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WINDOWS INTO ROYALS' LIVES

Sometime during the 45-minute ceremony on that cool July day, in the ancient abbey festooned with flowers and reverberating with the sound of trumpets and songs, I had a sneaking sense of how it might feel to belong.

I didn't really belong, of course. I was attending the royal wedding of Andrew Albert Christian Edward Mountbatten-Windsor and Sarah Margaret Ferguson only as a privileged member of the American press corps in London, and my assigned seat in Westminster Abbey on July 23, 1986, was close enough to see the queen but hardly close enough to touch her. Still, a British royal wedding sucks you in, envelops you with an intoxicating blend of history, pageantry and glamour -- even if, along with the requisite gown and hat, a reporter's notebook is part of your dress that day.

As the daughter of an Englishwoman raised in modest circumstances during a world war, I took special pleasure in sitting there amid the upper echelons of European society. They arrived in chauffeured Jaguars and Rolls-Royces; I hailed a taxi, but no matter.

We were breathing the same fragrant perfume from thousands of peach, pink and cream flowers, and hearing the same high, sweet sounds of two boy-choirs echo through the gilded walls of a church that has been the site of royal occasions for the last 900 years.

My grandmother would have been amazed.

The marriage that day of Queen Elizabeth's second son and fourth in line to the throne to a high-spirited soldier's daughter with royal connections did not have quite the significance of the nuptials five years earlier of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

Still, the streets of central London were lined with cheering spectators, some of whom had camped out for days to catch a glimpse of the open carriages and mounted guards as they clattered down the wide boulevards that link Buckingham Palace and the abbey.

The queen and Duke of Edinburgh were first, followed minutes afterward by the groom and his younger brother and best man, Prince Edward. The bride emerged a quarter-hour later, in a fairy-tale glass coach pulled by two bay horses.

Her dress, the focus of much speculation, came into full view when she arrived at the abbey: rich, ivory silk decorated with pearl beading based on her own coat of arms. The theme was carried through on a luxurious train 17 1/2 feet long. The first commercial knock-off was displayed on Oxford Street later that afternoon.

As Andrew uttered "I will," the crowd outside, listening on loudspeakers, cheered so loudly that it could be heard inside the abbey. Sarah stumbled slightly as she recited her husband's many given names, but otherwise the traditional Anglican ceremony was flawless.

The same could not be said about the marriage. Alas, the British royal family excels at these elaborate rituals but fails miserably at real life. Neither this fairy-tale wedding nor the one five years earlier led to happy ever-afters.

Perhaps Charles and Camilla's modest ceremony last weekend will herald something better. In retrospect, when this royal wedding took place 18 years ago, there might have been hints of the unhappiness to come for the Prince of Wales. As the Archbishop of Canterbury pronounced Andrew and Sarah married, Charles pulled out a large handkerchief, blew his nose and wiped tears from his eyes.

Belonging surely has its rewards, as I learned that day. But it also has its burdens.

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