The First Lady and the Queen: Don’t Touch the Queen!

I’ve an old North Carolina friend, long gone now — Joe King — a one-armed artist and trickster who sometimes went by the name of Vinciata — who painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. It was one of those hands-across-the-waters postwar friendship things. Day in, day out, Joe tucked away in a corner of her gloomy London castle and longed for North Carolina, painting the oppressive, threatening skies he used as the backdrop for all his portraits, and the queen smiled that benign, half-sad, quiet smile. Like the smiles on money. It was the smile that brought England through the war; on her mother then — the Queen Mum — but she seems to have inherited it later in age.

Same smile when she drove up Market Street with Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo waving to us during the Bicentennial. A mother’s smile; the smile of a mother who has seen a nation through triumph, sadness and difficulties but endured through joy and suffering alike. But a mother’s smile as well in that you couldn’t tell if she was really happy or mad at you.

Always the same smile. That is why I was so surprised to see the picture of first lady Michelle Obama and the queen in the paper yesterday morning smiling together and holding hands. Different smile. The queen looked at the first lady directly and her eyes lit up. Was as if this was the one she had been waiting all these years to connect with; the queen had finally met her friend, her equal.

It was like that moment in “Casablanca” when the heroic resistance fighter Victor Laszlo, all dressed in white, comes into Rick’s café and offers to buy him a drink. Captain Renault says, Oh, no, no, Monsieur Rick never drinks with the customers. But Rick drinks with Victor Laszlo.

So I have a thought about the first lady putting her arm around the queen that caused such an uproar. Everyone knew the rules: “Don’t touch the queen!” Mia Farrow touched the queen decades ago. She didn’t like it. But as the handlers of the queen pointed out yesterday, and you can clearly see it from the video clips, the queen already had her arm around the first lady. My thought is this: The queen has not until now actually liked anyone from this side of the waters, or maybe anywhere well enough to hug as she did the American first lady. And it tells us something: When she does, she will abandon protocol and do what she likes.

I grew up in an old Victorian Irish family where everyone of my grandparents’ generation came from England but were born in Ireland. The whole family and some 30 Irish-born secondary relatives gathered every Sunday after Mass at my grandmother’s apartment, which was two city blocks from the dock where she arrived from England. I almost didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t an Irish cousin or an English half-relative until I was a teenager.

Our grandmother was like the queen in our family. And then when she died it all died. We never met or joined with the others much again. I can’t imagine what will become of us when we lose this good mother.



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