My mother liked the British royal family. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was a full-on royalist. But she definitely enjoyed the pageantry, and she seemed to have a pretty good idea of what was going on with them at any given time. We used to talk about them – not regularly, but also not not regularly – and a few of her most-shared stories from her younger years centred around royal events.
I suppose, then, that when I watched The Crown, I shouldn’t have been surprised to think of my mother a lot.
There were a couple of ways in which The Crown brought my mother to mind. In the earlier episodes, it was the general style of it. Things like hairstyles, clothing, and jewellery reminded me of her, back in the ’70s when she still curled her hair, and got dressed up for formal occasions. I was very young when her style changed, when she began wearing her hair straight, and formal dresses made way for a pansuit. But even though my actual memories of her sporting those older styles are few, the photo of her above, which sat on my father’s dresser until he died, is my favourite of her. So I do tend to associate that look with her the most, even though I personally only saw her looking that way in my earliest memories.
Beyond the styles and overall ambience of the show, there were a number of objects that brought back memories. For example, a slide projector featured in one early episode, while it didn’t make me think of my mother specifically, was very similar to the one I inherited.
The purses that Queen Elizabeth carries around the palace – essentially a box with two short handles, and I’m dying of curiosity as to what she keeps in it – are similar to what my mother used. She kept hers so full, mind, that it was too heavy to drape over her forearm the way the Queen does, so she carried it over her shoulder instead. It looked awkward and uncomfortable to me, but she never considered switching to a purse with an actual shoulder strap.
And then there were the newspapers. The newspapers were perhaps the most evocative thing about the entire series, bringing back a wash of memories – sights, smells, sounds.
My mother read the newspaper every day. Her absorbed in a newspaper was one of the first pictures my Big Brother took when he bought his first camera. I remember it clearly, because I was home sick from school that day, and Big Brother also took several pics of me as he tried out his new toy. I felt quite special, but my mother shut it down when he had me pose next to a snowman I’d built, saying that if I was well enough to put on my winter clothes and go outside, I was well enough to go to school.
In The Crown, Elizabeth and Philip are seen reading newspapers together in multiple episodes, discussing the news with each other in the same way my parents did. When I was 18, my parents went away to New Zealand for six weeks, and I saved every newspaper for them to read when they got back, stacked neatly in order, with the oldest on top. I remember my mother thanking me for doing so, and sitting in her armchair for days, reading methodically through each one, catching up on the news.
I also remember the soft, almost dusty, feel of the newsprint, and the rustling sound it made as the pages were turned. That leads to memories of my mother flicking her wrists to straighten the pages, and the snap those pages made when she did. This in turn brings back the smells of newsprint and ink, and the coffee I’d make her to drink while she read.
Until The Crown, I never realized how central newspapers are to memories of my mother.
But beyond the general look and feel of The Crown, it was certain historical events the show depicted that sparked the strongest memories. These were the times my mother’s own stories got interwoven with those told in the show.
Elizabeth’s Coronation – 1953
Right off the bat, I discovered I’d been misremembering one of my mother’s core tales all these years. And it’s probably the story I heard the most!
She told me many times that she’d listened to Elizabeth’s coronation on the radio. Due to the time difference between England and Manitoba, she’d had to get up very early – 3am, I believe – in order to hear the full broadcast. She was in high school, and one of her teachers, who was afraid she’d oversleep and miss it, asked my mother to phone her to make sure she was awake.
Problem is, once I watched The Crown, I realized that Elizabeth’s coronation took place long after my mother was out of school. Looking at the royal family timeline, I’d say it was actually Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding in 1947 that my mother was talking about. Mom was a teenager at that time, so the story about calling her teacher would make more sense.
But, since Elizabeth and Philip are already married at the start of The Crown, plus I’ve been remembering it as the coronation all these years anyway, I’m going to let the association stand as-is.
John F. Kennedy’s Assassination – 1963
We used to have a treacherously unstable chair in the living room of my childhood home. The body was armchair-like, but it sat on springs attached to four spindly legs, and it would tip over at the slightest provocation. Sitting down too forcefully would make it go over backwards, and standing up too fast would, at the very least, send it skittering across the floor, if not upend it completely.
It was my parents’ only comfy chair in the two-story apartment they lived in in 1963. My mother was in the laundry room on the lower level when she heard my father on the floor above suddenly leap to his feet, sending the chair flying, race across the room, and turn the radio up.
He’d just heard the news that John F. Kennedy had been shot.
My mother, unsure what had happened, but knowing it must be bad, ran upstairs. The two of them sat by the radio for the rest of the night, listening to the news.
I have that radio.
In The Crown, Elizabeth is on the grounds of one of her homes when she learns the news. When she returns to the palace, there’s an amazing moment when she looks into a room off the foyer, and sees the servants all clustered together around a radio, listening to the news with an intense stillness. The radio is very similar to the one my parents were listening to, and I expect their demeanor was much the same.
Remembering my mother’s tale while watching the scene play out in The Crown, I finally began to understand the way in which that terrible news reverberated around the world.
The Moon Landing – 1969
In The Crown, the entire royal family is seen, gathered together around the TV, to watch the moon landing together. It’s a rather boisterous group, with lots of conversation about the event’s significance among the adults, and hyper kids only half-paying attention to what was going on.
My family also gathered around the TV, but my understanding is that it was far more low-key. One reason for this was that it happened quite late at night in my family’s time zone, so my brothers were tired. In order to ensure they stayed awake, my parents kept them uncomfortable, making them sit on the floor, lined up in front of the sofa where my parents sat, nudging them with their feet to keep them from dozing off.
My mother often said how important she felt it was that my brothers experience history being made. I recently asked them if my parents’ tactics worked, and two of them said yes. The third was was too young. Interestingly, the two who do remember spoke of the same things my mother did – the TV was black and white, they sat on the floor in front of the sofa, our parents kept nudging/kicking them – as opposed to the moon landing itself. Still, I suspect my mother would consider that a success.
Princess Margaret in Ottawa – 1974
Now this story, I’m very aware I might be getting the details wrong, but I’m confident of the underlying reasons behind it.
When my parents moved to Ottawa in the late ’60s, my mother told my father that she wanted to go to Parliament Hill to see someone. She didn’t care who it was. She just wanted to attend a live event when someone visited, to experience what it was like to actually be there. (I can still hear her emphasis on the word someone in my head.)
My father didn’t understand why. He maintained that, “You can see it better on TV.” But my mother was adamant, and so off to Parliament Hill they went. I’m fairly certain it was Princess Margaret they saw, and a little research revealed she visited the city in 1974, so the timeline is reasonable.
My mother had two photos in her album from that day. They were about three inches square, with a white border. Blocks of tiny people a very long way away, mostly in various military uniforms, take up the majority of the image. In the centre of each photo is a lone figure wearing blue – Margaret as she inspects the troops.
One of Margaret’s trips to North America appears in The Crown, although I think the one featured is from a different year than when my parents saw her. (If it was, in fact, even her that they saw.) But the same as other, more tenuous connections, it was enough to bring my parents’ outing to mind. And while my father might technically have been correct – you can see it better on TV – in my opinion, my mother had the right of it. One of the most important life lessons she taught me is that there’s more to experiencing something than seeing it clearly. Being in the middle of a crowd, watching from a long way away, gives it an entirely different vibe, and that vibe is worth the hassle of getting there.
Charles and Diana’s Wedding – 1981
I was ten when Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married. It was, of course, a massive event around the world. And my mother, of course, got up early to watch it.
And so did I.
I remember asking my mother if I could, and her being surprised that I’d want to. I was never a girly girl and had no real interest in weddings, so she hadn’t expected me to want to see this one, especially not enough to get up at … 5am, I think it was.
To be honest, I wasn’t all that interested in the wedding itself. But after hearing about my mother getting up early to listen to Elizabeth’s coronation, and making sure her teacher didn’t miss it, I wanted to be part of something like that myself. The wedding seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. Plus there was a certain naughtiness to it – getting up so early felt like rule-breaking to me.
Mostly, though, I just loved my Mom very much, and wanted to share this with her.
I don’t remember much about it, beyond sitting in my pyjamas in the same tipsy chair my father had knocked over when he’d heard JFK had been shot. And I know my mother saved the section of the newspaper dedicated to wedding coverage, although it’s long since been thrown out.
Rather than the wedding itself, what I most recall is the sense of something special going on, my mother in her robe in the ‘good’ chair – the one that didn’t seem to be actively trying to kill you – her eyes glued to the television. To me, it’s the culmination of our Royal Relationship together. While we did watch Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s wedding together some years later, I was a bit older, and it wasn’t as big a deal. The next big royal event after that – sadly Diana’s funeral – happened years after I’d left home, and my mother and I had virtually no contact at the time, due to my father being a prolific asshole.
Since then, I’ve kept up with the royals in much the same way my mother did. I’ve always got a general idea of what’s going on in their world, and I tune in to the big events for the pageantry of it all. I was working during both Diana’s funeral and Will and Kate’s wedding, so I recorded them and watched them after the fact, but it wasn’t the same as when my mother and I watched Charles and Diana’s wedding.
When Harry and Meghan Markle were married, though, a friend and I went to a morning brunch at a hotel to watch it on a big screen. There was delicious food and mimosas, and the energy in the room was a buzz of happy people having fun. Everybody was dressed up, even me – although I did put my own spin on it, and instead of a summery dress and fascinator, I bought myself a black blazer and a cool walking stick with a skull topper as a nod to the formality of the event without compromising my own style.
We oohed and aahed at Meghan’s dress and got all gooey during the vows, and just generally had a blast. And afterwards, with half-a-dozen other attendees in the elevator on the way back down to the lobby, came a moment I will never forget. As the elevator slowed only partway down, we realized that it was stopping to let someone else on. I quipped that, “I pity whoever it is when the elevator doors open and they see us.”
‘Whoever it is’ turned out to be a basketball player from the visiting team that had played in town the previous night. It was perfect. He looked much as one would expect a basketball player to – very young, very tall, and wearing sweats – and he was on his phone when the doors opened, standing side-on to the elevator, paying no attention. We’d gone perfectly silent when the elevator stopped, but burst into laughter at the expression on his face when he turned and came face-to-face with a group of half-a-dozen, half-drunk-at-10am, middle-aged women with various shit stuck in our hair. He laughed so hard he bent double at the waist, and could barely speak enough to wave us on, saying he’d get the next one.
So now we’ve come full circle, and I’m carrying on the tradition I learned from my mother, and telling royal stories of my own. It may seem silly, but it means a lot to me. My mother was my best friend growing up, but largely due to my father, we grew apart, and never regained our closeness after he died. Following the royal family, even as superficially as I do, especially now that my mother is gone, helps me recapture that sense of closeness we once had.
After watching The Crown, several of my mother’s stories that originally were completely unrelated to the royals have become enmeshed in my memories of that aspect of her life. It’s given me a stronger sense of connection with both those tales, most of which were related to things that happened before I was born, and also with her. It makes me muse on just how connected everything and everybody in this world really is.
After every episode or two of The Crown, I’d find myself messaging my friend Liane, who had already finished the series, sharing these memories with her as I tried to sort out my feelings. She understood where I was coming from, and summed it up perfectly when she likened the experience of living history to Forrest Gump, saying:
Life is like a box of crown jewels. You never know what you’re going to get.
Thanks for picking out the shiniest ones for me, Mom.