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Fork in the Road: An ordinary tribute to an extraordinary soul

Modelling Queen Elizabeth is the best way to honour her best
QueenElizabethII
Queen Elizabeth II died on Sept. 8, 2022, after seven decades on the British throne and a lifetime of service.

Kind-hearted. Dedicated. Funny. Confident. Constant. Courageous.

"… by far, the most impressive woman I've ever met."

With the passing of dear Queen Elizabeth, people around the world have been scouring their memory banks, both collective and individual, for any vestiges of interactions we've had with her royal self, however fleeting they might be (both the memories and the interactions). Whatever the recollections, they're invariably sprinkled with descriptions like the above.

My own dear mom and I were doing the same this week, and all we could come up with with certainty was that neither of us could remember whether we'd actually seen the Queen when she visited my hometown of Edmonton in 1959.

It would have made sense that we had, given we'd lived right across the street from the site that eventually housed Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium. To top things off, I have a vague memory of standing on a curb with others, waving to her in a posh black car.

But before I cross over to my only other quasi-interface with Her Majesty—one admittedly indirect but I know did happen—I have to point out that the Queen in that 1959 visit did not officially open the planetarium.

Rather, she and Prince Philip visited a patch of dirt with the most rudimentary of site preparations done, much like Whistler Village was in the early ’80s. The site that would eventually become home to her namesake planetarium—one of the first planetariums in Canada—had been a favourite playdom of dirt and weeds for me and all the neighbourhood kids, including Christopher and Timothy Luk next door, whose English accents were thicker than pudding. (They also had a Meccano set to die for.)

In keeping with the true Alberta spirit of dreaming something up and then gettin' ’er done, the mayor of the day, Bill Hawrelak (Ukrainian, BTW)—Edmonton's longest-serving mayor and an awesome force of nature—rattled city hall to get the project approved in six months for $100,000, a lot then but the price of a small professional astronomical telescope today.

His second audacity was getting a wee model of the proposed planetarium made to present to Her Majesty in lieu of any semblance of the real McCoy. I wonder what she ever did with that, but I bet she made some pretty funny remarks at the time.

Princess Elizabeth took the throne three months after I was born. All to say that I, and millions of other kids, especially girls, grew up with her fixed steadfastly in our minds as someone strong and good who was deeply respected around the world. In my shrimpy-kid mind, she was also someone vaguely connected to outer space at a time when, other than maybe elementary school teachers and Wonder Woman, you could barely find women in leadership roles, never mind science, to look up to.

Even today, only 35 per cent of our Canadian MPs are women—the lion's share Liberals. According to World Population Review, of the 193 countries on Earth, only 27 have women serving as heads of state or government, most of them in Africa.

Which brings us to the noble idea of service. Whether they're in Nepal or Nigeria, few souls will deny the remarkable way in which Elizabeth II served.

That "most impressive woman I ever met" quote, above? It's from Sir Jackie Stewart, the Scottish Formula One racing car champion named Sports Personality of the Year shortly after Princess Anne received the same honour.

"I hate to think of the number of official engagements Her Majesty had, but she never looked tired and she was never short with anyone," he told BBC.

Of course, the Queen very publicly dedicated herself to the concept of service with that famous radio broadcast on her 21st birthday: "I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service…" Such a civil idea—service to community, service to others. One as integral to our humanity as it is sadly lacking lately; so practice it, cultivate it, seek it out—especially with so many elections on the horizon and Elizabeth's narrative already fading from the news cycle.

Her Majesty could also surprisingly interpret the idea of service. Tales abound of Prince Philip barbecuing and the Queen serving guests on fishing trips. One elderly Scottish woman recalled when she, along with the other women in her Aberdeen club, were invited to tea at Balmoral Castle and the Queen actually stood up and served them sandwiches and sweets herself. 

I rather like the idea that my family and I may or may not have seen the Queen in a 1950s Edmonton time warp. The unknowingness of it all adds to the wonder. As for my only definite HRM moment, it was admittedly incidental but equally wondrous. It happened while researching my column on the Queen's drop scones at the start of the platinum jubilee.

Letters of Note had run a letter—what else?—containing the royal recipe for the scones that the Queen had sent to then-U.S. President Eisenhower after he'd visited Balmoral Castle. I had to ask my old friend, Janine Gavin, a.k.a. Jan Hurley, depending on when and where you knew her at Whistler, what a drop scone was.

This led to her astonishing first-person tales involving princesses and royal banquets with sparkly silver gilt, all connected with Jan's dad, Major-General James M. L. (Jim) Gavin, one of the last surviving climbers to attempt Mount Everest before the Second World War and a daring soldier who later worked in intelligence at NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe. (Although the two were often mixed up, don't confuse him with the American war hero, General James M. Gavin, whom Martha Gellhorn fell for while still married to Ernest Hemingway.) And to think Jan used to typeset the Whistler Question!

If we're to believe Princess Diana's former butler, Queen Elizabeth actually wasn't that fond of scones (they were fed to the corgis under the table). All the more reason I like the fact she happily shared her recipe—again, with a sense of duty and maybe even fun.

So here's to not taking ourselves too seriously, wherever we end up in life, and keeping the spirit of Elizabeth alive. Best done by taking a tip from the actor Cary Grant. He often said, "I spent so long acting like the person I wanted to be, I finally became that person."

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who has a good nose for good leaders.