I can’t throw out my great-grandma’s scrapbooks about the Royal Family

This First Person column is written by Morgan Dick who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

A century-old steamer trunk sits in the corner of my home office. Every once in a while, I’ll clear away the papers I’ve stacked on top. If I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I’ll crack open the lid and pull out one of a dozen scrapbooks. Leafing through the pages, I’m always struck by a familiar face: the Queen, then known as Princess Elizabeth, sporting bouncy curls and the cheeky grin of an eleven year old.

Like the trunk, these scrapbooks belonged to my great-grandmother, who died a few years before I was born. When they fell into my dad’s possession, he looked inside expecting to find family photographs. Nope! Rather than document her own life, Great-Grandma Fleming had filled every scrapbook page with newspaper clippings about the Royal Family, some dating back to the 1930s. Her dedication to the monarchy reveals a lot about her.

One scrapbook chronicles King George VI’s tour of Canada in 1939. There are carefully trimmed pictures of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret petting their favourite corgis. There’s also a Calgary Herald supplement marking the death of King George V and the accession of his eldest son, Edward VIII, who would later become the first English monarch to voluntarily abdicate the throne. (My great-grandmother didn’t clip any articles about that as I suspect she thought him a quitter.)

Morgan Dick inherited this trunk containing several scrapbooks on the Royal Family from her great-grandmother. (Morgan Dick)

As to why Grandma Fleming (as nearly everyone in our family calls her) followed the royals so closely, I can only speculate. The monarchy was something she carried across the ocean when she immigrated, like her Scottish brogue or the steamer trunk itself, a hefty wooden affair with rusted buckles and tattered leather straps. 

Annie Fleming arrived in Canada with her family in 1905 at the age of 10, settling on a farm in Springbank, Alta., on Treaty Seven territory. Widowed early in life, she didn’t have any biological children and instead chose to adopt my grandmother, Margaret, who as an adult adopted my father. If there’s such a thing as adopted descendants, then Annie Fleming left a long trail of them across the rolling landscape of her chosen home.

My dad remembers her as a feisty woman and a natural storyteller. She loved Queen and country and was appalled when the federal government retired the Canadian Red Ensign in 1965 in favour of a new Canadian flag. Perhaps this devotion to the monarchy brought her comfort as she eked out the difficult existence of a homesteader. 

Annie Fleming shakes hands with then-Calgary mayor Ralph Klein in 1984 during a ceremony where she was recognized for her role as an Alberta homesteader. (Submitted by Morgan Dick)

If I’m being honest, I’m not sure how to feel about it.

Many of Grandma Fleming’s clippings have come unglued from the scrapbook pages. I turn them over and read stories about the looming World War (“Japanese girding to fight Russia”; “Britain to ration bread”), and I can’t help but think she was looking in the wrong direction, choosing to remember the wrong things.

Then there’s the elephant in the room: colonization and its many evils. The British Empire was built on plundered riches and the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and people of colour. Although I admire the Queen on certain levels — I can’t imagine doing the same job for 70  years — the world might’ve been a better place had her ancestors kept to their own castles.

Which begs the question: why do I keep this stuff? Will my own great-grandchildren feel obliged to keep it? These scrapbooks are much like the monarchy itself. They’re dusty and irrelevant, but no one can seem to get rid of them.

A collection of Annie Fleming’s scrapbooks rest on the trunk that came with her from Scotland. (Morgan Dick)

Maybe I’m not so different than Grandma Fleming. No, I don’t spend my time snipping newspapers. But I watched the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle from start to finish, and isn’t that basically the 21st-century equivalent? With so much going badly in the world, it’s hard not to indulge in the diversion of a royal love affair and family drama. 

But my attachment to the newspaper clippings is more than just a guilty pleasure.

When I flip through these scrapbooks, I imagine Grandma Fleming sitting down at the kitchen table with a bracing cup of tea and one of her famous shortbread cookies. Maybe the radio is on, or maybe she’s humming a tune to herself, a nursery rhyme from her childhood in a faraway place. She hunches over a newspaper, wielding a pair of scissors in the same callused, hardworking hands that tuck my dad into his bed at night. 

These scrapbooks are her history, and mine.

So, with all due respect to their majesties, this isn’t about them at all.


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