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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Read an Excerpt from "A Christmas with Queen Mary"

A Christmas with Queen Mary


Christmas 1944 was the sixth Yuletide holiday celebrated in Britain under the shadow of World War II. Rationing had made life miserable for the average man and woman, there wasn't enough heat, enough fuel, enough of anything. The countryside fared a bit better with the easier availability of fresh produce, milk and eggs, but staples like sugar and coffee were still scarce. No one was immune from hardship, either. At Buckingham Palace in London, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth might still dine on fine china and gold plate, but the food that sat upon the dishes was no better than that on most other British home – rissoles (minced meat mixed with potatoes and onion, shaped and fried), plenty of root vegetables and powdered milk. Sweets were a rarity and store-bought pastries virtually impossible to find.

The holiday was particularly hard for servicemen. Away from home and unsure of when life would return to normal, if they survived the war, soldiers took comfort in anything that reminded them of home and family. England alone hosted over 2 million American servicemen by the time the war ended.

Families were often separated during the war. Not just soldiers, but extended families sometimes found it difficult to stay together. While King George VI and Queen Elizabeth remained in London to send the message that they were in the thick of the suffering just like their subjects, their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, were evacuated to Windsor Castle for safekeeping. The King's mother, Queen Mary, spent most of the war at the country home of her niece, the Duchess of Beaufort, at Badminton House. For Queen Mary, absence from the capitol was a dual hardship. First, she felt that it was her duty to stand for the people and, secondly, because she loved city life, finding long days in the country dull. Only after the King convinced her that her absence from the danger of London would ease his burden did she agree to go.

Queen Mary's image today remains much like it was during her lifetime – regal, serious and unsmiling. Unfortunately, most photographs from this period support this view. Even more unfortunately, this impression is not entirely correct. While Queen Mary believed very much in the dignity of her position, she was also possessed of an excellent sense of humor, a lovely laugh and a charming singing voice. Her face was much like that of the present Queen – somewhat forbidding in repose but, when the occasion called for it, she would break into a delightful smile. There are also many wartime anecdotes from both British and American soldiers that remark upon her genuine interest in their welfare, her willingness to pick up almost any soldier she passed while driving in her Daimler limousine on the country lanes near Badminton House and her warmth and kindness.

While this story is entirely a work of fiction, it springs from the reality of the times in which it takes place. World War II, like many other difficult situations, brought out the best and worst in everyone. Class barriers were broken down and people found themselves in places and circumstances that they couldn't have imagined in peacetime. At its heart, this story is about kindness and about the value we all have to one another. No matter who we are, or how high or low we are in the world, we all have value. We all have similar wants and needs, and we can all learn something from one another.

Chapter One

If he could suspend belief for just a moment, Corporal Matthew Hennessy could almost believe that he was back at home, walking along the road that connected his farm with the main street leading into town. The trees looked the same. The cows looked the same and even the sharp wind that assailed him felt the same. Had he not been keenly, and somewhat painfully, aware of the fact that he was thousands of miles away from the beloved place, he could have felt a moment's joy.

As it was, Matthew was feeling just short of despondent. He'd arrived only a few days before and within hours had been transferred to another unit. His commanding officer had told him how lucky he was as his new outfit was on leave through the Christmas holiday. Unfortunately, nearly everyone in his group had found this out the day before and had left the base. He was virtually alone for the next five days. To be alone and far from home at Christmas seemed to be an awful punishment to the young man.

Deciding that it was time to return to his base he noticed that the light was starting to fade. Corporal Hennessy heard the sound of an approaching car and turning around saw a long black Daimler limousine moving toward him. As it pulled alongside, the car stopped and the rear window was slowly lowered.

“Good afternoon young man. Could we offer you a lift?”
The cultured but kindly voice belonged to a very upright old woman wearing a rather tall and imposing hat. Her eyes were friendly but there was a sort of regal quality about her.

“Thank you all the same, ma'am, but I was just about to turn around and head back for my base.”

“Well, never mind that. Why don't you join me for tea and then we'll see to it that you get back to your base. It's awfully cold and it's getting rather dark.”

“Thank you, ma'am. That's very nice of you.”

Corporal Hennessy climbed into the back seat of the car and sat next to the elderly woman. She looked vaguely familiar but Matthew couldn't place her. If anything, he was reminded of his English grandmother back home. Never in his life had he seen her slouch, let alone touch the back of the seat in which she sat.

“You are from America, are you not?” This was more of a statement than a question.

“That's right, ma'am.”
“Where in America do you live?”

“I doubt that you've heard of it, ma'am. It's an awfully small town.”

The old lady's eyebrow arched. “You might be surprised, young man, I've heard of a great many places.”

“It's a place called Corvallis. It's in...” The woman interrupted him.

“Oregon, I believe. Not terribly far from the coast.”

“That's right! How did you know?”

The lady laughed merrily. “It's really quite simple. My cousin stopped at Corvallis once and was entertained by some red Indians. She was on her way to San Francisco after visiting a museum in the State of Washington. She wrote quite a description of the proceedings and it all sounded rather romantic and exciting. I've remembered the name ever since.”

“I can honestly say that I've never thought of Corvallis as either romantic or exciting, but I've also never seen a red Indian.”

“Well, such things seem to be trotted out for our benefit wherever we go.” The woman laughed again although Corporal Hennessy didn't quite understand what she meant.

Just as Matthew was about to ask a few of his own questions, he noticed that they were pulling through a rather ornate gate and heading toward a large and very grand house.

“Is this where your niece lives?? Corporal Hennessy was rather surprised at the grandeur of the place.

“Yes. It belongs to her husband's family. I'll warn you, it's rather close quarters just now.”

The car pulled silently to the entrance and an elderly servant in livery opened the door. As the lady alighted and Matthew noticed that the old man gave a stiff, correct neck bow. He was always impressed by formality of the English but didn't give it much thought.

A rather imposing man stood at door and he, too, bowed quickly. As she passed the woman said, “Small, we'll have tea in the drawing room. Corporal... I don't think I ever asked your name.”

“Hennessy. Matthew Hennessy.”

“Yes, Corporal Hennessy will be joining me. Is the Duchess in as well?”

“No, Your Majesty. Her Grace will not be back in time for tea but asked me to tell you that she will be at dinner.”

“Ah, good. We have rather a lot to do to prepare for Christmas Day. Thank you, Small.”
Matthew's mind was reeling. “Your Majesty”?! And then, quite suddenly it dawned on him. Of course this lady looked familiar. It was Queen Mary! The mother of the Kind of England! His grandmother had a mug and a biscuit tin from the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary sitting on a special shelf in her bedroom. She'd often talked of seeing the King and Queen pass by in their golden coach on the way to the ceremony. And here he was, Matthew Hennessy, about to have tea with the Queen herself and he hadn't even recognized her.

Entering the drawing room, Queen Mary directed Matthew to a comfortable chair covered in blue silk just opposite the fireplace. An enormous Christmas tree decorated with red wax candles and shiny silver balls stood nearby. A fire roared in the fireplace. It was the warmest Matthew had been in weeks. The room was lined with richly carved wood paneling, old books and large paintings of long dead ancestors. The Queen sat opposite him and gave him a warm smile.

“Your Majesty, I must apologize. I really should have known who you were but I never would have thought in a million years that...”

Queen Mary giggled a surprisingly girlish giggle. “Please, don't give it a thought. You've know idea how nice it can be not to be recognized and to be spoken to as if one were an entirely anonymous person. It's one of the things that I think I like most about the Americans. They treat one with such an open and friendly manner. My cousin – the one who was at Corvallis – often spoke of this.”

“May I ask who your cousin was, ma'am?”

“Oh, yes, of course. It was Queen Marie of Rumania. She was in the United States to open a museum that a rather flamboyant man named Sam Hill had built. I think it was in an oddly remote place in the State of Washington, but Missy was very fond of him and, of course, he'd invested rather a lot of money in Rumania. Missy was quite remarkable, you know. Quite a character!”

“If you'll excuse me for saying so, I'm having a rather hard time believing that I am sitting here and talking to you, Your Majesty. Back home, my grandmother often talks about the time she watched you and King George pass by on your way to the coronation. She would never believe it if I told her that I was here.”

Queen Mary smiled warmly. “Tell me about your family, Corporal. I am very interested in what your life is like back in America.”

“My family is about as normal a family as there is. My dad's a carpenter and he keep chickens on our small farm. He loves to build things and was always making something for me and my brothers Last year he built an enormous tree house for my kid brother, but he's already outgrown that. Dad can't bear to think of his boys growing up.”

“Do you and your father correspond?”

“Oh, sure. Dad's a big one for letters. He wrote me a letter to take on the train when I left home, and I think he's written at least once a week since then.”

“What sorts of things does your father write to you?” The old queen seemed genuinely interested in Matthew's family.

“Just the normal things. He tells me how my high school football and basketball teams are getting along. He writes about all of the funny things our neighbors and friends get up to. And, he keeps me up to date on what's happened to all of my old pals.”

“Are many of your friends in the military?”

“I'd say that all of them are. Except my best friend Chuck Hamilton. He has a condition of some kind and it kept him out of the service.”

“Your father must love you very much to take the time to write so often.”
“Well, my dad is just that sort of guy. He's really as much of a friend as a father. We have long talks, play cards together, and he takes us all fishing during the summer. Funny thing is, I can't remember him ever catching a fish. I guess it's just an excuse to spend time with us and talk.”

“What about your mother. What sort of person is she?”

“My mother is the sort of person who never seems to sleep. She's constantly doing something for someone. She's a great cook. I'd give a lot to be home for Christmas dinner! I think she spends all year planning for Christmas. Every night she's at work on a present for someone – knitting or sewing. And every year we do the same thing. As soon as Thanksgiving is over, we get out all of the Christmas decorations and dad takes us to get the tree. Mom starts baking and freezing cookies and cakes and she stays busy baking until the New Year.”

“I don't think I've ever heard of cookies. What are they?”

“I think you call them biscuits over here. My mom is the best baker for miles around. Every year our whole family piles into the kitchen to bake dozens and dozens of batches to give away to our friends and neighbors. Mom was always worried that we thought too much about what we were getting for Christmas, so she made sure that we had to do some giving as well.”

“Your mother seems to be a very intelligent woman, Corporal. You mentioned your grandmother. She is English?”

“Yes, my grandmother was born in Skegness. She was a parlour maid in Hull before she came to the States. Her aunt had a hotel on the coast in Oregon and she went to work there. After she met my grandfather, she decided to stay.”

“Does your grandmother live with you?”

“Yes. She has her own room. In fact, she has a special shelf on the wall and on that shelf she keeps a mug commemorating Your Majesty's coronation. She has a biscuit tin, too. She won't let anyone touch them, but she keeps candy in the tin and if we are really good, she'll give each of us a piece. I am her favorite, so I get candy pretty regularly.”

“How do you know that you are her favorite?” The Queen looked at Matthew conspiratorially.

“Well, she tells me!” Corporal Hennessy stated somewhat emphatically.

“Ah, well, you should know that I say the same thing to each of my grandchildren when I am alone with them.” They laughed together at this revelation. “How old are you Corporal Hennessy?”

“I'm twenty-four ma'am.”

“How would you like to spend Christmas here with us?”

“Well, I don't really know what to say Your Majesty. I don't want to impose...” Matthew couldn't fully contain his surprise.

“Oh, none of that! It wouldn't be an imposition at all. You are most welcome, and I could use your help with the children's party and my wooding crew is always looking for young and strong recruits!”

“Your wooding crew?” Corporal Hennessy hadn't heard the term before.

Just as the Queen was about to answer a voice piped up behind him. “Is my aunt trying to get you to join her in the fight against ivy?”

Matthew stood and a pleasant woman approached, gave a quick curtsy to the Queen and kissed her on both cheeks. She turned toward and introduced herself.

“You must be the soldier that has the house in quite a state of excitement. Small told me that the Queen had brought home another one of her Americans and the maids are quite intrigued. I am the Duchess of Beaufort, how very nice to meet you. Oh, do sit down, please.”

“Mary, I've invited Corporal Hennessy to spend Christmas with us. I am sure that we can make room for him, can't we?” Although posed as a question, Matthew could see that most of Queen Mary's questions sounded more like definitive statements.

“Of course we can. It should be great fun to have someone else and it will liven up the children's party to no end. You know how they adore Americans.”

As the two ladies conversation continues, Matthew took stock of his situation. Quite resigned to being miserably lonely on his favorite day of the year, he was now sitting in the drawing room of what, to him, amounted to a palace with a Queen and a Duchess and he was being invited to spend Christmas with them. It also appeared that he would be a welcome attraction to a group of English children, something quite outside his normal experience. Back home, Corporal Hennessy stayed decidedly in the background, preferring the company of a few friends or his family.

“Corporal Hennessy, Small and I will show you to your room and he will arrange for anything you need to be collected from your barracks. If you should need anything at all, please don't hesitate to ask. We want you to be absolutely comfortable here and know that you are most welcome.” The Duchess' warm smile put Matthew at ease.

“Quite right. We shall see you at dinner. Please don't worry about dressing for dinner. Of course, we do, but we understand that you might not have a very comprehensive wardrobe at the moment. As Mary said, Small will help you with anything you might need. And now, Corporal Hennessy, I shall say goodbye until this evening. It has been a most delightful afternoon.” As the Queen gave a warm smile Matthew noticed that the Duchess curtsied and the butler, Small, gave another of his neat neck bows, which he copied quite nicely.

----  o  ----

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