I was watching the TV monitor at the nail salon when a special bulletin broke into regular programming: Queen Elizabeth II had died.
I felt immediately sad, as if I’d lost a dear relative.
I’ve been a royal watcher since childhood. My mother, who had followed the drama surrounding Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, had remained fascinated with Britain’s Royal Family. One evening, she made sure that we were tuned in to televised footage of the wedding of Princess Margaret, Elizabeth’s sister, at Westminster Abbey. My five-year-old self was enchanted by brides and weddings, so I was particularly interested in this real-life princess making her way up the aisle.
As years rolled by, my mother and I watched other royal ventures: the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969—live via satellite, and Charles’ marriage to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Five years later came the wedding of his brother, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Then came Diana’s funeral in 1997, and a number of documentaries and docudramas.
I made a point to watch Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle in 2018, and Prince Phillips’ funeral last year.
I’ve followed the spectacle of this dysfunctional family too, with its divorce and scandal and tragedy. I’ve been sad for Her Majesty, a kind and decent woman, having to cope with such unpleasantness.
Queen Elizabeth reminded me of my Aunt Opal. Aunt O, as we called her, got along with most everyone. Like Elizabeth II, she’d looked you in the eye, and you knew that she was interested in what you had to say. Aunt O seldom argued. Most of the time you had to pry for her opinions.
Stooped with age, the two matriarchs wore similar gray-to-white hair styles and carried matronly handbags. They smiled a lot and were willing to go and do at the drop of a hat.
And both drove with a lead foot.
Some years ago, the Queen invited Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah for a tour of Balmoral Estate with Her Majesty at the wheel of her Land Rover. At the time, Saudi women were not allowed to drive, so it was particularly shocking for the prince, who implored the Queen to slow down and not get them both killed. Nonchalant, the Queen kept chatting away as she drove full-speed ahead.
This episode reminded me of the time Aunt O took one of her cronies for a drive in her big black sedan. Racing along a country blacktop, my aunt ran a stop sign and sailed over a ditch to land in a soybean field. When she caught her breath, she calmly asked her passenger if she was all right. “Oh, I guess so,” the woman said. At that point, O straddled the car between the rows of beans until she found a culvert to pull back onto the road.
In their own ways, both women represented the best of their generation. While daring in their own way, they possessed a calm steadfastness, a firm dedication to their life’s work.
Aunt O was a farm wife for nearly 30 years and taught school for 45. Hers wasn’t a noble life, but her unflappable nature made me believe that she would always be around. She relished the company of friends and family, and enjoyed a good joke and a good time. She said she wanted to live to 100 and almost made it. She died at 98 years, five months.
Until her death, Queen Elizabeth was the world’s longest-serving head of state, the last to have been veteran of World War II. As part of the royal Auxiliary Territorial Service, she served as a mechanic and driver (!).
For more than 70 years, she absorbed the wisdom of world leaders, and met with 14 U.S. Presidents. Yet, she never gave interviews or embroiled herself in politics. Instead, she good-naturedly agreed to appear in spoof film clip with her adorable corgis to launch the 2012 London Olympics. Earlier this year, she appeared at tea with an animated Paddington Bear to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee.
The Queen had been such a stalwart part of the world scene, it seemed that she would always be around. Maybe that’s part of the reason her passing came as such a shock. We should have seen this sad time coming, but we didn’t. Queen Elizabeth was such a beloved figure—so much so that mourners from all walks of life waited up to 12 ½ hours to file past her coffin.
Moments before her death was announced on Sept. 8, a double rainbow appeared over Buckingham Palace. The sight gave me chills.