A death marks a new generation Essay: Diana, if we hardly knew you, it wasn't for lack of trying.

Remembering Diana

September 02, 1997|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

"Could you please put that tabloid down?"

"I'm not going to buy it, I just want to look at it."

"I can't believe you actually buy into that stuff."

"Some of it's true, you know."

"Even the part about the talking hamster?"

"You know I just read it for Princess Di ..."

How embarrassing.

Only a cover story about Princess Di could inspire my mother, a woman in her early 50s with a master's degree from the Sorbonne, to buy a rag tabloid.

Bikini clad-Di in a fuzzy, low-quality photograph. Crying Di confronting her bulimia. Naughty Di flirting with a high-profile jetsetter.

Whatever Di was reportedly doing, my mother had to know, and I was destined to be humiliated in the line at the grocery store.

Now my mother is supposedly guilty of far more than infantile curiosity, as guilty as the paparazzi, for contributing to her death.

But I don't think my mother is an accomplice in her death. She was just one of millions of people so fascinated with Di that she wanted to absorb every nuance of her life, factual or fictional.

I never understood my mother's fascination, or the world's for that matter.

In my determination to maintain my hardened, mainstream-icon-defaming Gen-exterior, I chalked her appeal up to the superficial.

She was beautiful. She was thin. She had a wedding to make a wasp-waisted Disney heroine salivate.

Most of my contemporaries saw her as just another well-dressed excess of aristocracy: an over-pampered princess with little to offer in the way of socially redeeming qualities.

Sure she used her popularity and position for good causes. But, as I would complain about her, anyone with that much money and time on their hands would do the same.

My cynicism was largely -- well, entirely -- fueled by envy, of her figure, her money, her popularity, her wardrobe.

That was before I was old enough to realize, despite the glamour and riches, what a fractured fairy-tale her life was.

She was only 19 when her life became a royalty-obsessed world's favorite saga. And dying at 36 is tragic even if you're not a continental goddess.

There's something about being young at the time of an epochal death that's a rite of passage: You get that day of inspired soul-searching. You're reminded that you can still be shocked. You realize Di's death will be added to the Kennedy-Lennon list of "where were you whens?"

I was at the Sip and Bite in Fells Point when the crash occurred. But I didn't know anything about it until I woke up the next day late in the afternoon.

My friend and I spent the rest of the day in typical early-20s fashion: pajama-clad, smoking cigarettes and listening to Pat Benatar. We were trying to figure out why we were on the verge of tears over a woman whose significance we'd questioned for most of our lives.

When Di had come to Northwestern University last year to deliver a lecture, both of us had been too put off by the hype and the crowds to even go catch a glimpse.

But Sunday, we were crushed. Why? We went through the possible reasons.

Because she was a beautiful young woman? Because she's been through so much? Because of her humanitarianism? Because she left two sons behind?

It was something more complex than that.

A legendary pop culture fixture, Di was embedded in our collective subconscious. She was with us during every stage of our lives; on magazines, television, radio. She had a face as familiar as a neighbor's, and far more attractive. She was a fashion model backed by real drama. She was a contemporary royal grounded in our time; not a stiff, horse-faced anachronism.

Whether she was rocking out at the Prince's Royal Trust or hanging with Duran Duran, she possessed a bearing of coolness completely absent from the Windsors, and only exploitatively hinted at by Fergie.

So, in truth, I can hardly claim total indifference to her. She was an earthbound yet elegant presence that I took guilty pleasure in reading about and watching from time to time.

I would leaf through the People magazines my mom left on the coffee table, or sit down with her to watch "Hard Copy," disguising my interest with rude running commentaries.

Still, I don't see any black armbands in my future, or nights spent in sleepless despair. But just because I don't fully subscribe to the fascination with Princess Di doesn't mean it's ridiculous.

After all, millions of people are in mourning. My mother among them. I just got off the phone with her after calling her silly for wanting to burn a candle for Di.

The last time she did that was after John Lennon's assassination, and though I was only 5, I criticized her for that, too.

Now who's embarrassed?

Pub Date: 9/02/97

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