There’s a running joke in our family that mom is really Carrie Fisher’s half-sister, the product of a hush-hush affair between a teenage Debbie Reynolds and some anonymous Hollywood Casanova. Mom was adopted and has never been tempted to track down her birth parents; what we siblings do know is that she was born in Los Angeles, in 1948. We also know that — if only for a stretch in the eighties — she was a dead ringer for Carrie Fisher.
Adoption is a weird thing. Our mother was raised by wonderful parents in a preposterously bucolic setting (Maui in the fifties), and those are her parents, and our grandparents. The sister she grew up with is our aunt. There was never any reason for her to go searching, but the mystery of her adoption still lent itself to flights of imagination. Our ancestors could be anyone we chose. And who better to have as an imaginary aunt than Carrie Fisher?
She was Leia, of course, only the most iconic fictional mystery sister of our shared pop-culture-addled youth. But she was also the daughter of Debbie Reynolds, star of our family favorite Singin’ in the Rain. She was Sally’s best friend in When Harry Met Sally. She was Meryl Streep or, rather, Meryl Streep was her, in Postcards from the Edge. She was crazily creative and creatively crazy. And she was honest and unashamed of her struggles.s
But first, for us, she was Princess Leia. Leia Organa was no ordinary character of science fiction. She was an incredibly important symbol to all three Swanson siblings, with or without our (potentially) imaginary relation to her. David (me, the oldest) was born exactly one month to the day after Star Wars detonated the cinematic universe in 1977. Katrina (the middle child) arrived two years later, in time for Empire Strikes Back. And baby Andrew (that’s me too — we’re writing this together) showed up in 1988, making him 11 — the perfect age! — for the prequels that could never live up to the original trilogy his older siblings had raised him on. To all of us Leia represented leadership, sassiness, intelligence, wit, bravery and a fierce determination to destroy injustice and rid the galaxy of evil. Leia was good. She was fearless. She could tame Han Solo and lead a rebellion at the same time. Leia was proof positive that giving up or giving in is not an option. She was a flame, gleaming in the dark of space, a signal to the desperate.
Katrina was the one who first noticed the startling resemblance between Leia and mom, and by the time Andrew came around, we’d decided to run with the theory. (For the record, Katrina felt the “sisters” got their shared genes from Eddie Fisher, not Debbie Reynolds. But Eddie was a cad, and Debbie Reynolds was Kathy Seldon — an angel — so we can agree to disagree. For what it’s worth, Eddie Fisher was playing resorts in the Catskills in the late forties, while Debbie Reynolds was just embarking on her Hollywood career, Miss Burbank 1948!)
Instead of telling Andrew that he was left on the doorstep (as any good older siblings would have done), he was informed of the supposed story of our mother’s origin. After all, Leia was an orphan, too, just like mom. Andrew was floored, of course, and would go on to obsessively compare photos of mom and Carrie Fisher from the same period of time in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then imagine finally meeting her, once we’d proven our theory using some form of DNA testing we didn’t yet grasp. She would smile at us lovingly and hug us and make us laugh. She would make fun of us and call us out for making a mess. She would be our Aunt Carrie — and we would love her just like we always had in our imaginations. (Mom, for her part, found our wild speculation cute, and ultimately harmless. After all, she had a perfectly fine family of her own, thank you very much.)
Carrie Fisher would have been the coolest aunt. We all felt pride when she spoke out honestly about her struggles with addiction and mental health. We instinctively leapt to her defense when others poked fun at her appearance as she aged like normal people do, Hollywood norms be damned. She was so smart, so funny, and such a comfort when she was back up on our screens in The Force Awakens.
Last Saturday, on Christmas Day, we took a family outing to go see Rogue One. The movie ends on a sustained crescendo, as the narrative speeds up and runs right into the opening images from A New Hope, our first taste of Star Wars from four decades ago. Our shared excitement crested with the appearance of a young Leia, Carrie Fisher as we first knew her. It felt like a family reunion.
Editors Note: Soon after this story was posted, Debbie Reynolds died after suffering a stroke, just one day after her daughter’s passing. Another family reunion is in order.
David Swanson is an editor and writer in New York. Andrew Burden Swanson is a writer, actor and carpenter in Chicago.