Losing Our Mums (& Queens)
A Generation Moves On
Another trip to Toronto, this one likely to be my last. A summer of goodbyes is falling to its natural end. Sixty-odd years of returning ‘home,’ to this country, to this house and to the love held in the passionate heart of this one mother is ending. It’s been a gentle, prolonged goodbye. I have been surprised by joy, calmed by serenity. And by the echoes of other parallel flights around the globe. The ladies are leaving us.
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My little grand-daughter will, strangely, be losing her two great-grandmothers - one in Africa, the other in Canada - in a single season. An old friend of my mother’s is also saying her goodbyes, via assisted dying, this week. The country I currently call ‘home’, the UK, has just seen its longest serving Queen finally hand over the reins to her reign.
I can’t help, of course, comparing and contrasting all these ‘mums.’ They were so different, and yet similar - women of a certain generation who took their matriarchal roles seriously. Women who were at times adored, at times taken for granted, occasionally rejected. Who stayed, stalwart and determined, standing - and loving - to the end. Their passing will inevitably change and re-structure the families they birthed - and leave behind.
Simon Schama, writing in the FT, says “the nation now feels itself orphaned. It matters not how long anticipated the death of a mother figure might be; the time can never be right for her actual passing… People are sorrowing as much for themselves as for the royal family and for the country. For most of the British population, the Queen has been the only monarch they have known.”
The same is true of every mother, usually also ‘the only monarch,’ bar a dad or two, their children have ever known. A friend, a man well into his 60s, was sharing with me that when his mother died, there was no one left for him to go tell about his latest exploits and successes. No one else would get as excited for him as he was for himself. A Harvard ALI colleague is leaving the programme to go home and care for his mother. Ailing and ageing mothers have been on many of my colleagues’ minds and agendas this summer. You can’t ignore the call.
Good mothers and queens share essential roles - of culture-creators, centrifugal convenors, a slightly insane, lifelong accountability for the happiness of their charges. Princess Elisabeth, in her 21st birthday radio broadcast, accepted this matriarchal reality. “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” Like many (not all) mothers, mine could have said the same thing.
No wonder when they go we stand bereft, arms out-stretched, like children dropped at the school gates of reality, watching the ballast of our existence recede towards an incomprehensible other life. Mothers are the queens of our lives, and when they move on, it becomes our turn, ready or not, to mount the throne - and take on the mantle they leave in our laps.
We are not always ready. The UK’s Times newspaper writes that the Queen was “the embodiment of our nation, the figurehead of our democracy and the stable symbol of continuity in an increasingly turbulent and rapidly changing world.” She leaves a country in turmoil, divided by endless family skirmishes, riven from their European cousins, at war with the old uncle with a grudge in the Kremlin.
These long, near-100-year lives fool us with the familiarity of continuity. The reality is that these ladies have been witness to a century of dizzying, almost unimaginable change. The Queen’s reign started with Churchill - and ends with Liz Truss. The feminist in me celebrates the shift and winces at the contrast.
Like the Commonwealth the Queen so ably united, and now at risk of being seen as a ‘colonial anachronism,’ my family is likely to struggle to stay united when the generational glue that brought us together is gone. My brother and I live a continent apart and our home country’s triangulating pull may disappear with our mom. Our ancestors are European. My nuclear family spans four countries (I won’t be sad to narrow the field). Will Canada have been a blip in our family’s history? Or will we circle back to its tranquil, expansive shores in time?
The Queen hands over her crown to her son, now King Charles III. My mother took off a necklace I had made for her last year. It is nowhere near as valuable, except to me, of course. And to the person she gave it to. I had four necklaces made a year ago. They each had the same four rings crafted into their silver. But on each, a different ring was golden, representing the four generations of women my mother was presiding. My mother got one, as did I and my daughter. I set one aside for my grand-daughter when she reaches the necklace-wearing age.
When my son came to introduce his daughter to her great-grandmother last month, we celebrated a moment of four generations of our Holocaust-surviving family. A moving moment. Made magical by my mother slipping off her necklace and giving it to my son with careful instructions to give it to his African wife (who couldn’t get a visa in time to visit). More continents, more inclusion, more cultural mixing. Another queen-in-the-making welcomed in to the matriarchy. My mother ain’t passing on the Commonwealth, but her genes are stretching almost as far.
In the Jewish faith, the line goes down through mothers. So while Charles III accepts his crown, this week my daughter will join me, and in the circle of life and family and necklaces, we too will accept the majestic, queenly mantle that is ours.
See Off to Lunch’s summary of all things Queenly Exit - and how the press reported it.
See the Queenager’s take on how every Queen needs a supportive spouse.
Exit - The Endings that Set Us Free, by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, on the importance of endings in a culture that prefers beginnings.