An appreciation from Petaluma: A moment in time — the end the 2nd Elizabethan Age
There’s a saying that life is not measured in time, it’s measured in moments. I’m not one for remembering exact dates and years, but the most seismic historic moments in my lifetime this far are permanently etched in my mind.
When I was 11, in my last year of primary school in rural East Anglia, England, I wrote and hand-illustrated a booklet on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
I still have it, some 45 years and a continent later. It has a blue cover decorated with a heraldic fleur-de-lis stenciled with silver spray paint and inside color pencil drawings featuring a crest, an orb and the Queen in various ceremonial attire.
Every schoolchild in the U.K. received a commemoration mug. I have that in my possession also, along with various others that people have offloaded on me knowing my penchant for history and heritage and tea parties.
My granddad was chairman of the town council and organized a big shindig of a Silver Jubilee Celebration in a marquee on the town green. The beer — and shandy for the kids — flowed. We stuffed ourselves with ham sandwiches and salt and vinegar crisps and danced the Hokey-Cokey (Pokey here in the States) until the sun went down, we girls dragging one another in our party dresses made by our mums across the wooden dance floor with glee.
I couldn’t say what specific date that was without looking it up but I’ll never forget how exciting it all was.
Flash forward to my early twenties as a cub reporter in the late 1980s on the Ely Standard Newspaper in my native Cambridgeshire Fens. I was assigned station reporting duty as the Queen arrived in the small city of Ely for the annual Maundy Monday Service at Ely Cathedral, via the British Royal Train. Again, I had to search what month that was — April, though it’s not an occasion or experience I’ll ever forget.
More than three decades later, on Thursday morning, I awoke to a stream of messages on my phone. This is not all that unusual for a British expat given the time difference between family and friends in the U.K. and California.
But there was an urgency in those updates as my two sisters, Kerry, a Kent-based royal correspondent in the UK for Australian media and Lindsey, a teacher in the greater London area alerted me to the news that the Queen’s passing was imminent. I certainly hadn’t expected this so soon after watching the traditional handing of the baton for 10 Downing Street in the Balmoral footage of the British prime ministerial update just a couple of days before.
Outside my west Petaluma home an unprecedented heat spike was already climbing toward another sweltering 100-plus-degree day. I switched on the two large ceiling fans in my one-story midcentury house and immediately turned my attention to BBC World Service.
It was raining in the UK. The heavens had opened in Britain but not here as ominous updates pinged on my phone as to reporters being spotted in black clothing. Still, the world and I watched and waited, glued to the gates of the Scottish Balmoral Estate.
We all knew this was coming. Someday. Yet 70 years of service is an awfully long time to be Queen. And, as in fairy tales, surely, we believed, iconic Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor of York with her hats and handbags, her coronets and adorable corgiis was somehow invincible to the slings and arrows that eventually take down mere mortals.
If I was to walk my 8-year-old dog Rosie in any degree of bearable heat I figured I’d have to make a move before 9.30 am. I asked my sister to message me immediately if there was any announcement while I was away from my TV. As so many people have shared, and not just British or Commonwealth citizens and expats, but Anglophiles around the globe, the prospect of a world without the Queen’s reassuring constancy and dignity, was just too grim to bear.
We strolled down the hill and past McNear Elementary School, crossed D Street at the lights and made our way over El Rose to B Street and back around the block. A good 40-minute walk reaching home before midmorning temperatures soared.
I felt the suspended pause, a surreal and poignant protective film coating the prospect of what was about to happen. I’d left the television on in my kitchen, something I never do when there’s nobody home. It wasn’t long after I stepped back in before the sad news came in around 10.30 a.m. here.
A black-tied, solemn-faced BBC presenter, Huw Edwards. announced that Buckingham Palace had confirmed that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II died peacefully at age 96, surrounded by family in the comfort of Balmoral that afternoon.
Over the years, my British American community in Sonoma County has gathered for Jubilee parties and royal wedding breakfasts, any excuse to air out the teapot collections, table linens, fine China and silverware. Sausage rolls, real ale, Cornish pasties, pork pies. Cucumber sandwiches and picked onions. Trifle and Victoria Sponge. It’s all very civilized and good fun and compounds our cultural connection despite being so far from home.