In Memoriam: A Light In The Darkness

They had carried the day. It was May 8, 1945, the end of World War II in Europe, and a huge crowd cheered wildly for five people on the crimson-draped balcony of Buckingham Palace. Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood firm in the center, with his hands clasped behind his back. He was surrounded by the four members of the royal family--King George VI, his wife, Elizabeth, and their two daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret--who waved and smiled at the throng below.

Of these five who led Britain through its darkest and finest hour, only one now survives. Last week it was the sad task of that survivor, Queen Elizabeth II, to announce the death of her mother, who was known to the world as the Queen Mum. She was 101, an age not attained by any other British king or queen, but it was more than longevity that earned her a place in her country's history. Born Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon into an aristocratic Scottish family, she initially resisted marrying Bertie, the shy, stammering second son of King George V. Bertie's determination finally won her over and they were married in Westminster Abbey with no ambition other than a long and happy life together as the Duke and Duchess of York. But in 1936, Bertie's brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated so he could marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, and Bertie was reluctantly crowned King George VI.

At the time many Britons thought the abdication had doomed the monarchy, but the new king and queen showed they had the right stuff. During the war, the couple became highly visible symbols of the nation's resolve, climbing over rubble as they visited bombed-out areas of London. The queen defiantly insisted on staying by her husband's side even during the Blitz, prompting Adolf Hitler to call her the most dangerous woman in Europe. Her sense of duty and steadfastness never waned, even when Buckingham Palace itself was bombed. On VE Day, when she stood waving on the balcony, the palace's windows were still obscured by blackout shutters.

But there was one event that did nearly devastate her: the death of her husband from lung cancer in 1952. For the rest of her life, she blamed Wallis Simpson and called her "the woman who killed my husband" because of the stress of the war years. In deep mourning, she dressed only in black for a year and rarely ventured out. Finally, Churchill is said to have helped her overcome her depression and coaxed her back into public life. She moved into Clarence House, not far from her daughter and Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace. As the dowager queen (a title she detested), the Queen Mum was known for her love of dogs, horses, TV comedians and gin. After long days shaking hands, always wearing her trademark pastel coats and giant hats, she would reward herself with butterscotch candy. She spoke on the phone daily to both her daughters, who called her "Mummy."

She outlived a century in which the British Empire faded from glory along with the power of the royal family and the influence of the Church of England--of which Elizabeth II is the titular head. Her final years were marked by family tragedy and scandal along with tributes to her standing as a link to prouder days. The divorce of her favorite grandson, Prince Charles, from Princess Diana, and Diana's death in 1997 brought new calls for an end to the monarchy. But at her 100th birthday in 2000, the Queen Mum stood erect (after two hip-replacement operations) as thousands paraded in her honor. Most Britons did not hold her responsible for the sins of the "bad royals." In February she attended the funeral of her younger daughter, Margaret, 71. Since then, the Queen Mum had been rarely seen and was reported to have lost her sight and grown extremely frail. She died in her sleep, with her older daughter by her side, and will be buried next to her husband--a warrior finally at rest.