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Palabras Pintorescas: Queen Mary and Aunt Elvira

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By Editha Bartley

These cold and windy days of winter cause me to stay inside and, horror of horrors, clean out some old files and stacks, boxes of papers I have kept, seemingly forever.

Just a year after our devastating house fire at Valmora, I was lucky enough (because of my parents’ diligent, almost extreme savings program) to do the great tour of Europe the summer of 1953. Because we lost everything in that fire, I decided that I’d keep all sorts of things to rebuild my life. In that collection is a scrapbook I started when I returned from that wonderful trip.

My strict parents wouldn’t dream of my traveling alone (I was 18) and my old maid Aunt Elvira immediately said she’d like to go to Europe. Now traveling with an old maid aunt who has a Ph.D. in education, is a college dean and who lacks a sense of humor, particularly when it comes to teenage girls, is almost considered punishment, but how else was I going to see the rest of the world?

I would write a long essay about our adventures, but that’s for another time. Aunt Elvira found a travel agency that was remarkably good — we were met in every city we visited by a well-versed local guide but we didn’t have to meet up with a group at the end of the day.

Early on, Aunt Elvira decided we should sail Europe on the Queen Mary. I’d only been on a speed boat a couple of times and I did sail overnight on George Steinbrener’s ore boat, hauling coal on Lake Erie once, so five days across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary sounded like a dream come true for me. I have a clipping from the Chicago Tribune, dated 6/17/53 which reads:

“The Cunard Line Queen Mary docked at Southampton yesterday from New York after covering the 3189 miles to Cherbourgh in four days, 12 hours, 24 minutes at an average speed of 29.33 knots — her fastest crossing of the Atlantic since the end of the war. The best day’s run was on Saturday, when she ship steamed 689 miles.”

We docked at Cherbourgh and I knew we had a fast run, but had no idea we broke any records. What I remember best about the whole event was, because of the speed, the ship rocked and rolled a lot. I thought this was the neatest thing, naturally. However, many of the passengers, including Aunt Elvira were seasick.

All those old folks did was sit around in the deck chairs or lounges and complain about the rough seas. Because of this stroke of luck (to me, anyway) that meant I had a lot of the ship to myself and the huge staff that normally would be serving these passengers. A few other hardy souls and I never missed teatime because we could have all of those fancy goodies we wanted. There are no crowds in the many lounges and one could sit anywhere one pleased when the theater showed a movie or staged a skit.

I ate some incredibly fancy foods on the Queen while Aunt Elvira enjoyed tea and almost-burned toast. Because I was a junior in college, I had a beer or two, but I might have had a taste of wine only once or twice in my life. Guests at the table next to ours asked me to join them one night for dinner because almost all of our group couldn’t eat, and they shared a bottle of wine with me. That glass of wine was as exotic as a glass of champagne would be to me. (Two months later, when Aunt Elvira and I returned to Paris, we had met the wines of Europe and could down a whole bottle at dinner!)

I was fortunate enough to have dinner on the Queen Mary in 1975, after she had been docked permanently at Long Beach. Although much had changed, she was still the elegant, gracious lady of the high seas and Aunt Elvira chose wisely — no doubt about that.

Editha Bartley  lives in Gascon in Mora County. She may be reached at 454-0563.