Our Very Tuscan British Exmoor Funeral

It’s been two and a half years since I’ve been on a plane. That’s the longest I’ve spent with both feet on the ground since I was a teenager. Just when I’m wondering if I’ll ever again experience the joy of a good ol’ kneecapping from someone else’s wheeled suitcase on a jetway, my sister calls with a plan. (She’s been known to suggest things like tying a childhood friend to a dustbin lid and sending him down a steep hill. The trouble that caused. One shouldn’t agree to her plans willy nilly.) But this plan includes Tuscan pasta dishes with porcini mushrooms. It involves a swimming pool with views over a beautiful valley framed by towering mountains. It’s a chance to see Cinque Terre, a bucket list destination for me. I wait for the other shoe to drop, like Sis saying, ‘Oh, before we go, we need to dig up my entire back garden using a spoon. Then returf it.’ That shoe doesn’t drop. I’m going on holiday!

Just a couple of flies in the ointment: Two weeks before we’re due to fly out, a Ukrainian refugee family arrives at our house on Exmoor. No one had invaded anyone back when we booked the holiday. No one had suggested Hubby and I empty out all the closets in our three-bedroom house and stack our clothes into dangerously high piles on the floor in one bedroom. No one mentioned anything about completing more dangerous piles of paperwork regarding refugee visas and school applications and insurance and new bank accounts and downloading translation apps. No one suggested I wouldn’t have time to pack or time to plan holiday excursions or …

I know, I know. Even I realise that comes across a little, well, selfish. Lives are at stake here. Civilization itself is at stake here based on current events, and I’m focused on pasta. Of course, Hubby and I will make this work. Of course, we’ll get everything set up before we leave. We’ll give this family of three some breathing room to regroup from their ordeal and relax into Exmoor life. It will all be fine. Our new family members are delightful and certainly worth any extra effort on our part.

Then the second fly crash lands in the Commonwealth ointment, splattering chaos and grief everywhere. The day before we leave for Heathrow, worrying news seeps out of Buckingham Palace: Queen Elizabeth’s health is ’cause for concern’. Before we’ve had time to wish her well, she’s gone. And I’m bereft.

‘Why,’ you ask? ‘Did you meet her?’ No, but I saw her up close during a tour of Windsor Castle once. I looked out of one of the stateroom windows to see the entire Royal Family getting into cars heading to Royal Ascot. It was a thrill, seeing an icon in the flesh. She’d been part of my British collective consciousness my entire life. She provided a rallying cry during my decades in America, that call to defend your country, not from war in this case but from any mention of ‘also ran’. Nobody does pomp or puts on a parade like the United Kingdom. London’s buildings and vistas always impress and the Queen’s appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace stirs something inside me. So much history – some of it questionable looking back with today’s perspective, I get that – condensed into one lady under a pastel-coloured hat. All I can say is for me, personally, Queen Elizabeth provided the thread that tethered me ‘home’ during my hiraeth years.

I’d worried about not being resident back in England for her funeral during my years abroad. I thought I’d made it in time. I intended to go to London and pay my respects when the time came. But no. I’m booked on a flight to Tuscany within a day of her passing. I can barely pack, and I’m still trying to complete paperwork for my new Ukrainian family as the bells toll in the village church and the television pounds the sad news, over and over again, into my heart. The Queen is dead. Long live the King. The Jubilee bed in my garden tells the story; a sad transition from June to September.

I frantically hurl hand lotion bottles out of bathroom drawers trying to find a little plastic bag to fit my toiletries in because I’d forgotten you still have to do that on a plane. My eyes well up at the billboards along the motorway: a black background with The Queen’s portrait in the middle. Heathrow is full of shop windows expressing condolences to the Royal Family. Sis and I start planning our day of Tuscan mourning on the plane. We’ll be watching the entire funeral, though our partners plan to hike that day. They don’t get it. Well, one of them is American, after all.

Tuscan villages are decked out in Ukrainian flags, reminding us we’ve left our house in the hands of complete strangers. We WhatsApp several times a day to smooth any bumpy issues and our village does a wonderful job of wrapping our guests in warmth and kindness. This gives Sis and me time to buy family-sized bags of Italian chocolate, M&M’s and liquorice because this is how you deal with death in our family.

We sit down in our Tuscan villa at 10am GMT on Monday September 19th and don’t move again for eight hours. We feel sick from all the chocolate but, oh, what a wonderful send off. I take comfort in the fact I made it home for The Queen’s 70th anniversary, just three short months ago. I threw a party and shared Pimms and planted my garden in red, white, and blue, and somehow felt closer to my heritage. But today, scenes appear on the little Italian television that bring me back to the heart wrenching gut check of Emma, the Queen’s pony, standing silently as her owner’s casket passes. The Royal Corgis sit desolately at the feet of carers as those amazing pall bearers make everyone proud. The crown is removed from the top of the casket and my heart bleeds for the next-in-line, Charles III. He has a tough road ahead and big shoes to fill. He will be criticized daily for doing his job and the only thing he’ll be more criticized for is not doing his job. Poor fella.

In the days after the funeral, we eat pasta and stroll cobbled streets and travel to the coast. We decide Cinque Terre isn’t what we thought it would be, though it could be just our attitudes aren’t what they should be. That said, the photos on all the jigsaw puzzles I’ve completed over the years of these coastal villages are much cleaner, brighter and less crowded than the reality. Portofino proves impressive though.

Before we know it, we’re on the way home, thinking September was a bit of a washout. Until … we walk through our Exmoor door and there waiting for us is an amazing gingerbread replica of our home, made with love and incredible skill by our Ukrainian guests. We are speechless. Such talent and generosity shared in a time of great stress for them. Later, I post a photo of the house on Twitter, which the BBC picks up and before we know it, we’re interviewed on BBC Radio Somerset and there’s an article on the BBC website and another journalist calls for an interview and suddenly we’re all connected in this big old crazy world by cake. That sweet, comforting token denotes grief and celebration and peace and family. We’re all looking for a good news story; something to remind us that everything will be alright if we’re just kind to each other. Baking binds us together.

If Queen Elizabeth II did one thing right, it was instilling in so many a sense of duty, compassion and a work ethic of ‘just get on with it’. I’ll stop wallowing in pity and get on with providing a home for those who sorely need it. And I’ll eat gingerbread until I feel better.

Images: author’s own

Queens, Jubilees and Bunting: The Joys of Home

Today is the second anniversary of my leaving the United States for the last time to return home to England. I’ll be spending the day, in fact the whole week, excitedly preparing for my neighbourhood Jubilee party. For those of you living under a rock, the British Commonwealth is celebrating the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s reign with a four-day special holiday. I’m hosting a garden party on Saturday, which some find odd seeing as my household contains one of the only Americans living in my village. Hubby isn’t known for his monarchist sensibilities. How could he be, given the rigmarole his forebearers went through to get rid of King George III? But here Hubby is, unpacking boxes of bunting, streamers, balloons and flags and wondering why on earth his typically non-baking wife has ordered 180 Union Jack cupcake cases. He’s being a good sport about it. So far. (Wait until he finds out about the full-sized replica of Her Majesty he needs to put together so she can stand at the gate to welcome more than forty guests.) Luckily, Hubby finds it possible to question the place of a monarchy in this century and still have tremendous admiration for someone who has navigated the royal waters for 70 years with aplomb. He agrees with me that anyone who’s kept a job for 70 years deserves respect.

I’ve always loved the pomp and pageantry of the British monarchy. I’ve watched Trooping of the Colour in person and followed the Household Cavalry parade down The Mall. I love the bands and the way crowds of people (who’ve complained all year about everything British from the weather to the price of petrol to the latest football loss to the VAT on biscuits) appear for the Queen’s official birthday celebration decked out in red, white and blue sunglasses and Union Jack capes singing ‘Rule Britannia’ – or some slightly drunken version of it. As a figurehead, Queen Elizabeth still works, thought the intent behind ‘Rule Britannia’ may not.  

Hubby and I watched Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen on the BBC. It contained never-before-seen footage of Queen Elizabeth’s life from birth up to scenes from her coronation when she was twenty-five. Twenty-five??!! At twenty-five I doubt I could have been consistently responsible for a goldfish let alone greeting dignitaries from around the world without causing an international incident. Could I have demonstrated such interest in teapot making, or four-year-olds drawing stick queen figures, or a demonstration of the latest battery technology without stifling a yawn or cutting short the official visit to attend a Eurythmics concert instead? Doubtful. Maybe the Queen would have preferred a concert too. It’s not like she was asked if she wanted to take on her royal role. Her Uncle, the abdicating King Edward VIII, made it impossible for her to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to it all. To remain so poised and filtered, when she wasn’t born to be queen, takes great discipline, determination, and dedication. That can be admired, even by an American.

Having spent thirty years or so in the USA, hiraeth (a longing for home overlaid with sadness that home may not exist anymore, or perhaps never did) was a constant during my American life. I decided to return to my birthplace for many reasons but one hope was to return while Queen Elizabeth was still on the throne. Her presence has been a stabilizing factor throughout my life; a reminder of my British-ness. Maybe you must spend a long time away from familiar rituals and traditions in order to appreciate them. Once they disappear from your daily life, and no mention is made of them in your adopted homeland, there’s a hole. No Superbowl, no presidential inauguration (certainly not the last few!), no Fourth of July or Thanksgiving can fill that hole. When you’re required to explain your traditions to others, you begin to clarify what they mean to you personally, as opposed to them just ‘being there’. I ask myself why I cry every time I hear Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’, the coronation anthem. What does that magnificent piece of music about a biblical figure, played during the religious anointing of a British king or queen, stir in me? I wasn’t exactly raised in the church. But the moment I hear that music and they place that crown on Elizabeth’s head, I tear up. I tear up when those around her curtsey. I sniffle when I watch her young face in that golden coach stare out at the crowds of subjects, who, for a moment, come together in unity and pride at something so quintessentially British. This is patriotism I suppose. That feeling, however brief, that you are on top of the world. The only ones who can do this particular thing well. And we Brits certainly do a parade well, don’t we?

So here’s to another string of bunting across the swing seat. To another batch of cupcakes with Jubilee toppers. Here’s to keeping the cardboard cut-out of Queen Elizabeth dry from the forecasted rain showers and making sure only respectful photos are taken of her. Here’s to being back home in England during this never-before-achieved milestone event. And most especially, here’s to Queen Elizabeth II. Job well done, Ma’am.

One last thing: here’s to Hubby not mentioning Boston Harbor or Paul Revere. At least for this weekend.

Images: Pixabay, Wikimedia, pxhere