Carrying On Two Women's Legacy Of a Generous Heart

At 6 p.m. on the eve of the funeral for Diana, Princess of Wales, a businesswoman approaches the makeshift floral shrine that has sprung up in front of the Cheltenham Municipal Offices. After placing half a dozen pink roses on the grass, she straightens a card handwritten in elegant script, then walks slowly away. Her simple message reads: "Diana, you were an inspiration to us all."

Nearby, another card attached to a cluster of daisies bears an equally poignant inscription: "Diana, your light will never go out."

These sentiments could also apply to another icon of caring and compassion, Mother Teresa, who will be buried on Saturday in Calcutta and whose untiring half-century of caring for the downtrodden and dispossessed far outshines Diana's charitable works. As the world pays final tribute to these two vastly different women, an important question hangs in the autumn air: What's next?

Specifically, how can Diana's - and Mother Teresa's - inspiration and light be carried on in tangible ways? How can the world move beyond cellophane-wrapped flowers and cards, tears and loving farewells to embrace in ordinary lives the qualities and good deeds so admired in the princess and the nun?

Every day last week, British newspapers printed readers' ideas about a fitting memorial for Diana. Suggestions ranged from a black-bordered postage stamp to a monument in Trafalgar Square, from a ban on land mines to rivers and hospitals bearing her name.

Already tens of millions of dollars are pouring into a memorial fund for Diana's favorite charities. It is a heartening first step. But money, however essential, can't buy the outstretched arms, the loving hugs, the caring smiles and compassion that became Diana's signature - and Mother Teresa's - as they reached out to what one commentator calls "the constituency of the rejected." Those gestures require a second, far more difficult step: a human touch, a commitment of time.

The best memorials will be individual acts of kindness. Just ask any humanitarian group whose existence depends on the generous hearts and tireless hands of many volunteers who can say, as Diana did, "Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to try to help the most vulnerable people in society."

Every public tragedy like Diana's inevitably changes perspectives and forces thinking people to reexamine priorities. Who, for example, can look at photographs of Diana and her sons without being reminded of her devotion as a mother - and without silently vowing to be a better parent oneself? In an era when work often takes priority over family, her recipe for childrearing is worthy of framing in cross-stitch: "I always feed my children love and affection - it's so important."

Mother Teresa expresses similar views in her new book, "No Greater Love." She writes, "I think the world today is upside-down.... We have no time for our children. We have no time for each other. There is no time to enjoy each other, and the lack of love causes so much suffering and unhappiness in the world."

Diana also left smaller, more personal legacies, among them a gift for keeping in touch with friends and even strangers through letters and telephone calls. One American woman, summing up the guilty feelings of many, says ruefully, "I have friends I haven't written to for 10 years. I'm going to try to follow her example."

For all her wealth and aristocratic privilege, Diana, like the impoverished Mother Teresa, knew what money couldn't buy. "It is important not to underestimate the value of simple things," she said. "Hugs can do a great deal of good."

That simple philosophy, multiplied a millionfold around the globe, could have a transforming power. Long after the floral tributes have wilted and the heartfelt messages have faded in the sun, it may remain one of the best summaries yet of two women determined to do what they could to right an "upside-down" world.

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