The Day I Took Mom to Meet the Queen | Magazine Features
She’s small, that’s the first thing.
I’m at the Tower of London, where I took my mother to meet the Queen, which is a rare thing indeed. And here she is now, coming to us: Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, whose official title is Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and her other realms and territories Queen , Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
A huge title for a woman so small, at least physically, in her ninetieth year.
She loves corgis, horses and emperor deer with their mighty antlers and understands their realm and knows from them that one way to connect is to project, put up a display that makes you look taller and more impressive than you might think. So Elizabeth is in turquoise, one of those shiny, structured coats that skilfully hide the frailties of age and help subjects see the Sovereign from afar.
She’s close now, walking along the line of people in place to meet her, including me and my mother Marion, whose tight smile tells me she’s nervous. The queen looks super stylish, her bright and surprisingly playful eyes glinting, her head nodding slightly at the few fumbling words each starstruck subject manages. “Yes, ma’am,” says the lady next to me, almost hitting the sovereign’s eye with a hat feather as she curtsies.
Elizabeth is in turquoise, one of those shiny, structured coats that cleverly hide the frailties of age and help subjects see the Sovereign from afar.
As I notice this Prince Phillip is suddenly there in front of me wondering why I’m here and I mumble something about writing an article to help raise money for the restoration of the chapel, but before I could finish, he said to my mother: “Is this your son?” Yes sir, she says, and he barks, “Couldn’t he think of a better place to take you?”
We think he’s funny, or at least safer to laugh at, but now he’s gone and so, we both realize, in our moment: His Majesty is next person.
Watching her work on the line, it suddenly strikes me how much she reminds me of my grandmother Gladys, who was born around the same time as Elizabeth, in the same town. They both served their countries during the war: Gladys as a fire guard, climbing to the top of tall buildings during the Blitz and after, to see where the bombs were falling and the flames were rising; Elizabeth driving a truck for the army, learning to fix spark plugs, elbow-deep in grease. They both married brave men, Frank and Phillip, who went off to fight.
Both women were in the crowds in central London on VE Day, feeling the wave of relief. And they were both hopeful as the 1950s approached: young, in love, and happy. But then Elizabeth lost her father and everything changed.
It was only an accident of birth and circumstance. It could have been my grandmother or yours. She could have left the throne, I suppose, like her uncle David did. She could have occupied it badly or selfishly, as other kings and queens have done. But she chose to draw inspiration from her own deeply held faith that the first shall become the last. Elizabeth felt called to this because it was God’s will. So it wasn’t about ego, it was about serving a higher power and her people, which she did, to the best of her ability, all the way.
At least she had Phillip by her side – well, often two feet away in public – watching over her, making sure she was okay. Challenging her privately – arguing, provoking, exciting, frustrating – the man who knew the most secret parts of her that were all hidden from us. Let’s not romanticize this, their relationship seems to have been rocky at times, but he was there. He was real. She must have needed this.
She did us all a favour, of course. I’m not at all sure that a monarchy is the best way to run a just, fair and just society, but since we have one, there’s reason to be very happy that it’s her. A constant and calming presence, in a nation that so often needed calm; bearers of the values of the wartime generation whose men and women continued to go through the darkest hours, but who are almost all gone now.
So let me take you back to the Tower on that day in the fall of 2014, as my mother pointed out: “Say what you want, but if anyone knows what it means to have a sense of duty, it’s good her.
The service is intimate, from memory we are only about forty of us. I think of the headless bodies of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Gray beneath our feet and wonder again about the miracle of a woman surviving 70 years as Queen, a title that has so often been a killer. I can see her in my direct line of sight, always remembering my grandmother and as close to me now as Gladys was in the nursing home, the last time I saw her, when we all sang “Bye Bye Blackbird”. And now comes such a surreal moment.
Everyone stands up to sing “God Save The Queen”. “God protect our gracious queen. Long live our noble queen.
Elizabeth, of course, doesn’t sing that. She sits with her hands clasped in her lap as we skim the lines that seem to be all about her, but it’s not really. They concern the notion of queen. And I don’t see the empress of a lost empire or a symbol of anything in that seat. I see an old lady, probably dying to get up and have a cup of tea but knows her place, doing her duty and has done it for so long it must have become a habit and nodding head to the rhythm of the hymn, in this joyful way a puppet nods its head. Until she looks up at her husband and makes eye contact, and maybe he winks, I can’t see, but she smiles and has to duck her head to avoid a loud laugh during the national anthem.
The smile persists. Honestly, the pair of them. Fully public, fully in service, still themselves. And outside, after, I loosen my tie and mom takes off her shoes for a while and we walk along the walls to watch the wave of ceramic poppies pouring from the tower and over the stones and through the grass until at the moat. Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red this artwork is called and it is mighty. Each of the 888,246 poppies represents a man or woman, boy or girl who died for king and country during the First World War. And I think of all these people’s parents, sisters and brothers, friends and lovers, and how the love endures.
I think of Elizabeth and her husband and their shared moment and realize that to survive in the midst of all this symbolism, all these great ideas and ideals that bind and inspire but also crush, you have to find something tangible, someone or something real that you can trust and hold on to through it all. And I say, “Hey mom, come here.” And over there, in the open air, near the flowers of the dead, I hug my mom, and she holds me, tight.
This is an excerpt adapted from an episode of Cole Moreton’s true stories podcast about meeting remarkable people Can We Talk? Listen to the full version on all platforms now. The stories will be published in book form by Hodder Faith next year.