Stepping Back in Time

by Sheila Connolly

In June of 1958, my grandmother set sail for England on the Queen Mary. She worked for Lipton Tea then, and she was escorting the collection of tea-related silver on a grand tour of Europe, that lasted six weeks. I still have the postcards she sent to me and my sister at each stop. It was kind of a last hurrah for her, because she retired from the company later that year. But she went out in style!

Last month I attended the Bouchercon Conference in Long Beach, California, where a couple of thousand mystery authors, publishers, agents and fans gathered to talk about killing people, er, books.  It was wonderful—stimulating and exhausting all at once.

My stateroom
My stateroom

It was a long way to go for a short event. I almost decided not to bother, but then I remembered that the Queen Mary is (permanently) docked in Long Beach, and I wanted to see it. So I booked a stateroom on the ship for one night (never thought I’d say that!) before the conference started.

I deliberately didn’t do any research on the ship, because I wanted to see it with fresh eyes—and see if my grandmother’s ghost lingered. I really wasn’t prepared for the experience: it was like stepping back in time. I could believe that I was seeing it through my grandmother’s eyes.

I understand that the City of Long Beach owns

The toilet handle
The toilet handle

it, and they’ve done the best job of doing nothing that I’ve seen in a long time. That is, they didn’t modernize or pretty up much of anything. All the woodwork, the fixtures, the accessories are intact. No plastic, no cheesy replacements. Much of the ship looks the way it looked when it was a luxury way to travel.

Hallway on B Deck
Hallway on B Deck

At the same time it’s weirdly empty. Maybe mid-November is not a peak tourist season, but in the 24 hours I spent going to and fro from my stateroom (I love to say that!), I met only a handful of people in the hallways. Which were surprisingly narrow: if you happened to run into Bob Hope or Fred Astaire or even the Duke and Dutchess of Wiindsor on the way to the bar, you’d have to be careful not to bump into each other. Yes, they were all passengers, once upon a time, as were many other notables.

I’ve visited a lot of monuments in my life—cathedrals, palaces, private homes of famous people. Never have I felt as though I’d been transported to another world. I found myself taking pictures of the plumbing fixtures and the doorknobs, because they were all original.

The Promenade Deck
The writing desk
The writing desk

As writers were are always making up things in our heads—people, places, objects. But it’s unsettling to find yourself in the middle of a setting that is not modern. No, I didn’t meet my grandmother strolling in the long and empty hallways, but I could well imagine her hanging her clothes in the narrow closets, writing a note on the pull-out desk-top, or admiring the view from the substantial portholes (which still open—I checked). I could picture her seated in a deck-chair on the promenade desk, watching the waves and the gulls, and ringing for a steward to bring her a nice cup of tea.

15 Thoughts

  1. I took the kids there a number of years ago. I loved the atmosphere, and it was great for them to see how huge a ship like that was. We had lunch but didn’t get to stay over. Really really fun, though!

  2. We used to live in San Pedro, California (across the harbor from Long Beach) so peeks of the Queen Mary were often in sight. We toured it once but I don’t think you could stay on it at the time. You did a great job of capturing the feelings of being on the ship, Sheila.

    1. It was far m ore impressive than I had expected, Sherry. The ship is smaller than modern cruise ships (which scare me–they look too top-heavy), but the details are wonderful. (It’s hard to imagine that it was used as a troop ship in WWII–those soldiers must have been very careful!)

  3. My grandparents sailed to Europe on its sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth. I think it must have been around 1962. I still remember going to see them off, the deep, loud ship’s whistle blowing meaning we had to get off, and then waving from the quay with confetti raining down on us, everyone dressed up and glamorous.

    I toured the Queen Mary several years ago, but I think it was before you could stay on it.

    1. My grandmother took the Queen Elizabeth back, but no one was waiting on the pier to greet her–or take pictures. We have film of her leaving on the Queen Mary (now if I could only figure out how to translate 8mm film to still photos…”

      1. I think that’s my plan, as soon as I find a place nearby. Oh, and the time. I’ve got a whole childhood reel on video, and the Queen Mary is on that. Can I edit, once it’s a DVD?

  4. Some years ago, my daughter went to Long Beach state U. , and I took a field trip while she was in class. I loved the experience, and there was so much to see. I loved the setting of the state rooms and the engine room was very imposing. What impressed me most, and this is a private Phobia, was the height of the ship from the water. This was a very “live” experience, and I loved it.

  5. Don’t hate me if I say I’m jealous. What a wonderful experience. I had no idea you could rent a statement. Ok, now THAT’s on my bucket list! Wonderful post, Shelia. Did you see your grandmother’s ghost – and did you have a cuppa of Lipton while you were on board?

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