The Princess and Me

Growing up, Mom used to go to the Okura Hotel hair salon Saturday afternoons for her weekly coif. The Okura was an elegant hotel directly across the street from the US Embassy in Tokyo, the city where I was raised through the 60’s and into the 70’s. In other words through the height of the Cold War. I can only imagine the number of spies and double agents who had exchanges in it’s storied lobby through that era. I digress. The salon boasted a row of comfy professional chairs each staffed by a stunning, shibui toned kimono garbed stylist. At the far end of the row, was a chair set apart from the others that would be hidden behind a drawn curtain when special customers wanted privacy.  Wafts of punishing perm stink and the delight of aqua net hung heavily in the air. No customer left without a work of lacquered art piled on top of their heads.  Once every six weeks or so Mom would take me with her for a hair cut of my very own. It was always a special treat, very grown up but on a particular early spring Saturday in 1964, my outing to the Okura, a day when the curtain at the end was drawn, turned out to be a very special one. 

My hair cut complete and Mother’s coif yet underway, the proprietress who was usually far too busy to even say hello to a mere 8 year old approached and asked if I wanted to meet a princess? In hushed tones, she explained that the Queen of Saudi Arabia was behind the drawn curtain and she, like Mom, had brought her daughter along. With Mother’s permission I gladly accepted to be taken behind the curtain. 

Seated in the salon chair was a rather voluminous woman, elegant but dour I’d say and beside her in white organza, white tights and little girl pumps was her daughter.  I think we were each as surprised as the other to clap eyes on, in her case a mere civilian, in mine a fairytale princess. We were equally alien life forms to each other.

I have no recollection of what we said to through the translator on hand…pleasantries I suppose of how old we were? That I loved her dress…but the upshot after our Mothers spoke, was that the Princess would come to our house the following day for a play date.  

You cannot imagine the spit and polishing that went on, the raking of leaves, ironing and fretting from the moment we got home until the hour of Princess Faisal’s arrival.  I dressed my dollies for the occasion, put ribbons on the doggies, tea and cookies would be served. At the ready a good hour before she was to arrive I stood in nervous anticipation on the porch overlooking the driveway awaiting her arrival.  

With unrest brewing in Saudi Arabia, King Faisal my parents were informed by a US Embassy staff member who had somehow been made aware of this impending visit, had sent his first wife and their two daughters to Tokyo as a safety precaution.  (The King was indeed assassinated several years later.) They had been ensconced at the Okura for three months when we met. 

At last I could hear a car coming across the driveway gravel…not one but three shiny black sedans pulled to a stop below me.  Out poured black suited bodyguards from the first and third cars. Some scattered around the property, three stood guard at the middle car. After what seemed an interminable wait, the Princess emerged from her car. I bolted down the stairs to greet her and her entourage.  When she stepped across our threshold the body guards had discretely disappeared. It was only Mother and I who greeted Princess Faisal and her translator. I’m not sure my feet were even on the ground at that point.  She was shy, modest even, poised and curious. Her large black eyes took in my world through what lens I cannot  begin to imagine.  To her, our home must have looked like a pauper’s cottage. 

Tea was served and Mother excused herself leaving just the three of us, if you don’t count my dressed up dollies, to our “playdate.”  I don’t recall much of what we did together.  I remember asking her if she could sing a song she liked. She declined to do so explaining that she was not permitted to sing without her father’s permission. As she did so she held up the hand painted, diamond encrusted porcelain pendant to show me the portrait of her father that hung around her neck.  I remember in that rendering that he had a kindly face.  Over our month of knowing one another, on another playdate we daringly sat on the teeter totter in the back yard.  That was the only time I recall seeing her laugh and with abandon too. The Queen kindly permitted me to visit them at their sprawling Okura suite.  On one of these visits, the Queen told me they were to return soon to the Kingdom and asked if I might take an interest in going with them for a visit? She knew ofcourse that I would have to ask my parents but looking back now, I think how very modern it was of her to have first mentioned the possibility to me. Surely the instantaneous glee on my face had been an answer even before I’d blurted out an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

Things now moved very quickly. They were to leave in only a few days. I was certain my parents would accept this once in a life time invitation. I was already, mentally, packing my bag. To my utter dismay ,however, my parents forbad me to go.  Only later did I learn that they had sought counsel from the US Embassy on my possible travel. The Embassy had emphatically advised that I not go…stating that they could not ensure I would be seen nor heard from again were I to go.

Furious with my parents in only the way a spoiled eight year old can be, I stealed myself to bid adieu to my Princess, to my friend. Early the following evening, I was taken one last time to their suite. Things were bustling…papers, bags, body guards readying for what I’m sure was to be a private jet back to the Kingdom. Amidst this, the Queen was her serene self and taking me by the hand guided me for the first time into her private room. There on the floor, against the wall was a medium sized, wooden chest. She pointed to it and instructed the translator to open it and for me to choose three items contained therein as a remembrance. The heavy lid lifted to reveal a combination of loose jewels and gold coins that filled the casket to the brim. Sapphires, rubies, diamonds, emeralds..the lot.  The Queen stood over my left shoulder as I knelt down to make my selection.  Not wanting to appear too greedy, darn, I selected two gold coins. She asked if I was sure. I said “Yes” and the treasure chest was closed shut. I cannot imagine that twice in my life I will see such glittered bounty.

It was time now to say goodbye. My parents had arrived to collect me and to say their goodbyes. I wonder now what the look was, what the silent exchange of primal understanding between two mothers was in that moment? Princess Faisal and I hugged each other, probably for the first time knowing we would likely not see one another again. My parents and I exited the suite, I in pouty mourning. 

Years later my parents told me that the US Embassy had informed them that I was in grave danger of being kidnapped that night and so in an abundance of caution, they had posted MP’s at all the Okura exits. My folks had been coached on what to do, what would happen should an emergency arise. My loving parents had taken the brunt of my disappointment not wanting to complicate a fairytale memory with world politics in a heady time.

I wonder sometimes what life the Princess has led? What sort of education she was afforded, how many children she has, what heart aches she has had to heal from? I wonder if she remembers her time with a little American girl on the teeter totter?  I wonder if we will ever meet again? 

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