The year 1981 got off to a bad start. President Reagan was shot, the economy was weak, and the world was still dealing with and reeling from the Ayatollah mess.
True, the hostages were home and that was cause for celebration. And then the rumors started to fly about Prince Charles, the celebrated bachelor, and some kindergarten teacher named Diana Spencer. And before you could say "My Fair Lady," the entire globe was invited to watch a nice young girl from Kensington become the Princess of Wales.
In retrospect it seemed like the launching of the '80s, in all its opulence and conspicuous consumption. But from the start, Diana refused to fit the mold of airhead heiress. She had style, yes, but she had heart. She had two sons and she took them to school, not boarding school, but one just around the corner. She made sure they went to McDonald's just like all the other kids, and the supermarket, and the local stationery store. If she wasn't always there with them, it was to protect their privacy, and to avoid the obvious photo opportunity. She was not playing mommy, you see. She really was a good mum.
There's something about the word "princess" that sets the teeth on edge. And yet there was something about Diana that made being a princess a decent sort of thing. Webster defines princess - after the standard royalty stuff - this way: "any woman regarded as like a princess, as in being graceful, accomplished, or outstanding in some way, or, pampered, protected, snobbish, arrogant, etc."
What we loved about Diana was the fact that she fit the first definition, not the second. Sure she was pampered, but she never seemed helpless, either by default or design. Protected? Not hardly. She was always in the camera's glare. Snobbish? Ask any of the AIDS patients she visited in the night, to avoid the media circus. Arrogant? Not by a long shot. If Diana was a literary character she came closer to Anna Karenina than Madame Bovary or even Emma. She was neither saint nor sinner. Like all of us, she did the best she could. And sometimes she did better than the rest of us.
I've never been much of a "royal watcher," but I did set my alarm for 2 a.m. 16 years ago last July so that I, at home in Los Angeles, could see the royal wedding. It was history after all. It was her story too. It turns out to have been the least interesting part of her story, a cautionary tale to all girls (Momma, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys ... or princesses), proof that one's wedding day should not be the best day of one's life. Otherwise it's all downhill from there.
It wasn't all downhill for Diana, though. And the best times for her were probably the times spent with her family and friends and with the countless strangers whose lives she touched and made better by her unselfishness. Not by royal gesture, but human kindness.
Long after the photos and video footage of Diana's hairdos, jewels, and gowns have faded, the legacy of her short life, the good she did to others, will continue to shine. That's what made her truly royal, not her marriage to a prince, but her character.
I'd like to think that my six-year-old daughter is a fledgling Princess Di. Not because she plays dress-up (she rarely does) or wants to marry a prince (she doesn't). But because she wants to volunteer for our town's Meals on Wheels program and give her old toys to hospitals. Diana taught us that's what a real princess would do.
The woman who founded this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote at the passing of Queen Victoria that her "royal and imperial honors lose their lustre in the tomb, but personal virtues can never be lost. Those live on in the affections of nations."
Of Diana, it might also be said that her personal virtues - her goodness, humor, humanity, and true motherhood - live on in the affections of the world.
* Madora McKenzie Kibbe is a frequent Monitor contributor. She is working on her first novel.