Her Anglophile mother taught her everything she needed to know about meeting the Queen, but surely she'd never get to put that training to use. Or would she?
Posted in , Jan 5, 2018
Mum called me into the kitchen the minute I got home from school.
“Sit down, Sheila,” she said. “I want to tell you something.”
She was so stern that I sat up straight in my chair. I was 16 at the time. Maybe she was about to impart some special life wisdom now that I was almost an adult. Everyone knew my mother gave the best advice. All the kids in our neighborhood came to see her whenever they had a problem.
Mum fiddled with the pearls at her neck and smoothed the wrinkles in her plaid skirt. Finally she spoke.
“Sheila, I want to prepare you,” she said, “for when you meet the Queen.”
The Queen? I almost burst out laughing. Was this some kind of joke? But Mum wasn’t smiling.
“The Queen of England?” I asked. There was no other queen it could be. Mum was an Anglophile—she loved nothing more than a good cup of English Breakfast tea and a feathered wedding hat. My brother had even taken to calling her Mum. The name stuck. But we were as far removed from royalty as you could get. We lived in upstate New York. Dad was a refrigerator repairman. I was the youngest of 11 kids in a big Catholic family. Why would I need to know how to meet a queen?
“You’ll need to be dressed properly, of course,” Mum continued, oblivious to my shock. “Go to Harrods department store in London. Tell them you’re going to meet the Queen. They have people on duty there who can help you shop for just that occasion.”
Mum went through more particulars. She sounded as smart and practical as always. How in the world had this crazy notion gotten into her? She was a totally down-to-earth person! Before I could question her, she got up and started supper.
We never mentioned the conversation again. She never brought up meeting the Queen to any of my siblings. After that, she simply went back to giving me advice I could actually use.
I’d long forgotten about the whole thing by the time I moved to New York City after college and became a marketing consultant for a publishing company. Eventually, I started my own business. I couldn’t have done it without Mum. Although she’d never been in business herself, she knew all the keys to success.
Even after Mum passed away, I relied on her wisdom. I even passed it on to others. Like Sarah, a young English girl about 20 years younger than me, whom I met through work. She’d lost her mother while still in college, and I tried to help her the way Mum had always helped me. Sarah married a young man named Alistair, who worked for the British Foreign Office, and she asked me to give her away at the wedding. She moved to England, but we stayed in touch.
Sarah had been married for 10 years when I got a call from her. “Alistair’s been appointed British ambassador to Zambia!” she told me.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” I said. “Congratulations!”
“Don’t congratulate me yet,” she said. “We’ve been invited to a private meeting with the Queen. I have absolutely no idea what to wear.…”
Mum’s face rose before me, as calm and serious as it had been that day in the kitchen. Somehow Mum had known. The advice hadn’t been for me.… It was for Sarah!
“Sheila? Sheila, are you still there?” Sarah said.
“Yes, sorry, I’m here,” I said. “Here’s what you need to do. First, go to Harrods.…”
Sarah called me back the next week and told me all about her private meeting with the Queen. “It was just as you said,” Sarah said. I couldn’t help but feel as if Mum had been listening in on our conversation, no longer stern but smiling.
Years later, I got an e-mail from Sarah. Alistair had been promoted to Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps. “One of his duties is organizing royal garden parties,” Sarah wrote. How Mum would have loved that! I read the next line of Sarah’s e-mail, though, and almost fell off my chair. I had to read it twice, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
“Sheila, how would you like to be our guest at the next party?” Sarah wrote. “What do you say…would you like to meet the Queen?”
That’s how I wound up at Buckingham Palace in London one sunny afternoon in June. Dressed to perfection in a black dress with a polka-dot jacket and matching hat. And the string of pearls that had once belonged to Mum. I took a deep breath as Alistair approached me in the Royal Tea Tent, a petite woman by his side. I tried to remember everything I’d been taught all those years ago.
“This is Sheila Brady,” Alistair said. “My guest from New York.”
Her Majesty took my hand in her own. “How lovely,” she said.
Lovely indeed. Just as Mum had always known it would be.
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