kindhearted. Dedicated. Strange. Optimistic. Constant. Brave.
“…by far the most impressive woman I have ever met.”
With the death of dear Queen Elizabeth, people around the world have scoured their memory banks, both collectively and individually, for traces of interactions we’ve had with their royal selves, however fleeting (both the memories and the interactions ). Whatever the memories, they are invariably littered with descriptions like the one above.
My own dear mother and I did the same thing this week, and all we could find out for certain was that neither of us could remember whether we actually saw the Queen when she visited my hometown of Edmonton in 1959.
It would have made sense that we would have since we lived directly across from the compound that would eventually house the Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium. To top it off, I have a vague memory of standing on a curb with others and waving at her in a fancy black car.
But before moving on to my only other quasi-interface with Her Majesty – an admittedly indirect one, but I know it happened – I must point out that on that visit in 1959, the Queen did Not officially open the planetarium.
Rather, she and Prince Philip visited a patch of earth with the most rudimentary on-site preparations, much like Whistler Village in the early ’80s. The site that would eventually house her eponymous planetarium—one of the first planetariums in Canada—was a favorite playground of dirt and weeds for me and all the neighborhood kids, including Christopher and Timothy Luk from next door, who had a stronger English accent been as pudding. (They also had a meccano set to die for.)
In keeping with the true Alberta spirit of dreaming up something and then getting it done, the mayor of the day Bill Hawrelak (Ukrainian, BTW) — Edmonton’s longest-serving mayor and a formidable force of nature — rocked City Hall to get the project was approved in six months for $100,000, a lot then, but the price of a small professional astronomical telescope today.
His second daring was to make a tiny model of the proposed planetarium to present to Her Majesty in lieu of a semblance of the real McCoy. I wonder what she ever did with it thebut I bet she made some pretty funny remarks at the time.
Princess Elizabeth ascended the throne three months after I was born. All to say that I and millions of other children, especially girls, grew up with her firmly in our minds as someone strong and good, deeply respected around the world. In my teary childhood imagination, she was also someone vaguely connected to outer space, at a time when, aside from maybe elementary school teachers and Wonder Woman, you could hardly find women in leadership roles, let alone science to look up to could.
Even today, only 35 percent of our Canadian MPs are women — the lion’s share liberals. According to the World Population Review, only 27 of the 193 countries in the world have women as heads of state or government, most of them in Africa.
Which brings us to the noble idea of service. Whether in Nepal or Nigeria, few souls will deny the remarkable manner in which Elizabeth II served.
The “most amazing woman I’ve ever met” quote above? It comes from Sir Jackie Stewart, the Scottish Formula One racing champion who was named Sportswoman of the Year shortly after Princess Anne received the same honour.
“I hate to think of the number of official dates Her Majesty has had, but she never looked tired and she was never short with anyone,” he told the BBC.
Of course, on her 21st birthday, the Queen publicly dedicated herself to service with that famous radio show: “I declare before you all that my whole life, long or short, shall be dedicated to your service…” Such a civil idea – service to of the community, service to others. One that is as important to our humanity as is sadly lacking of late; So practice it, cultivate it, seek it out — especially with so many elections on the horizon and Elizabeth’s narrative already fading from the news cycle.
Her Majesty was also able to interpret the idea of service in a surprising way. There are many stories about Prince Philip grilling and the Queen serving guests on fishing trips. An elderly Scotswoman recalled being invited to tea at Balmoral Castle with the other women in her club in Aberdeen and the Queen actually stood up and served them sandwiches and sweets herself.
I like the idea that my family and I may or may not have seen the Queen in a time warp in 1950’s Edmonton. The ignorance of everything contributes to the miracle. My one definitive HRM moment was admittedly random, but equally wondrous. It happened while researching my column on the Queen’s Drop Scones at the start of the Platinum Jubilee.
Letters of Note had a letter – what else? – published with the royal recipe for the scones sent by the Queen to then-US President Eisenhower after his visit to Balmoral Castle. I had to ask my old friend Janine Gavin aka Jan Hurley depending on when and where you knew her in Whistler what a drop scone is.
This led to her amazing first-person stories involving princesses and glittering silver-gilt royal banquets, all linked to Jan’s father, Major General James ML (Jim) Gavin, one of the last surviving mountaineers who preceded climbed Mount Everest during World War II and a daring soldier who later worked in Intelligence at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe. (Although the two have often been confused, don’t confuse him with American war hero General James M. Gavin, whom Martha Gellhorn fell in love with while she was still married to Ernest Hemingway.) And considering Jan used to set the phrase Has whistler question!
If we’re to believe Princess Diana’s former butler, Queen Elizabeth wasn’t all that keen on scones (they were fed to the corgis under the table). What I like even more is the fact that she was happy to share her recipe – again with a sense of duty and maybe even fun.
So here’s not taking ourselves too seriously, wherever we end up in life, and keeping the spirit of Elizabeth alive. Best with a tip from actor Cary Grant. He often said, “I spent so long trying to act like the person I wanted to be, until I finally became that person.”
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist with a keen eye for good leaders.