This year, on Star Wars Day, my daughter wanted to binge watch all nine of the Skywalker films. I had to work during the day, so we could only start after 6.00 in the evening. We watched episode I (The Phantom Menace), and then she decided that we had to have Luke and Han, so we jumped to episode IV (A New Hope). I managed to make it most of the way through episode V (The Empire Strikes Back) before deciding I wouldn’t be able to work the following day if I didn’t go to sleep. My daughter stayed up for the rest of that one, but then went to sleep herself. Binging three films in a night isn’t too shabby– even if it’s not exactly something that I normally aspire to.
When I said good night, my daughter tried to persuade me to at least finish watching episode V. I told her that was a tricky one for me to watch because it was the only film I ever watched with my biological father and he let slip the big surprise while we were queuing up outside. I didn’t see much of my biological father growing up. He and my mother split up before I was born and then I grew up with another man as my father. When my mother split from the man that I continue to call my dad, when I was 7, my mother arranged for me and my sister to meet our biological father. I think he wanted to be a good father and we spent a summer visiting him and our two little half brothers. but then he sort of disappeared again from our lives. Then when I was 14, he turned up again. He took my sister and I to see the latest Star Wars film.
My sister was a proper Star Wars fanatic. She watched the original film (episode IV) at least 20 or 30 times– and that was back when people had to go to the cinema and pay for each viewing. I watched the first film with her. She’d already seen it maybe 10 times, by then. We were supposed to meet at the cinema and I turned up and waited for her. After the film had started, I waited outside for her to show up but there was no sign of her. I finally thought she might have already gone inside so I went in and looked for her there. Sure enough, she was there in the first few rows. She was glued to the screen. I was very cross with her and I probably made this clear, but I doubt she noticed. SW had completely hijacked her consciousness. When the film ended, my sister persuaded me that we had to stay for the next screening and watch the bit that I’d missed. This was back in the days when you could usually get away with sticking around to watch the same film twice. When we got to the scene that I recognised, I said that we should go. She said we should stay just a few more minutes because that was a bad scene to leave in the middle of. I’m sure the next bit is obvious– we stayed and watched the entire film again. We got into some trouble coming home so late and I was very cross with her that day. She really didn’t seem to care. She loved that film and it very obviously made her ridiculously happy to watch it. I still feel just a bit badly that the entire way home, I kept saying that I was going to blame her for us being late. When we got home, it didn’t matter whose fault it was and I don’t remember either one of us giving much of an explanation at all. I don’t remember the punishment, but it must have been something pretty mild.
So a few years later, when our biological father offered to take us to episode V, I know my sister was absolutely thrilled. I was always a little ambivalent about meetings with our father because I didn’t know him very well and never spent much time with him. My sister had clearer memories of him from when he and our mother were still together, so I think she could ease into a more comfortable relationship with him. While the three of us were waiting to enter the cinema (which is what we had to do with SW films back then), he was trying to make conversation with us. I don’t think he really knew what to say, so he was trying to find things that would interest us. My sister clearly loved SW and so they were talking about that. I think the conversation was going smoothly enough when he decided to blurt out something like, ‘I heard that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.’ My sister was shocked. The people around were shocked and cross. People in the queues told him to shut up and not to spoil the film. He apologised, because I don’t think he realised how seriously the people around us took the films (how could anyone have guessed how seriously SW people take these films).
I only remember seeing my biological father once more after that. I looked him up when I was 22. We went to see my little half brothers. It was really nice to see them. I don’t have many regrets in life, but I do regret not staying in touch with them after that. I moved to Europe not long after that meeting and didn’t return to the US for seven years. I went back for about 6 months and realised I prefer Europe and so moved back and have never seriously contemplated living in the US since. I grew up without my biological father and didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about him, or his absence. When I had my own children, I introduced them to the man who brought me up and my stepfather. So they knew that people didn’t necessarily only have two grandfathers (or two grandmothers, since there were some steps involved there as well). I never hid the fact that there was another grandfather out there as well. When my daughter was four years old, she asked a lot of questions about my family– especially my parents. She asked about my biological father. I told her what I knew, but it wasn’t much. She asked whether he would like her if they met. I assured her that he would like her very much. She asked if I liked him. I don’t, as a general rule, lie to my children, so I told her the truth, that I didn’t like or dislike him. I didn’t know him well enough to have any strong emotional connection to him. She decided, in that confident way that four year olds do very well, that she was going to organise a reunion between he and I and she would make sure that we liked each other.
Not long after my daughter had grilled me about my biological father and outlined her plans for a family reunion, I found out that my biological father had died. Worse than that, he had actually died several months before. So even while my daughter was hatching her plans, it turns out they were impossible.
On May the Fourth, when my daughter grabbed my hand and laughingly pleaded with me to finish watching episode V, that moment waiting outside the cinema with my sister and our biological father came back very clearly. The occasional father that I experienced has influenced my efforts at parenting. I never want my own children to not have an answer if someone asks whether they like me. When they’re angry at me, I expect they might say they don’t like me, but most of the time, I would be willing to bet that they would grudgingly admit that they do like me. I don’t think they would ever say they didn’t know me well enough to have any strong emotions about me.
My daughter’s passion for the films rivals that of her aunt’s. She is lucky enough to have streaming services that allow her to watch these films multiple times without having to fork out for cinema tickets every time. She gets excited about Star Wars day and seems to enjoy watching these films more when I’m there too. I will never know what kind of reunion she might have engineered, but I like to think it might have revolved around getting us all to binge watch Star Wars and use that rather awkward set of father-son reconciliations to help us get to know one another a little better so at least I would know him well enough to answer the question of whether I like him or not.
Ah, such a lovely and honest account of estranged family bonds. I have some experience of this myself. Also, like you, I drew on negative family memories to inform more positive ones for my own daughter.