I’ve been catching glimpses on the news of all of the pomp and ceremony in the United Kingdom as Queen Elizabeth II was laid to rest and Charles III ascends to the throne.
It got me thinking about the time I was in the same room with her majesty.
To be clear, it’s not like I had an audience with Queen Elizabeth II. Also, it was a very large room — the entrance to renowned horse racing ground Keeneland, in Lexington, Kentucky. So, I was in the same room with the queen the way many others can claim: in a crowd of people, watching her go by as she offered that royal wave.
I was a tad disappointed, but an explanation is in order. It was October 1984. I was 8 years old. My parents had informed me I wouldn’t be going to school that day. Instead, I was put in a coat and tie and hustled into the car for the trip to Lexington. I was told we were going to see the queen of England, who owned horses in Kentucky and was attending Keeneland for a race in her honor. That made perfect sense to me.
However, I had no frame of reference for modern royalty. I knew a little bit about Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who had married three years prior, but it was mostly from the cultural white noise of tabloid headlines in grocery store checkouts or commercials with impersonators who could wiggle their ears. My concept of royalty was more Medieval, or perhaps Disney-esque. I expected to see an imposing young woman in voluminous robes wearing a tall, burnished gold crown and clutching a scepter.
We staked out a good spot to catch the queen’s entrance. I had the attention span of a goldfish back then, so it seemed like we’d been waiting for hours. Suddenly, the room erupted in applause. My dad began madly snapping photographs and excitedly pointing. “Do you see her?”
“See who? Where’s the queen?”
“That is the queen.”
There are few distinct memories of that moment that have survived the intervening 38 years. I can tell you Queen Elizabeth II was noticeably small in stature. That’s saying something because, when you’re a kid, everything seems larger. Think about revisiting your middle school after a few years in high school and being struck by how small everything looks. That’s partly because physical growth has changed your literal perspective, but it’s also psychological. In your mind’s eye, everything was just larger than it actually is. So, if Queen Elizabeth looked short to me then, I wonder how small in stature she seemed to all of the grownups who had packed the entrance to welcome her. More on this later.
Her majesty, obviously, was not wearing purple, fur-trimmed robes or a crown. She was in a modest houndstooth outfit and a small hat with a purple plume. Her hair wasn’t gray then (she was a spry 58), but she looked elderly to me in that way a lot of older people appear to children.
I took that in, and she was past us. That was it.
I had questions. I asked them. My parents probably regretted bringing me and leaving my younger siblings with relatives when all was said and done.
My mother explained to me that queens and kings in the 1980s didn’t typically dress like they did in the 16th century. I also learned that Queen Elizabeth II didn’t have any of the authority a child associates with monarchs. I’m willing to bet I was one of very few 8-year-olds in Kentucky who had the words “figurehead” and “parliament” added to their vocabulary that day.
Why did a country with a parliament need a figurehead? The explanation I got wasn’t very clear, but I adapted and enjoyed the races.
What’s funny to me now is that, when you’re a kid and your parents say “Put on a tie, we’re going to see the queen,” it sounds exciting but simultaneously and weirdly ordinary, because, at that age, your parents set the parameters of your world. There’s no context to put it against. People must see the queen all the time, right? OK, so she’s not the spitting image of the woman who talks to her mirror in “Snow White,” but that’s no big deal. She seems a lot nicer, anyway. Maybe next time I bumped into her, I could get a word in and ask for one of those bushy hats her guards wear.
Of course, I never saw the queen in person again. It was totally lost on me how rare an occasion that was. I’m not one of those people who’s obsessed or even all that interested in the royal family. Still, I wish I could’ve appreciated the moment more. But (and feel free to read this part in a cockney accent) that’s how life goes a lot of the time, innit?
Briefly back to the size thing. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who headed the paper’s London bureau for many years, recently remarked on just how small a woman Queen Elizabeth II was. But she projected an aura or energy that belied her stature. Part of that was because of her royal bearing, but, Robinson postulates, even more of it was the adoration of the people projected onto her and reflected back to them. I couldn’t feel that happening to me at Keeneland, because I was way too young to be attuned to it, but I could see it on the faces of everyone else. And that’s the warmest memory I have of that day.