The alarm on my bedside clock began blasting its obnoxious tone at 3:15 am. Half asleep I reached over and hit the snooze button, trying to remember why I had done this to myself. As a night owl, I was more likely to stay up until 3:00 am than get up at that time. It was July 1981. I had recently graduated from high school, and with a month to go before I began college, had no plans that day. I drifted back to sleep until the alarm sounded again. Turning it off, I got up and dressed.
The den was on the opposite side of the house from my parents and younger sister, so I could turn on the TV without waking them. I settled in on the red, green, and gold plaid sofa to watch every minute of the royal wedding of the Lady Diana Spencer and Charles, the Prince of Wales.
Cinderella was always my favorite fairy tale, the story of a lonely girl turned into a princess with some fairy-tale magic and the love of a prince. I felt much like her, overlooked by the boys I went to school with, and dreaming of catching the attention, and love, of my own “prince.” Reading romance novels fueled that desire, as did the news coverage leading up to the wedding, presenting it as a fairy tale come to life.
I was also developing a love of history, and the traditions of the British royal family, with its titles, uniforms, and pomp and circumstance, captivated me. The weeks leading up to the ceremony talked of the romance and pageantry, while showing scenes of London, a city I dreamed of visiting. Getting up at 3:30 in the morning seemed a small price to pay to experience this moment of history.
The newscasts filled the two hours preceding the ceremony with talk about Charles and Diana’s engagement, especially her sapphire and diamond ring, mention of the royalty, dignitaries and celebrities who would be attending, speculation about what Diana’s dress would look like, and a look back to when Princess Elizabeth married the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947, using her post-WWII rationing coupons to pay for her wedding dress.
Tens of thousands of people lined the route from Buckingham Palace to the Cathedral, many of them having camped out for days to get a prime location. The day was declared a national holiday and the weather cooperated providing the perfect opportunity for many to see the procession in person.
Once the invited guests arrived and entered St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Family departed the Palace in their horse-drawn royal coaches. Finally, Diana and her father left Clarence House in the enclosed Glass Coach, to make the 20-minute journey to the Cathedral. Looking out from behind her veil, she looked as reserved as ever, shyly waving to the crowd and chatting with her father as they neared their destination. The coach pulled up to the Cathedral steps, and Diana emerged looking every bit the fairy tale princess we thought her to be. Made of ivory silk taffeta and antique lace, her dress featured a V-neckline framed by a large ruffle, large puffed elbow-length sleeves, a full skirt, and a 25-foot train, a bit wrinkled after the ride in the coach. She carried a massive bouquet that cascaded nearly to the floor.
My mom and dad got up, surprised to see me awake so early on a summer morning. They ate breakfast then went about their day, my dad beginning his rural mail route, and my mom cleaning up the kitchen, while I watched the exchange of vows. Most memorable were that Diana and Charles each mixed up part of their vows, and Diana did not promise to obey her husband, giving us a glimpse into a more modern woman behind her shy exterior. My mom, who also enjoyed the pageantry and ceremony, sat down and watched part of it with me.
Little did I know that in a month I would meet the man I would marry two years later. While our wedding wasn’t anything like the royal wedding, I felt like a princess in my dress with train and long veil attached to a wreath of flowers instead of a crown. I thought it was just the beginning of a wonderful life together.
The Prince and Princess of Wales left the church to ringing bells and more cheers from the crowd. Returning to Buckingham Palace in an open coach, they soon appeared on the balcony with the rest of the royal family to wave to the crowd. In the midst of it all, they surprised everyone with a kiss, beginning a new royal wedding tradition.
Five years after our wedding, we flew into Heathrow airport to begin a year of living in England. We spent much of our first day in London groggily wandering the streets, trying to find our way from one tourist site to another, seeing in person the places I had dreamed of seeing for years. As we walked down the Mall from Buckingham Palace, passing Clarence House, I was struck by how grand the royal residences were, and how large the city was. Later, I rode the Underground to Sloane Square, walking the places that the Princess had before the world knew who she was.
A month after we arrived in our village, the Princess of Wales was in Beverley, 10 miles away, opening a new wing of the local hospital and walking through the Market greeting people. Though I didn’t get to shake her hand, I did get the photo above. Not only had I made it to England, I also had a close brush with royalty.
Sadly, their marriage ended in divorce as did mine. Happily ever after, it turns out, doesn’t happen because you are in love and have a fancy wedding. It takes a lot of hard work, patience, open communication and commitment to see it through. And even then, it may not be enough. People change, priorities shift and sometimes it may be best to end the misery and go separate ways.
Thirty-seven years later, I’m not the naive teenager I was on that July morning. I no longer read romance novels or dream of a “prince” to give me a better life. I have been lucky enough to know couples who had good and strong marriages, who married for love and kept it alive through the years. They give me hope that there may indeed be happily ever after, even if it doesn’t look like the fairy tales I read as a child. And as the world watches the youngest son of Charles and Diana take his own marriage vows, I wish him and his bride many years of patience, open communication, and happiness.
You can listen to the audio version here.