I like to tell people that I come from a family of collectors. Mom collects chocolate molds and stars, my sister once collected teapots, and my brother had more toy cars than he knew what to do with. I was all about Beatrix Potter porcelain figurines, which actually says a lot about me — a kid who collected things to admire, not to play with. Dad went through his phases, too. I think it’s just an intuitive need to complete a set of something, an obsessive tick that’s passed down through generations of families.
This is why Mom should have known better than to bring those plastic Star Wars toys back home with her after a trip to see family in Boston. She laughed as she handed my dad a Gamorrean Guard figure.
“Remember when I bought you one of these when we first started dating?” Mom asked. (I can’t decide if this is the most or least romantic thing a new girlfriend can do, but this obviously helped seal the deal.) “The figures were so cheap back then — the guy at the store told me that some of them can go for hundreds of dollars now.”
“That’s incredible,” Dad said, weighing the green figure carefully in his hand.
His life as a Star Wars collector began both suddenly and matter-of-factly. One weekend we went to a local antique shop, possibly one of the most deadly dull activities for any three-, five-, and seven-year-old, and instead of looking at lamps like my mom hoped, Dad gravitated toward a display of porcelain figurines, specifically Star Wars Sigma pieces — a C-3PO pencil tray, a Chewbacca bank, a Bib Fortuna figurine, you name it. When Mom asked what in the world Dad was going to do with a 1983 Wicket the Ewok ceramic figure, he just shrugged and said, “Build a display in the home office.”
He did. Shelves upon shelves. He commissioned Mom to sew him curtains for his office out old Star Wars bed sheets to help protect his fledgling collection from the brutal Arizona sun. This was, coincidentally, right around this time that Kenner launched a new line of Star Wars action figures — the Power of the Force line, fondly remembered for its super bulked-up body aesthetic that extended to even Princess Leia. Our weekends became a routine: stops at antique stores and markets, trips to Target, Walmart, and Toys ‘R’ Us, where my dad quickly got on a first name basis with the store managers and was welcomed into stock rooms to pull whatever new figures he needed.
There are different kinds of collectors; those who pick and choose what they like, focusing on one type of product like posters or figures, and the completists, who want absolutely everything. Dad began as the latter and slowly regressed to the former when he realized there was absolutely no way to keep up with the influx of new toys, especially when the prequel films were announced. Dad settled on the somewhat reasonable goal of collecting the vintage toys and both domestic and international posters, carefully storing them in plastic cases or behind UV protected glass, painstakingly arranging his home office to maximize the experience of the tours he would later give to every single extended family member and any of our friends who dared to visit the house over the next two decades.
I was 10 years old when I went to my first Star Wars convention. It was hosted locally in Arizona, sponsored partly by an independent toy store (now called Toy Anxiety) that Dad had started frequenting. The owner of this shop, Ron, once joked to me once that he marked his years by seeing how much the Bracken kids have grown since we were those eager kids with gangly limbs.
Every Saturday became “Ron’s Shop Day” for Dad. He’d meet with his buddies at Ron’s shop in what basically amounted to an adult show-and-tell. They’d huddle around the counter, bonding as they oohed and awesomed over new finds. There were bragging rights when it came to certain pieces. Vinyl Cape Jawa, Rocket Firing Boba Fett, Yak Face, Blue Snaggletooth on the carded figures side, rare and foreign movie posters, ships and play sets still in their original packaging with the tape seal unbroken. Having one is like a badge of honor; they’re symbols of the long searches and effort you’ve put in to the hunt.
Years passed, prequels came, and more conventions were announced. First, it was Celebration I, an event that was almost washed out in Denver, Celebrations II and III in Indianapolis (my memories of these conventions have blurred into one seemingly endless wait in line, outside in the freezing cold, to get into the Celebration Store to open), Celebration IV in Los Angeles, Celebration V in Orlando.
One of the things that strikes you, when you come to one of these conventions, is how deliriously happy everyone is to be there. I often say Star Wars people are my people, or at least what I aspire to be: eternally patient in the face of waiting in a line to wait in yet another line, funny and creative, and passionate. They carry in them that perfect, crystallized feeling of wonder they had the first time they watched the films. They want to preserve it, reproduce that same experience for their own children and grandchildren. The community of fans is one of the many reasons I think the saga has become a kind of cultural heirloom. A found family has risen up around the story of a fictional found family, and it’s actually quite a beautiful thing.
My dad passed away the Monday after Easter in 2012, early in the morning, due to complications from the cancer he’d been battling for months. All of his collector friends came to the memorial service. Ron spoke and gently, sweetly chastised us on Dad’s behalf for having the custom action figure we’d had made in Dad’s likeness for his 50th birthday out in the sun, where its blister, the bubble containing the figure, could warp in the heat. Mom had pre-arranged for the bagpiper to break out into the Star Wars theme to make sure the guests laughed at least once; she called him days before the service, while I was online canceling the hotel reservation and badges for Celebration VI, and his response to being asked if he knew the theme music was a very matter-of-fact, “Of course. It’s very popular at weddings.” That was the first time I’d laughed in days.
Before, I’d been privileged enough to never have to learn that all sorts of unfortunate tasks and tiny heartbreaks come with death in the modern age. To make sure Mom wouldn’t have to, we deleted his scheduled recordings from the DVR, set his email account to forward, and cancelled his phone number and the bids he’d made days before on eBay for the memorabilia he was still trying to track down.
In our case, there was one more thing to process: his enormous Star Wars collection, carefully gathered and lovingly cultivated. The truth is, we have struggled these past three years to figure out what, exactly, to do with it. A year out, even two — it was too soon to even think about it. It loomed larger each day it sat there and we shamefully let it collect dust with our indecision.
My dad wasn’t his collection. It didn’t form the whole of him or even the entirety of his interests. But it’s been a painful detangling, and the idea of dismantling his collection felt as final as his death. Some part of me was irrationally terrified that, somehow, my first memory of watching A New Hope with him would dissolve along with it. I was certain I’d lose my connection to this community, this international family of fans.
I got the call to write a young reader adaptation of A New Hope out of the blue last summer, and came so close to giving a panicked “No!” in response. I’d grown up reading every single Star Wars book I could get my hands on and, in that moment, I was sure I’d never live up to the standards I’d put on myself to get it exactly right. It was the next day, after talking it through with my family, that I realized that this fear really had roots in a different one: having to face Star Wars and, by extension, my dad’s death.
I said yes, because it turns out that 23 years of love can outweigh even painful, timid fear. Imagine my surprise when rewatching the films and immersing myself back in this galaxy wasn’t painful at all. In fact, it actually made me feel quite the opposite — close to him.
I felt the same way this past April at Celebration Anaheim, stepping back into the world I’d grown up in. Dad would have been there in the front row at our panel, making faces at me, taking 10,000 photos to send home. Maybe he was there, because as deeply as I felt his absence, I also felt his presence. And it wasn’t attached to a collectible, or anything up in that office, but the feeling of being connected again to that greater whole of people who love the same story and characters I do.
Call it the faith, but I like to think of it as the power of the Force.
Alexandra Bracken is the author of Star Wars: A New Hope — The Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy, as well as the Darkest Minds series. She loves Star Wars, classic rock, and 18th century gentlemen. When she’s not up at 4 a.m. writing, you can find her running around New York City. It is exactly as fun as it sounds.