ORLEANS – This Thanksgiving, one of the most difficult aspects of the coronavirus pandemic is that many extended families cannot sit at the same table to eat, laugh and reminisce.
The isolation can hit seniors particularly hard. In senior living centers, visits are prohibited or kept short to protect elder loved ones from the virus. Seniors can’t hug family members and can’t cradle newborns in their laps.
But the women of The Terraces Orleans, a continuing care community celebrating its 50th anniversary this year on Daley Terrace, were treated to a bright spot this holiday season. A letter came to them from Windsor Castle after they co-authored a letter to Queen Elizabeth.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for all of us,” said resident Eleanor Symecko who, at 94, is the same age as the queen. “I remember playing with paper dolls that looked like Queen Elizabeth — and now here I am.”
Here’s how this happened.
The women were saying one day this fall that due to coronavirus restrictions, they “felt bad that they couldn’t hug their grandchildren, and they miss their families,” said Beth Ann Awezec, The Terraces’s activities coordinator. The royal family came up in the conversation because someone noted that Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, had tested positive for COVID-19 in March. Someone else said she wondered how Queen Elizabeth herself was faring during the pandemic, and did she miss her family, too? Awezec suggested the group write the queen a letter to find out.
So Awezec produced a storyboard and the group sat together in the afternoon to compose a letter to “Her Majesty the Queen.”
“It has been difficult for us during this COVID-19 crisis and the loneliness we have felt from not being able to see our families,” the women wrote. “We have been wondering, how are you doing? Your Majesty, you must miss your great grandchildren and grandchildren like we do.”
They continued, “we have cherished memories of you, your Majesty, when you were a little girl, and now here we are one mother to another hoping for all of us that the future is brighter soon.” The letter was signed “Yours Sincerely, Caring Mothers From Cape Cod” and followed by the signatures of the 12 women.
“We just feel that she’s another parent like we are,” said resident Jean Sears from Brewster. Sears is a mother of three and a grandmother of six boys.
On Oct. 21 the letter was finalized, typed, and sealed in an envelope addressed to Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace, London. Two group photos of the women were also enclosed. On Oct. 22, Director Mary Cote-Doyle, whose uncle built The Terraces, mailed the letter herself, even telling the postal employees that this was a letter heading to the queen. The postal employees were thrilled.
Back at The Terraces, the wait was on.
And the wait continued for just 29 days, when a white envelope appeared. Cote-Doyle spotted the thick stationery with the Royal Mail stamp and a Buckingham Palace postmark in the mix of the day’s mail and dashed through the building announcing, “We got the letter, we got the letter from the queen!” Awezec recalled.
Awezec assembled the women into a circle and they opened the letter together.
“I was amazed that a response came back so quickly,” said resident Cynthia Hugli, who is looking forward to her 101st birthday on Dec. 1. “The letter must have appealed to her in some way.”
On Nov. 16 the queen’s Lady-in-Waiting Susan Hussey responded, on Windsor Castle letterhead, to the women in Orleans.
“The Queen much appreciated your thought for her, and for sharing with Her Majesty your sadness at being separated from your families during this most difficult time. The Queen was, however, pleased to know that you have been looking to the future with optimism,” wrote Lady Hussey, as she is known in royal circles. She signed the letter and inked in the date.
“Each line is in response women to women,” Awezec said. “She was concerned for them. It just put goosebumps on your arms.”
Lady Hussey took on the role of the Queen’s Woman of the Bedchamber in 1960. Her original job entailed responding to letters after the birth of Prince Andrew. Sixty years later, at the age of 81, she is said to be one of the queen’s “most trusted” Ladies-in-Waiting.
“We’re thrilled that we were able to write to the queen,” said resident Claire Surprenant. “That she answered made us feel so special. I feel like a real celebrity.”
Each of the women is receiving a copy of the letter. The original will be framed.
Symecko imagines that after she dies her grandchildren will find the letter from the palace and say, “‘wow, I didn’t know Grandma was that smart.’”
“We feel that we’ve done something right,” Sears said.
“There’s not much point in living if you’re not positive,” Hugli said.
But the women’s brush with the royal family is hardly over. They’re now planning to send Christmas greetings to the queen, Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Edward.
And who knows? Perhaps they’ll find they have a regular pen pal in the palace.