Community of viewers shares joy and grief of royal rituals Together they celebrated her storybook wedding, mourned at her funeral

Farewell To A Princess

September 07, 1997|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Sixteen years and two children ago, Marisa Shaff invited a group of college buddies to watch the royal wedding. Sitting in her parents' living room, the girls sipped Twining's tea, munched biscuits and scones and waved homemade Charles and Diana placards as a beautiful girl their own age stepped out of a fairy-tale carriage and into history.

Early yesterday morning, Shaff was in front of the television again, huddled in a blanket, feeling shaky, sick and a little nervous as she and her husband watched Princess Diana's final journey. In the hours before their children awakened, the couple watched the somber funeral procession with millions of others who had also witnessed the wedding of a princess and were now saying goodbye.

It was a ceremony that blended the music of Elton John with the choral traditions of Westminster Abbey, that brought AIDS patients and world leaders together in prayer.

"This service was so befitting of Diana," Marisa Shaff said. "Just like her life, there was a lot of variety there. Her brother said it well when he called her 'classless.' "

Now a nurse at Stella Maris, Shaff is a true Diana fan. Only three months younger than her idol, she collected the royal wedding books, the record album of the service, the commemorative stamp collection. For her own wedding in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Shaff chose a Diana-inspired dress with big sleeves and a breathtakingly long train. She even wore a tiara.

"I was just crazy about Princess Diana," she said, her voice shaking. "I thought it was incredible how much she matured, how much more charisma she had as the years went. No one could get enough of her, she just seemed like a really good person.

'One of us'

"The public outpouring is because she was one of us. She was so warm and so kind."

Over the years, Shaff followed Diana Spencer as the princess experienced marriage, motherhood, disillusionment, divorce and the anticipation of a new life. As with most Diana admirers, Shaff's connection was cultivated largely through television. And was there that many turned yesterday, trying to understand and define their sense of loss by watching as the pomp of the wedding was supplanted by the sad circumstance of the funeral.

"The royal wedding was full of promise and hope and royalty at its best," said Chris Godack of Towson, a Diana fan who had watched the royal wedding with friends. "Because we didn't know about any of the dirty laundry, from the outside it all looked perfect and magical. And it fulfilled that fairy-tale princess scenario.

"Now we have the emotional opposite: the loss and the dread of having to go through this. And we know all the dirty laundry -- even more than we want to."

Others talked about how Diana's brief life united millions all over the world as strangers shared in the emotions of televised rituals.

"Diana's death reminds me of Kennedy's assassination -- in terms of the tragedy of the event," said Henry Lowe, music director at the Church of the Redeemer. "I'm drawn to things that bring people together to share a common feeling. That's what I'm seeing on TV: a community building and community sharing experience."

Communal grieving

"What keeps bringing me to the television to hear the same old things hashed over and over about Diana is that it's the only way I can experience some kind of communal grieving, and in some way, closure," said Meryl Maschal-Hell- ring.

Maschal-Hellring had just graduated from the College of Notre Dame when she joined friends at the Mount Washington home of a teacher to watch the royal wedding. She watched the funeral yesterday at her home in Pittsburgh, where she now has two young children of her own.

"We related to Diana on the girlfriend level; we could imagine her as one of us," she said.

"Charles was so much older -- he was not our gang -- but she was. So we loved her. And throughout her marriage, whenever news of her would come out, I always related to her as a woman. I really respect that she stood up as an individual apart from the royal family and said, 'I will continue to be an important influence on my children.' "

Opera director John Lehmeyer considered watching the funeral to be his way of paying respect to the late princess. Following Diana over the years had brought him a great deal of pleasure, he said, especially the way she approached her charity work with a sense of joy rather than obligation.

For many years, the tale of Princess Diana has proved mythical, a ready source of morals: the inspiration of commitment, the deceptive nature of appearances, the lasting effects of a generous heart.

More recently it carried sad lessons about the fragility of life.

Many say they will measure their memories of Diana by remembering their own lives at the times of her wedding and her death.

When she learned of Diana's death, Debbie Swiss of Baltimore was at a dinner party with some of the same friends with whom she had shared the royal wedding. In 1981, the women were young marrieds with toddlers, infants and more children on the way. Now middle-aged, they discussed Diana's life with the added perspective of their own families' births and deaths, triumphs and disappointments.

"At first, we all just stood there and went, 'Naaah, she can't be dead!" Swiss recalled. "But then it began it sink in. And here we all were again, a little bit wiser."

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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