CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Queen Elizabeth reigns at the Senior Center

Elizabeth Siegel, aka Queen Elizabeth, at the Hammond Street Senior Center.
Elizabeth Siegel, aka Queen Elizabeth, at the Hammond Street Senior Center.
Posted Sept. 15, 2011, at 1:57 p.m.
A royal wave from Queen Elizabeth, 94 year old yoga regular at the senior center.
A royal wave from Queen Elizabeth, 94 year old yoga regular at the senior center.
Elizabeth Siegel, aka Queen Elizabeth, working out in exercise class at the Hammond Street Senior Center.
Elizabeth Siegel, aka Queen Elizabeth, working out in exercise class at the Hammond Street Senior Center.
Queen Elizabeth, in purple (her favorite color), working out with her class at the Hammond Street Senior Center.
Queen Elizabeth, in purple (her favorite color), working out with her class at the Hammond Street Senior Center.
Cubby that stores The Queen’s yoga mat (a purple one, of course).
Cubby that stores The Queen’s yoga mat (a purple one, of course).

Before I had even met Queen Elizabeth, I was captivated by her charm. It trailed in her wake like a royal train.

Queen Elizabeth is the title by which Elizabeth Siegel is known at the Hammond Street Senior Center, but she’ll also answer to Elizabeth, Queenie, or “Your Majesty.” Ask anyone in the building about Queen Elizabeth, and you’ll see a face light up.

“Oh! The Queen!” people say with delight in their voices.

“She’s something else!”

“She’s amazing!”

I was privileged to be granted an audience with the Queen this week, and she lived up to every expectation. Elizabeth is bright, insightful and articulate. Smiles seem to come to her as naturally as breathing, and you simply can’t help smiling back. She has survived two heart valve replacements and a fractured pelvis, but at age 94 she still attends yoga and exercise classes five days a week. When she first came to Boyd Place in 2001 to live near her son’s family, a man in one of her classes dubbed her “the Queen,” and it stuck. Elizabeth embraces the royal role that was thrust upon her, she told me, “because it’s just so much fun.”

When we first met on Monday, Elizabeth was pushing her walker onto the elevator to get to the third floor for class. The recalcitrant doors tried to close on her walker, so I blocked them with my arm.

“You learn very quickly how to treat a queen,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

One senior center patron mentioned “the Queen” to her granddaughter, who insisted that a Queen must have white gloves. So the woman brought white gloves to Elizabeth, who wears them occasionally and does the royal wave with a beaming smile.

“I should have brought my crown,” she said when I took her picture.

The striking thing about this vibrant woman is much more than longevity. Although she has 94 years of life behind her — career, family, world travels, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the loss of her husband and daughter — she is fully present in the here and now. A perpetually positive attitude toward engaging in life buoys her up and carries others along with her. When I asked her to share the secret of her optimism, she had to think about it for a while. “A sense of humor,” she said, but also, “Just being awake, getting up in the morning is important.” Her schedule is full every day, and her desk at home is covered with work to do and correspondence waiting to be written. Nevertheless, she was happy to share some of her story with me.

Elizabeth was born in New Jersey, grew up in Pennsylvania, then lived in New York City and Long Island for more than 30 years, where she was an English teacher. She taught at every grade level from preschool to junior college, but finally settled on teaching middle school students.

“I thought they were the most fun, and the most challenging,” she said.

In January 1998, while she was living on her own in California, her son came to be with her for her heart surgery. While he was there, his wife and three children were stranded with no power at their home in Bangor when the infamous ice storm hit. They were all right, Elizabeth explained, “but I didn’t like to be a burden, 3,000 miles away.”

A few years later she moved to Boyd Place in Bangor. Very soon she began attending classes at the senior center. It had been her habit for years, whenever she saw local classes offered, to sign right up. Her new life in Bangor was no exception.

“I’ve been doing yoga for over 50 years. I started when it was a really kooky thing.”

While I waited in the hall for Elizabeth to finish her yoga class, I struck up a conversation with Rich, another avid fan of the Queen who echoed the thoughts of so many others.

“When she broke her pelvis last February, everyone thought she wouldn’t be able to come back. She uses a walker now instead of a cane, but here she is. She’s an inspiration. I love her. I just love her.”

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions at robin.everyday@gmail.com

 

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