Did you obsess about someone in your childhood or teenage years? A person in that time before the internet that you idolized using posters, newspaper stories or color photos from a magazine on the newsstand? Names that come to mind: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, members of the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen. Or it could have been a sports personality–tennis, baseball, football–the list would be endless.
My obsession started with a photograph and it led me in directions that fed my love of history, my desire to read, write and ultimately travel. What? Not possible. No childhood obsession could do all of that. Yes it could.
When this issue of LIFE magazine appeared on the coffee table in our home, I asked my mother about the queen on the cover. All little girls know about princesses and queens from having read fairy tales. I knew about Cinderella and Snow White–but who was this lady? When my mother told me her name was Elizabeth, that sealed the deal. She had the same name as I did and that sent me on a long and fulfilling journey.
And if you are laughing at this — I get it. Being super-interested in someone, reading about them, cutting photos of them out of the newspapers and making a scrapbook with those photos–it’s all part of the obsession. Most of my peers waited a bit and then fell in love with Elvis (his first recordings occurred in the same year as the coronation above). I never cared about Elvis and maybe I should have as my rock and roll dancing ability was awful. But I knew my history.
Searching the library for books on QEII led me to books on Elizabeth the First who ruled England from 1558 to her death in 1603. The flood gates opened and I read about Henry VIII and the Tudors, Spanish and French royalty and the wars fought, won and lost. Of course the role of our independence from England, the settling of this new nation figured in my reading. And when traveling anywhere or looking at a map of the U.S. I could easily find the names of English people and places: Jamestown, New England, New York, Maryland, Elizabeth City, Virginia.
An amusing story accompanies this last. We were reading about the colonies in grade school American history and I remarked to my mother that Virginia was named after Elizabeth the First, the Virgin queen. “But she was no virgin,” I told my mother who stared at what she thought was her innocent daughter. And I was, truly innocent of sex and all its ramifications. What I meant was my meaning of “virgin” garnered from my Catholic upbringing and the Virgin Mary. To me the word meant good and I knew QEI had waged wars and hung folks. But the comment almost immediately led to “the sex talk.” Ah, more flood gates opening.
And what did I want for Christmas one year more than anything? This book (below), a 250 page work of black and white and some color plates of QEII and her family. This is one precious possession that my mother found in the Marshall Field book department. I was one joyful kid.
Of course the next step after reading and researching was writing. I was in middle school when I wrote to the queen. I addressed the letter to Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace, London, England. Of course her picture was on the stamp I used–and the letter got there. But there was a long waiting period–and what had I written about? I am sure I was not alone in my request–I wanted to be Prince Charles’ pen pal. (Not so much today!!) I got a lovely reply on beautiful Buckingham Palace stationery which I wish I could share, but it was ruined in a flood in our basement along with all my scrapbooks. But I remember who wrote it: Lady Rose Baring. It was a form letter saying no, of course, but she signed the note. I found this on the internet years later: Rose Gwendolen Louisa McDonnell, courtier: born London 23 May 1909; Woman of the Bedchamber to the Queen 1953-73;… married 1933 Francis Baring (died 1940; two sons, one daughter); died Swindon 2 November 1993.
It is also quite possible that my QEII obsession led me to major in English in college and to become a secondary level teacher of English. There isn’t much distance between British history and English writers who have influenced American literature–we speak the same tongue, though it’s always amusing to draw comparisons between what the Brits and we call things, like boot for trunk and lift for elevator to name two common ones.
Eventually I got myself to the gates of Buckingham. This photo taken in 2012.
Through me, my husband also became a lover of London and the English countryside despite his Irish heritage. He recently found ancestors that were born in England, so now he truly has some claim to the “green and pleasant land.”
Of course I got myself out of bed in the middle of the night to watch Prince Charles marry Diana Spencer. And the confusion and sadness that followed kept me checking on the Royal Family so that I have remembrances of Diana tucked away with my QEII books. And a plate that commemorates her marriage to Charles.
In the end I’m glad that I’m me and not some princess trying to live my life in the glare of publicity. I did meet a woman online who actually had a worse obsession. She wrote a book about her journey from the US to England in the hopes of marrying a prince. Her plot failed. But I am guessing that I am not alone–that there are others like me who got on the QEII journey because of curiosity and interest and stayed there. If you are one of those people, I would love to hear from you. I’ve met you in English gift shops as we purchase a memento of the royal family–something that we can afford, something that smacks of a long and amazing history.
Some More History: The Cullinan Diamond.
Captain Frederick Wells, superintendent of Premier Mine, one of South Africa’s most productive mines, near Pretoria, found the Cullinan diamond, during his daily inspection of the mines, on 26 January 1905. During his rounds he saw a flash of light, reflected by the sun on the wall of the shaft. As he got closer, he could see a partially exposed crystal, embedded in the rock, however he initially believed it to be a shard of glass, placed by one of the miners as a practical joke. Using just his pocket knife he managed to release the diamond. At approximately 1 1⁄3 pounds (600 grams), 3 7⁄8 inches (98 mm) long, 2 1⁄4 inches (57 mm) wide and 2 5⁄8 inches (67 mm) high the diamond was twice the size of any diamond previously discovered. Wells immediately took it for examination.
The Cullinan was split and cut into 9 major stones and 96 smaller stones. Edward VII had the Cullinan I and Cullinan II set respectively into the Sceptre with the Cross and the Imperial State Crown, (England’s Crown Jewels) while the remainder of the seven larger stones and the 96 smaller brilliants remained in the possession of the Dutch diamond cutting firm of Messers I. J. Asscher of Amsterdam who had split and cut the Cullinan, until the South African Government bought these stones and the High Commissioner of the Union of South Africa presented them to Queen Mary on 28 June 1910. In the photo below, on her sash, Queen Mary is wearing Cullinan III and IV. When Queen Elizabeth traveled to Holland meet with the Asscher family, she referred to this incredible brooch as Grannie’s Chips.
Thanks to Wikipedia, Google Images, Life Magazine, John Havey