‘Star Wars,’ My Mother, and Me

Credit: Lorin Granger

A literary snob, my mother loved Shakespeare, Dickens, and Virgil, but she also loved the Star Wars movies. In fact she was greatly moved by them, which has always been a mystery to me. Almost twenty years after her death, I think I finally understand. It has something to do with the idea of redemption.

When my mother died, she had some serious unfinished business. It involved her older sister, Edna, whom she admired and adored, and from whom she had been estranged for twenty years.

My mother’s favorite poem was “Fire and Ice,” by Robert Frost. Frost writes that if the world is going to end from one or the other, it will be fire. But he adds: “I think I know enough of hate/To say that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.”

Every time my mother read me the poem (and when I was a child, she read it to me often), she added, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, that it was actually about her sister. My mother thought that Edna was pure glacier, essentially unreachable, and that’s plenty enough for destruction.

When my mother was in her fifties, the sisters did not talk even once. I never learned the source of their estrangement. My strong hunch is that my mother felt humiliated by Edna — not by a single act, but by an accumulation of small ones, suggesting that her older sister had contempt for her.

After my mother hit 60, she tried for a reconciliation. She wrote Edna a long, heartfelt letter, noting that neither of them was a spring chicken, and urging that it was time for them to be friends.

As my mother read me the note, one thing was clear: Writing it was one of the most meaningful acts of her life.

Edna responded. They met once, or twice, or maybe three times. After a few months, Edna wounded my mother, yet again, in some way that my mother found deeply painful. They never spoke again.

I have hardly any memories of my aunt. From my childhood: I see a trim, attractive, dark-haired woman. It might be Christmas. She’s a family member, smiling and familiar, but formal, even forbidding. She’s glamorous. If the room is in black and white, she’s in color. She’s the most important person in the room.

From that brief period of attempted reconciliation, decades later: Edna is in my parents’ living room, where the atmosphere is strained. She’s a stranger. Elegantly dressed, she’s witty, but she carries herself with seriousness and evident self-regard. She gives off a chill. She couldn’t be more different from my mother, who was down to earth, loved to laugh, and could not have cared less about clothes. But I am flabbergasted to see that they could almost be twins. The legendary ice woman looks exactly like her sister.

After my mother died, I invited Edna to her memorial service. I told myself that I wanted my aunt to be there for her own sake. But I was also angry. I wanted her to honor my mother, finally, for my mother’s sake.

To my family’s astonishment, Edna came. When she walked into the room, those in attendance gasped, audibly — not because she looked terrific (though she did, even at 86), but because no one thought that there was the slightest chance that she would be there.

Edna showed no sign of grief. To her nephew (that would be me), all she offered was a glacial, brief hello. It was as if she were engaged in some kind of official duty.

During my remarks at the service, I glanced occasionally at Edna; she was calm, steady, detached. At the end, I offered a few words about my mother’s fiery, terrifying temper, and her huge, loving heart, and the inextricable connection between the two.

I doubt that anyone else saw it, but for just a moment, Edna cracked. On her suddenly old, vulnerable, expressive face, you could see regret, guilt, anger, and (most of all) an intense feeling of attachment. Her heart seemed to burst open. Her sister was gone, and she felt it.

My mother told me, more than once, that for all the spaceships and lightsabers, the Star Wars movies were really about yearning and redemption, and that was the source of their appeal. She never spelled it out. Looking back, I think that she was moved by, and took personally, Luke Skywalker’s willingness to forgive his father, the not-quite-human Darth Vader, and his unyielding efforts to reach him — to establish that there was (as Luke said) “good in you.” By “good,” Luke meant “love.”

In the end, of course, Luke succeeds. Vader loves his son, and he can’t bear to see him die. At the crucial moment, he cracks, and he chooses to save Luke from the Emperor, sacrificing his own life in the process. Vader’s dying words: “You were right about me. Tell your sister . . . you were right.”

My mother identified with Luke Skywalker. There was one person in her life whom she tried, for many decades, to thaw. She wanted to forgive her sister. She wanted to be right about her.

In my mother’s view, she failed, and that was the only genuine tragedy in her long life. But when Edna cracked at her memorial service, I could glimpse, just for that moment, what my mother most craved: goodness, and a sign of love.

Cass. R. Sunstein’s book, The World According to Star Wars, is out now by HarperCollins.