“Where are your manners? What would the Queen say?”
The Queen always referenced HMR Queen Elizabeth II. She was the Queen of our coins, exquisite hats, and good manners. She was a lady. The gold standard of manners. My mother was determined that my sister, my cousin, and I would also be ladies. That if need be, we would be ready to sit down and have tea with the Queen. Over Kentucky Fried Chicken, we would discuss whether the Queen would use her fingers to eat drumsticks. We quickly established concensus that she would.
I didn’t grow up in England attending events with the Queen. And she never did come for tea. I grew up in Canada with a mother who believed in the power of etiquette. The Queen hung in the halls of my school. We sang God Save the Queen in my early years of school. Details of the Queen’s life and family permeated my mum’s conversations with her mother, my aunts, and her friends. What they wore. Where they went. Outrageousness that followed them. Speculation over the truth of the information. Yet, my personal connection with the Queen came from drinking tea.
Tea was more than a beverage. It was a ritual. When you went to visit, the first thing the hostess did was put on the kettle. The first thing that my mother would do when someone popped by was put on the kettle. The tea preference varied. My Nanny and Mrs. Patrick would only drink black tea, preferable Red Rose. I always assumed Queen Elizabeth would drink black tea, being a woman of tradition. My Mom’s favourite tea was Earl Grey. My Mum’s friend, Joanne, served peppermint. My Auntie Myrna was more exotic and served rosehip tea and orange spice tea. If we were lucky and it was a special occasion like a baby or wedding shower or anniversary, we’d also have finger sandwiches. Those were the days when even Safeway’s would bake the extra-long loaves and slice them lengthwise for perfect rolled sandwiches.
While waiting for the kettle to boil, our attention shifted to choosing the bone china teacup and saucer for our cuppa. This was a privilege extended only once you proved that you could be trusted with the good china. Sometimes the selection was based the look of the cup. Sometimes it was about the story of the cup. I liked the cups with a good story even as a child. So much so that I amassed a collection of tea cups with really good stories.
One of the best stories, of course, includes the Queen. I had a special bond with my next door neighbour, Mr. McMillan. We enjoyed a daily chat. My Mum and I moved next door to him and his wife the year my sister went to live with my father and my stepmother in Los Angeles. I was in Grade 3. It was not hard to see that my mother was in the process of unravelling, and I was in limbo. I would ask if I could shovel his snow. He’d agree then come out to shovel with me and then pay me. I tried to throw my body at the push lawn mower and he’d come to the rescue with his electric mower. He helped my Mom and I dig up the garden in the back and gave us the cuttings and seeds to plant. He taught me about the merits of composting. He was just as excited as I was when I won third prize for my pumpkins. Likely because he was the one taking care of them while I went for summer holidays in L.A. He found no end of amusement when my dog would eat the heads of the marigolds and dig up the carrots for a snack, then jump over the fence to visit him.
After Mr. McMillan died, his wife invited me over for tea. We sat. We chatted. We talked about her teacups and what we loved about her husband. We cried. She went through many of the stories of things I had done over the years that had made Mr. McMillan laugh. Apparently, he had watched as I piled the paint tin and bricks on top of the ladder to break in the house via my bedroom window when I forgot my key. He also knew it was me and my friends that broke his gate playing tag at one of my sleepover parties, even before I confessed and apologized. That he despaired that my Mum and I would throw the dahlia cuttings he gave us into the ground and they would grow twice the size of his. Then just before I left, she told me that I could choose a teacup from her collection. Any teacup.
“Any teacup? Even the Queen teacup?”
“Yes. That is a very special teacup. That is from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. Long before you were even born. A Paragon cup.”
The coronation cup has been in my collection of teacups since I was 16 years old. It is reserved for special occasions. I got up early on Monday morning to attend the Queen’s funeral. I made a big pot of tea and got out the coronation teacup. As you get older, the impact of attending funerals in cumulative. You experience the loss of everyone who has died before. You reflect on the past. The good. The bad. And the ugly. The Queen and her life represents so many of the values and attitudes and strength of women in that era. My grandmothers. My mother. My aunts. Kindred spirits. Women with perseverance and tenacity and sometimes too much to bear. Yet it explains why when the going gets tough, the tough put on the kettle.
Dandelion Dreams – Stories of my past