The first time I visited my future mother-in-law, Paula, at her home in the Finnish countryside, I was surprised to see signed, framed photographs of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip displayed atop the bookshelf. When I wondered aloud about their prominence in the living room, Otto, who would soon become my husband, explained that the royal couple had visited Finland in 1976, when his father, Artturi Jämsén, was Governor of Central Finland. Artturi had been asked by then-President Urho Kekkonen to host the Queen and Prince during their visit to Jyväskylä. I thought I heard Otto utter, “lunch in the forest,” but I didn’t probe, as I was too concerned about making a good first impression on Paula.
Over the years, I have heard snippets about the Queen’s visit on local YLE TV, seen photos in the Helsingin Sanomat, and tried on the festive hat (still in tiptop condition) that Paula had worn when greeting Her Majesty that day. Then, last May 28, on the 46th anniversary of the royal visit, Otto and I happened to be visiting Paula at her home. When I told her that one week later I would be singing in the Anglican Church of Finland’s worship service at Helsinki Cathedral in celebration of the Queen’s 70-year Jubilee, she reached for the photo album that had been given to her by Saab, the official sponsor of the royal visit. As she flipped through the many photos capturing that day, I asked if I could interview her for this blog post. She agreed, with Otto acting as interpreter.
Paula began with an account of the unseasonable weather that spring day. In the early morning hours when she awoke in Jyväskylä, she was shocked to discover that twenty centimeters of snow had accumulated overnight! President Kekkonen’s office immediately ordered space heaters, which were set up around the picnic-style log tables in the forest. However, by lunch time, the bright sunshine had melted the snow, and the heaters sat unused.
Artturi and Paula met the Queen after she and Prince Philip disembarked from their plane at Jyväskylä Airport (see photo). Although Artturi spoke no English, Paula had been studying and greeted the Queen with, “Welcome to Finland.” Artturi then joined the royal couple and an interpreter in one Saab while she and the Queen’s secretary and an interpreter followed in another. Together, they drove to Valmet Oyj (see photo), where the Queen was keen to understand the entire paper-making process. The UK was a big customer of the Finnish paper industry, and of course, the local companies were happy to oblige.
Then, it was time for salmon soup and lettuja, Finnish pancakes, in Haukanmaa Forest. Much ado has been made over the Queen’s walk through the underbrush while wearing pumps with royal onlookers aghast that she might have suffered some discomfort. However, Paula claimed that the Queen had been offered sturdy boots but declined. She did accept a helmet but never used it, instead keeping her head covered with one of her trademark hats.
Paula emphasized that the atmosphere of the luncheon was “relaxed and friendly, not serious,” and that guests, including Finnish politicians and bosses from local paper companies, enjoyed small talk and laughed a lot during the “short, funny speeches.” In the photos, Artturi is shown sitting between the royal pair, and Paula is next to Prince Philip (see top photo). Lunch was washed down with Koskenkorva, a strong Finnish-made alcohol, and Chablis wine (see menu below).
Then, the group traveled by boat to Jyväskylä, where the Queen was greeted by thousands of shouting fans, who had been waiting for hours in the harbor and on the streets (see photo). The last stop was the University of Jyväskylä Library before the royal couple departed by plane to Helsinki.
After closing the photo album, Paula explained that shortly after the royal visit, Artturi received the signed photographs of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, along with a letter of gratitude. He also was the recipient of an official document declaring him an Honorary Knight of the British Empire. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy this status, as he died less than three months later. The Queen wrote again, this time a letter of condolence to Paula. My mother-in-law pushed back into her rocking chair, perhaps recalling distressing events or reliving fond memories of that long-ago day in May.
As I stared at the photographs on the bookshelf, I remembered my first time visiting Paula nineteen years ago, and how the images of Elizabeth and Philip had greeted me when I entered the house. Little did I know that within a few years, I would be playing piano during Sunday services at the local Anglican Church in Helsinki and that eventually, I would become a member of that Chaplaincy and its Council, with the Queen as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Today, as I join billions of people around the world in mourning Her Royal Majesty, I’m thinking of my mother-in-law, as it was clear from our conversation that meeting the Queen and her husband was among the highlights of her married life. Through all that ensued—the death of Artturi, as well as other hardships—those photographs have stood, like sentinels, on the shelf, reminders of the Queen’s very strong faith and her unwavering hope for better days.
May we all remember the Queen’s seventy years of dedicated, selfless service, her steadfastness in the face of tumultuous times, her grace and charm, and yes, her good-natured walk through the Finnish forest in high heels.
God save the Queen!