“Once in a lifetime,” Miss Smith told us. “Or maybe twice.” She was our fifth-grade teacher, and she wanted to make sure we paid attention to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of England, which would be happening in about a month. We knew that Princess Elizabeth was now the queen of England, but the coronation would make it official, just as an inauguration made the position of the president of the United States official. In January most of us had watched on television as President Eisenhower took the oath of office. (It was a school day, and I don’t remember whether we watched the live broadcast or saw replays on the news. We would have gotten home from school early enough to catch the parade, with the marching bands and floats.) What I remember most about Eisenhower’s inauguration was that he chose to wear a homberg instead of the traditional top hat. Inaugurations happen every four years in the United States, but in England a coronation requires a much longer commitment. The queen would be expected to do her job forever, or until the day she died, whichever came first. Queen Elizabeth was still a young woman. We decided that Miss Smith was probably right about this being a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Miss Smith presented us with a project and a challenge. We were, each of us, to prepare a coronation scrapbook, which would contain information about the coronation, clippings from magazines or newspapers, anything we could find of relevance. She told us to keep our eyes and ears open, to check the evening newspaper every day, and of course to ask our mothers’ permission before cutting up their magazines. She would provide the blank scrapbooks (which she bought with her own money) and our job was to fill them, making them as complete and attractive as possible. There would be prizes for the three best scrapbooks.
The Couto family didn’t have a lot of magazines at home. My mother subscribed to McCall’s, and of course we got Parade every Sunday in The Standard-Times. Neighbors who knew about the project sometimes would give me magazines after they finished with them. I got busy with my scissors. I don’t remember whether I used LePage’s Mucilage or plain white paste to attach my clipped articles, but I do remember trying to arrange everything in something like chronological order.
My mother called my attention to an article that I probably would have missed because I didn’t recognize the man and the woman in the photo. If I remember correctly, the caption read “Duke, Wally to Watch Coronation on TV,” although I am probably remembering incorrectly; I doubt that Wallis Simpson was ever called “Wally,” but what do I know? “Duke” and “Wally” were both boys’ names, as far as I was concerned, and I didn’t know who was which. (Actually “Duke” sounded more like a dog’s name; one of my aunts had a neighbor with a dog named “Duke.”) “Is this about the coronation?” I asked my mother. She said it was, and I got out my scissors.
The coronation took place in Westminster Abbey, and I remember watching it. I think Miss Smith arranged for us to be able to take part of the day, or maybe even the whole day, off from school so that we could watch this first televised English coronation. The event was so important that TV Guide put Queen Elizabeth’s picture on the cover of that week’s issue, even though she wasn’t a TV star. The major networks carried the ceremony live (and very early, due to the time difference) using the new trans-oceanic technology, and they also arranged to have BBC kinescopes flown in RAF jets to North America for a less-fuzzy evening recap.
I remember the fuzziness of the live transmission. Queen Elizabeth looked tiny on our black-and-white TV screen, and she looked even tinier when the heavy crown was placed on her head. Shakespeare was being metaphorical when he wrote “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” but that crown, with all those crown jewels, had to have been uncomfortable. Later the royal family appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace: Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh (who would later become Prince Philip), Prince Charles, Princess Anne, and the Queen Mum, along with other royals that I didn’t recognize. I remember thinking it was a good thing the queen already had two children because now she would be too busy to have any more. I was wrong about that. What really impressed me about that balcony scene was the way the royal family waved—not flapping their hands, as in waving bye-bye, but raising their arms like scepters and moving their hands in a circular motion.
Miss Smith was one of my favorite teachers of all time. She brought books to school (that she bought with her own money) and set them up in the back of the classroom; if we finished our work early we could pick a book to read and even borrow it to take home if the story was really interesting. Thanks to Miss Smith I read all the Little House on the Prairie books, The Secret Garden, and much more. I was never bored that year. As for the coronation scrapbooks, I won second prize. My prize was a silver mechanical pencil, which I still have somewhere in my brother’s attic in a box with my coronation scrapbook and other memorabilia. I haven’t seen the scrapbook in decades, but I have never forgotten my coronation experience.
Wanting to read the final chapter, I woke up very early yesterday morning to watch the queen’s funeral on a much larger TV than the one I saw the coronation on. Westminster Abbey is a grey and gold splendor with a black-and-white checkerboard floor that somehow imposes a sense of order. The overhead shots were almost like looking through a kaleidoscope. I thought, if I shake this all the colors will swirl and be beautiful. But I do not plan to make a funeral scrapbook. The LePage company no longer makes Mucilage, and, though I would miss the squeaky sound of the rubber tip, the glue would be useless in an age when all the articles are online. But if I did make another scrapbook, it would be a good one. I can always use another pencil.