Two birthday girls get the royal treatment

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Not too many citizens of the United States of America, I think, have had occasion or inclination to become acquainted with a ruling sovereign of Great Britain. But I did. Twice I had both the reason and desire to ask a favor – and both times I was obliged kindly.

Since Elizabeth was never my queen and was not beholden, I believe this important enough to her to be entered in the record. My mother was Canadian born, on Prince Edward Island, and was a subject of Queen Victoria until she married my Yankee father and automatically became a citizen of "lesser breeds without the law." As Mother's firstborn, I heard a lot about Victoria, and since she took me to "The Island" in summertime to visit my grandparents, I came to feel at home with a double loyalty.

At our home in Maine, we always had a lithograph of Empress Victoria that had been published by the Montreal Star on her diamond jubilee. Framed, it was on the wall of the sewing room, where Mother sat to mend socks. Later, Calvin Coolidge was beside the empress, and we children began calling that the pickle-puss room. Mother's family was from Skye, in the Hebrides, so we youngsters knew enough when the time came to say Queen Elizabeth I, since the real Elizabeth I was never queen of Scotland.

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You may not think that's important. I'm reminded of this by the recent passing of England's beloved Queen Mother. Otherwise my knowledge of monarchs runs, probably like yours, to Guinevere's frying plum pudding, to Alfred of the cakes, and the King of France who had 10,000 men. I had no notion of crossing the ocean to approach the throne!

My mother had an older sister named Mary. My Aunty Mary Alice was special to me because she gave me "A Child's Garden of Verses," by Robert Louis Stevenson, and taught me how to love it. Aunty Mary grew older and sweeter on her beloved island, and the last time I visited her, we sat together and she read "I have a little shadow." She would be a century old on her next birthday.

When I returned to The Boston States, I wrote my first letter to the queen. I had never written to a queen, and had no notion of the polite way to do so. The only guide I knew about was Bill Nye, our best American humorist. He had heard that Queen Victoria had written a book, and as he had written several, he advised her about royalty. I think he began with "Dear Queen," but I knew better than that, and I wrote, "Your Majesty."

Then I told her in a perfectly polite manner that my aunt, her subject, residing on Prince Edward Island, would achieve a century on such a date, and the family hoped our aunt would receive the customary birthday greeting from her most gracious hand. I addressed it to Buckingham Palace, London, England, supposing the Royal Mail would require no further details.

I heard nothing for some time, and then came a note signed by the private secretary – no name – saying that if I had something I wished to bring to the notice of the queen, I should proceed through channels.

Aunty Mary's birthday was too close upon to do that, and I didn't know any channels that ran to the queen, so I quit. But the queen did send her usual cablegram to centenary subjects, and we have a snapshot of Aunty Mary being 100 with her cable from the queen propped against the pillow.

My second approach to the throne had similar intent, but different circumstances. My mother approached her own centennial in West Caldwell, N.J., and was asked what she wanted on her birthday. We presumed she would mention a cable from the queen, to keep up with Sister Mary. But she said she'd never ridden on a fire engine, and she'd like a ride on one.

Her children decided to go for the cablegram anyway, and I offered to proceed through channels because the queen might remember me from the last time. This time I telephoned the British Embassy, and they assured me I was using the correct route. And we found that the chief of the West Caldwell Fire Department had a new engine he was happy to exhibit. So Mother clanged up the main street, as happy as an oyster at high tide in Baddeck Bay. The chief even let her pull the string on his siren.

Then we were sitting around in late afternoon, trying to get Mother to lie down and rest, and the telephone rang with the cablegram from the queen. We had been wondering just how this would arrive. The queen might not know how to cable to New Jersey.

My brother answered the ring, and on the queen's end a voice clearly not British said that Western Union in New York City was calling from London. My brother said he would take the message, and Western Union should read slowly as it was a birthday greeting from the queen and he was writing it down.

He had a felt pen and he wrote the message on a brown paper shopping bag. The royal greeting from her majesty was wondrously like the royal greeting my sweet Aunty Mary had received some years ago.

The Western Union voice in New York came to the end of the cablegram and said, "Signature is Elizabeth R, last name not spelled out."

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