Remembering Diana – and my own parents

(Published in the Calgary Herald on Sept. 6, 1997)

The death of Princess Diana and the memories of my dead parents are much on my mind this weekend. As the princess goes to her burial place today, I think of my Irish father who died in Dublin a year ago Sunday, and of my mother who died 20 years ago this week. My parents would have had much to say about the life and death of this glamorous English princess with the Pepsodent smile and the soap-opera life.

My news-savvy father, who read two newspapers every weekday and four on Sundays, would have had tough questions for me — the journalist in the family — about the unrelenting media glare shone on the princess during the 16 years of her public life, and the paparazzi-goaded car journey that brought her to an untimely end in a Paris underpass.

My independent-minded mother, who died four years before Diana shyly entered the public stage, would have seen a great waste in the gruesome death of this luminous young woman who broke through the royal bubble to make a genuine emotional connection with those outside her privileged world.

My mother admired strong women who broke the rules, especially rules made by men. I expect she would have liked this thoroughly modern princess who took her children shopping on High Street, shook hands with lepers, and talked to reporters in her swimsuit.

I have been at a loss to understand my own feelings of sadness around Diana’s death, because she was never my princess. I grew up in republican-sympathetic, post-war southern Ireland where the Royal Family was viewed as an absurd foreign institution with its pomp, glitter, and overblown rituals. Why should I care about some social-climbing child-minder from the ranks of the minor aristocracy who willingly became part of that privileged world of palaces and pageantry, went to the disco with Elton John, and went yacht-hopping in the Mediterranean, while the rest of us went to work for a living?

I think about my late parents as I grope for explanations, because we look to the past for the answers that elude us today. We hope the wisdom our parents gleaned over the course of a lifetime will help us make sense of the world we inherited from them.

My practical-minded Irish father, who came from a time when being Irish meant defining yourself against what you were not, i.e. British, would have told me that you could still be Irish and appreciate the best of what the English had to offer, including their poetry, their songs, and the refreshing presence of an unstuffy young princess who thumbed her nose at “the Firm” and showed the world that you don’t need a palace to be a princess.

My mother, who cried when she heard of President Kennedy’s assassination, would likewise have wept at Diana’s death. In November, 1963, my mother’s tears were for a young widow and her two young children. The fact she was an American president’s widow, and that she lived across the sea, did not make her remote in my mother’s eyes. Like Princess Diana, the Kennedys had a special ability to make real emotional connections with those outside their exotic world, because the Kennedys seemed real and warm and frailly human.

My mother’s tears last weekend would have been for two sons left without a mother who clearly adored them. To a cold-looking family where public demonstrations of affection were limited to ritual kisses after royal weddings, Diana brought spontaneous hugs, laughter, and fun. She too was real and warm and frailly human. What kind of glum-faced fate awaits her sons within that staid family now that their vibrant mother with the 1,000-watt smile is gone? A beacon of light, as Lady Thatcher said, has been switched off.

Because she left us in the same autumnal time of year as my parents, Princess Diana now forever occupies the same spiritual and cultural place in my life and memory. The world we inherit belongs to the dead, to the people who made the poetry and the songs. The song of my parents was the song, now playing in my heart, that urges me to muddle on through patches of achievement and decline, triumphs and shadows. The song of Diana will be the song that reminds me that one small candle can light a thousand.