl Scouts in Champaign County. So it was fascinating to know that Elizabeth and Margaret were members of a similar troop that met at the palace, only in England they were known as Girl Guides.
When war broke out in Europe, Elizabeth’s parents kept their daughters in London rather than sending them to the countryside or even to Canada for safety. The royal couple wanted to show they were making sacrifices just as all Brits had to do. As a further demonstration, in 1945 Elizabeth became a military driver and mechanic.
The saddest part of the book for me was when Elizabeth and Philip were called home from a trip to Africa at the untimely death of her father. She was just 25 when she became Queen.
The biography ended just after Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 when her son was five years old. By the way, I was convinced that if I married Prince Charles – we were the same age, after all – I could be a princess!
Although I obviously preferred reading about Elizabeth’s life before she became Her Majesty, one very interesting aspect of her royal responsibilities concerned the “boxes” she received each day. The contents were not specifically described in the book, but how she carried out that daily duty appealed to my sense of order and accomplishment.
After my final reading of the book with the red cover, the Queen became for me the steadfast face of Britain during every era that unfolded: by virtue of her longevity, she experienced more of life and history than any of us Boomers.
Elizabeth II may have inherited her prestigious position but certainly earned the respect bestowed upon her by fulfilling her public declaration at the tender age of 21: My whole life, whether long or short, shall be devoted to your service. Indeed, her life was defined by her sense of duty and continuity.
Just as “God Save the Queen” will now fade into British history, so too will the processions, ceremonies, and tributes from a nation in mourning. What I will most remember from this once-in-a-lifetime event, however, will be the rainbows that appeared last week at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, over Buckingham Palace, at Windsor Castle – fittingly natural farewells to a grandmother figure for many … and a proper lady known as Her Majesty.