I do my best to live under a rock, but even I know that, as my husband told our daughter today, “a real-life princess is getting married tomorrow.” I don’t know too many details, except that the real-life princess (or soon-to-be, rather) is beautiful, wears some really cute clothes (and crazy-ass hats), and seems nice, if you can tell that sort of thing from a photograph. Which you probably can’t.
It’s funny how we look at photos of famous people we’ve never met, and after enough looking it almost seems like we do know them. Like this photo of new mommy Princess Di holding a rattle for baby William, who is sitting in Prince Charles’s lap. I’ve never seen this photo before today, but seeing it filled me with a melancholic nostalgia as if she were my own mother, and I that sweet baby.
I can still remember watching Princess Di get married. I figure I was 7. The long train following her down the aisle, that made a big impression, along with the grand cathedral. It was an early version of love made visible, to be filed away under Love and Romance along with my parents’ relationship and all those steamy historical romances I read as a young girl. Come to think of it, when I married my first husband, nearly two decades later, a (much less long) train followed me down the aisle of a (much less grand) cathedral.
Ah, love, I thought today as I looked at this photograph. One day all feels invincible, and then look where it carries and drops you—smashed and broken in the bowels of some earthen tunnel. When she died, she seemed so far from the sweet promise of the perfect family embodied in that photograph, divorced from Charles, with some who-knows-who guy from who-knows-where.
But then my mind interrupted the melodrama to bring me a memory I had seen and filed away under Love and Romance, Revised, sometime during my divorce. The memory was of an interview with Gloria Vanderbilt. I don’t really know why I was watching this at the time, since all I knew of Gloria Vanderbilt had to do with some vague memories of tight smarmy jeans sold at Kmart that I desperately wanted when I was 7.
The host was this really touchy-feely woman that I always liked to watch because she was so unlike anyone else I’d seen on TV. When she interviewed people, she was really there, not just a head with cue cards. Like Oprah, except with a smaller ego I suppose, and with more permeable boundaries. This woman had another show I liked to watch–a makeover show that would take truly down-and-out people, give them a makeover, and then try to help them heal some major rift in their life. Once, she featured a woman who was homeless. The woman was missing teeth, among other problems. They dyed her hair, fixed her teeth, gave her a nice outfit, found her a place to live, found her a job, and reunited her with her daughter, all in one hour of TV time. I don’t know about six months later, but at that moment, for that woman, life was grand.
But back to the Gloria Vanderbilt interview. The host asked her this question (or something else entirely, most likely—you know the state of my memory): “You’ve been married four times. You’ve been with so many amazing men over the years. Have they each enriched your life in their separate ways?” Gloria looked a little stunned, and I was too. That was, as they say in the jargon of social work, an amazing reframe. The host had taken the idea of a woman having multiple marriages, three of which ended in divorce, which in the eyes of our culture makes you a huge failure, and transformed it into this idea of a meandering long life filled with rich and varied relationships.
Gloria looked grateful to be given the chance to talk about her loves in a positive light, and if I remember correctly she had something nice to say about each of her former husbands. Seeing her reflect back on her emotional past, it was as if a door opened in my mind. I had been struggling with the scarlet letter of my looming divorce, stuck as I had been on the concept of marriage as more of an accomplishment or a destination, than as a dynamic, living relationship with another human being living out their own life’s journey. Hearing Gloria talk made me think of the epic romance novels I loved to read as a girl that followed generations of women through their loves and heartbreaks, triumphs and trials. Thinking of a life from this broader perspective let me see my life as its own meandering path, not a static checklist of successes or failures.
I remembered all this, today, looking at that sweet family photo with Diana, Charles, and baby William. It occurred to me, maybe that who-knows-who guy that Diana was in love with when she died really was the love of her life. Or maybe even that view is too simplistic. Maybe all those experiences filled her life with richness, joys and suffering, experiences she’d never trade for anything. Maybe she considered her children some of her greatest work on earth, and her divorce just a bend in the path.
Tomorrow we will watch a real-life princess get married, and a new imprint of Love and Romance will plant itself in my daughter’s brain, to be stored along with the memories of her parents’ relationship and her grandparents’, and the incongruous floating fact that her mother was once married to someone else. This new imprint will be a superficial one, filled with dress details and flying buttresses. The whole thing may very well give her a false impression of love, and certainly of marriage. But I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided, where else can she start but at the beginning? It’s her own life to live, her own meandering path, her own lessons to learn. She, too, will have to sort out what that perfect family photo means to her and how it fits in with the life she’s given. I cannot do that for her. And honestly, if I could, it would do her a disservice, for it is in experiencing the joys and sorrows of the bends in the path that we gain the gifts of growth, understanding, and ultimately, peace.
© Amy Daniewicz