To the Queen
According to the television, Britain had buried the Queen Mother. The box never really did the old bag much justice, even as a corpse: “old bag” was all you could ever say to describe her.
Not that I would ever have called her that to Gran’s face. St. Andrew’s, alma mater to Prince William, spawn of the Queen Mother’s heir, was the earth from which Gran, or Margaret Eugenia Campbell, was taken and molded by the Lord’s good hands. She’d spent her life in Scotland until she was three, when her father found a job in a cannery down in Blackpool, England. During the 1950s, old England, for all its fine qualities, didn’t quite suit her, and she had been curious to find how this New England would treat her. There was a more detailed story of how she’d been plucked from Blackpool and dropped in Massachusetts, but 12-year-olds like me forget these things.
In Gran’s house, tea was at six o’clock in the evening, when the rest of America sat down to a meal called dinner. Tea, which was often a meat pie, mashed potatoes, peas, and curiously without a tealeaf in sight, was eaten from a table that was set three feet away from the television set. The TV was a pasture for the porcelain animals that Gran collected from boxes of Red Rose Tea. On the mantelpiece, the Royal Family smiled from their (how did Gran describe them when she bought them?) gold-rimmed, off-white, hand-painted, decorative china plates. Lots of hyphenated words that catalogues liked to use. Gran, who claimed that she wasn’t as spry as she used to be, what with her bad knees, liked an excuse to keep an eye on whatever the box had to say.
In the United Kingdom, they’d lowered the Union Jack to half-mast. This happened six hours ago, though every news station insisted on repeating what they’d gathered of the old bag’s sendoff.
Gran dabbed at the crow’s feet on her face with the corner of her embroidered Sunday napkins, and kept her head high during “Rule, Britannia.”
I chewed my meat pie. From her plate on the mantelpiece, the Queen Mother, followed by the rest of her brood, gave me a nasty eye that I pretended not to see. Gran knew what I liked to call the Queen Mother when her face came up on the box screen. She was pink. Oh, she was pink.
I know what you’re trying to do, my man, and I won’t have it! Either you keep quiet until the program’s through, or you leave the table, and no pudding; I’ll see to it!
But how else could you bring out the Lancashire charm in Gran, without jerking her chain a bit? Even if it’s done by insulting her dead ex-sovereign?
Have some reverence! I’ll tell you what, when you’ve gone and destroyed yourself one day, and your funeral’s broadcast for the world to see, I’ll be having a laugh of my own at your expense! What d’you make of that, my man?
Oh, but Gran, I hadn’t laughed. Just a burp was all. Your Sunday meat pies always made a belch from all who enjoyed them.
I know what burps and belches sound like, and I’ve never heard a burp or a belch the likes of what you made, there! You shape up, or there’ll be no television later!
You mean you were really and truly going to turn off the television?
I don’t like your tone!
Sorry, Gran, I’m afraid I didn’t like yours much, either.
You try and sass me, my man, and you’ll be in for it, you can bet on that!
How much should I bet, Gran? I won’t get my allowance for another week—
Spent on those, what’re they, those Reese’s Pieces, and those action figures, and those horrible films where someone gets macheted to bits! Your son, Kenneth, your son, with no respect for the money you give him—
There was Dad, old Dad, exhaling to hide a laugh and rubbing his hairline. Because Gran had reached seventy-six, when old people start to have the patience and rationale of four-year-olds, Dad had one of two choices: he could please Gran and go on at me for my spending habits and lack of respect, or, well, scold his own mother.
This was a new one. I’d never before heard the tone of voice used on me when I’d been caught at a fib or, more recently, done in-school suspension time, used on a seventy-six-year-old woman who provided for (not to mention, breastfed) her admonisher. I can’t quite recall what had been said, but the tone was something that deflated you, like the balloons that you leave to suffer on the mailbox long after the party has passed. Dad kept it brief, as he always did when he lectured his three children; it always made the three of us squirm into the wood grain of our chairs and (genuinely) put our lips out for the wrong that we had done.
Gran pressed her thin lips together and dropped her eyes behind their clownish bifocals. Reading me the riot act, she’d been standing, as I remember, or, at the very least, just rising from her place at the head of her table. When the lecture began, I’d assumed the position, melting into the edge where the back and seat of the chair met. From there, I was just able to peek beneath the eiderdown edge of the tablecloth: Gran’s legs stiffened in their nylons, trembled at the knees, and, at last, allowed themselves to bend, dragging the heels of her lavender house slippers forward in defeat.
On the television, her Highness Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip bent their heads in sorrow, her Majesty beneath a veil pinned tastefully to a satin hat, his Honor scarcely standing (he always did look as though he were about to topple over).
The funeral procession made way for a salsa ad in Mild, Medium, or Fiery.
A busty redhead said that maxi pads were more like diapers, and recommended a new brand of tampons.
Barbie had decided on her fourth profession in two months. After trying her hand as a teacher, an astronaut, and a paratrooper, she now proudly donned a new uniform: the gymnast leotard suited her nicely, I thought.
I swallowed the forkful of meat pie. I made mountains out of my mashed potatoes. Big Sister Valerie twisted her mouth into a bud. Big Brother Jonathan, because he was a year shy of being legal, sipped the quarter-glass of cabernet with a little more vigor than Dad or Gran would have approved of.
I very nearly asked Dad, What about me? I’ve been a little shit since Gran turned on the TV. But I didn’t. And that was that.
Gran, whose appetite was known for its monumentality, stared into her cold supper, but did not touch it.
The Queen Mother, from her gold-rimmed, off-white, hand-painted decorative china plate kept an eye on the box. The Union Jack flew at half-mast.
Pam Jones (@PanimalJones) grew up in Connecticut, studied Creative Writing at Hampshire College, and lives in Austin, Texas with her husband. She is the author of The Biggest Little Bird.