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At Home, Women See Their Lives Mirrored in Hers

Local women watch Diana's funeral
Sharon Cottone, Kathy Arbia, Donna Manning, Laurie Sloan watch the funeral. (By Chris Stanford — The Washington Post)
By Elizabeth Kastor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1997; Page A01

They turned to the TV in the dark of night, and found on the screen not only a distant royal funeral, but reflections of themselves.

Diana was beautiful, she was gracious, she did some admirable volunteer work and wore fabulous clothes. But for the 10 women gathered in a cozy Centreville living room to watch her funeral -- as for many others around the world -- the intense sorrow of the past week said as much about the mourners as the mourned.

One of the longtime friends, all of them close in age to Diana, defied her parents at 19 and married a black man: She saw in Diana another young, vulnerable woman who confronted an intimidating authority. For a second woman, Prince Charles's emotional reserve was reminiscent of her first husband's inability to open his heart. In stories of how the royal family treated -- or mistreated -- Diana, several heard echoes of cruelties they had suffered and of families that had failed them. "Queen Elizabeth," said one, "reminds me of my ex-mother-in-law, and I wouldn't want her to raise my kids!"

The convulsive international reaction to Diana's death has reminded us that celebrities do more than entertain and titillate and distract. Perhaps they are, most fundamentally, screens onto which we project the movies of our most intimate thoughts. This time, women found the process particularly powerful.

"I think men see it as a tragedy, a loss," said Laurie Sloan. "But for women, it's personal."

Almost all of the women at Kathy Arbia's house yesterday had watched Diana's wedding 16 years ago. That was long before they met in a town house subdivision, new mothers awash in babies and craving adult contact.

Back on that late July morning in 1981, Kathy Arbia was 20. She was a newlywed herself, and still swathed in romance as she watched the wedding.

"Even though we knew Cinderella wasn't real, there's still some part of you that thinks, `Maybe it can happen,' " she remembered yesterday. "But then she grew up, as we grew up, had kids, grew up into women -- we learned there are no fairy tales."

"When I got divorced," said Donna Manning, "I wondered, `Why did my mother read me that story?' There is no Prince Charming."

Half of these 10 women have been divorced. They are not a bitter bunch, just realistic, seasoned, aware that choices, once made, shape lives forever, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.

What began as a mothers' group years ago changed as the kids went off to school and lives took this or that turn. But they are still drawn together by the shared fact of motherhood.

"It doesn't matter if you live in a town house or a palace," said Arbia. "We all want to be good mothers, and do the best for our kids and everything. That's what made her real to us. We're all trying to be good moms for our kids and make them better people for the world."

As each one noticed the card resting amid the flowers on Diana's coffin, the one addressed `Mummy,' she gasped or sighed. If something happens to them, they wondered, will their kids have been filled with enough love to continue to love the world? Have they taught them what they will need to know?

"I'm so scared about my kids' being left alone," said Sloan, a divorced mother of two. "I travel for work, and every time I get on a plane I think, `What about the kids? What if I die?' "

"That's every mother's worst fear," says Arbia. During the week, she and Caryn Magrine and Suzy Hunt went to the British Embassy to sign the memorial book and leave flowers. Magrine said she hoped the young princes would see how much their mother was loved even by strangers and would find that knowledge comforting.

That children do suffer terribly, that they can desperately need comfort, is something Magrine has known all her life. When she was young, her father abandoned her, her mother was ill and she was passed from one relative to the next. It was, she said, a terrible childhood, and when she spoke of the princes whom she knows only through the media's lens, her voice was fiercely protective.

In Arbia's kitchen, there was coffee cake and fruit and lots of caffeine. One woman brought orange juice, another pastries, a third her own tissues. But before the funeral started Arbia, laughing, plunked a roll of toilet paper on the coffee table. She knew her friends would not be offended, and that there would be lots of tears.

Arbia's husband slept well into the funeral, but her 12-year-old daughter, Angela, 9-year-old son, Nick, and several friends were watching downstairs. "I think it's really sweet that Prince William stood up against everyone who told him it wasn't all right for him to walk behind the casket," Angela said, with a seventh-grader's absolute moral certainty. "I would have done the same thing."

That Diana was a millionaire, that she hobnobbed with movie stars and ate in private rooms at the Ritz seems in no way to shake people's sense that she was, in some basic way, an underdog. In people's eyes, she and her sons have had to fight off all those "everyones" -- from the royal family to the paparazzi -- who would impede their lives. Angela Arbia -- along with many of the adults upstairs -- admired them for fighting.

It was part of Diana's appeal, the way she seemed to prove that even millions of dollars and hundreds of dresses cannot erase simple unhappiness or everyday joy. Her struggles were, they thought, not far different from theirs.

The wedding of the tall girl in the big dress was an event of their youth. They followed her over the years, interested enough to buy People magazines but not obsessed. They noticed, over time, that she was growing more complicated, as they were, and having to do it all in public.

"You're just stripped naked when you're divorced," said Donna Manning, who has two children. "And to do that with the world in your face! When I was separated, I was in bed crying. My daughter had to tell me what to wear, I couldn't even make those simple decisions. I feel terrible about that now."

At least, she says now, no one else saw her defeated, and she has had years with her daughter since then to try to make up for those experiences. Diana will not have that time.

As the morning wound on, first Arbia, then Sharon Cottone, mentioned that they still find themselves wondering what they will be when they grow up.

"You are what you're going to be," said Manning. All the women laughed and nodded. They have spent years getting places they never predicted, learning things they might have preferred not to know. But from a failed marriage came adored children. From a struggle with depression came wisdom.

Now, one is engaged to a man she loves and trusts despite her knowledge that there are no Prince Charmings. Another has a job she adores. One is finishing college, one launching a day-care business.

The sun had risen. Eve Tschetter left first, on her way to entrance exams for graduate school. Children appeared, dawdled about, disappeared. The phone began to ring. A day full of soccer games and errands was beginning.

Inside, the funeral was over.

Outside, their lives were waiting.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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