In one of the more depressing and hopeless turns of late 2016, Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds has died at the age of 84. She passed away on December 28, just one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died at the age of 60.
Because Fisher followed in her mother’s footsteps and became an actress, their relationship generated a lot of intrigue. The bond between them was special, but it wasn’t perfect.
Fisher wrote about how tough it was to grow up with a movie star mom in her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards From the Edge, which she adapted into a movie in 1990. It’s about a woman who returns home to her famous mother’s house after spending time in rehab.
And in 2011, Fisher described what it was like to be the child of famous parents — her father was singer Eddie Fisher — on The Oprah Winfrey Show:
“The family is organized [around] the parents, [whereas] normally the family is organized around raising the child,” she said. Speaking about her relationship with Reynolds, she recalled, “We had a fairly volatile relationship earlier on in my 20s. I didn’t want to be around her. I did not want to be Debbie Reynolds’s daughter.”
That’s a difficult scenario to navigate, but the two were ultimately able to make the most of their relationship.
“It took like 30 years for Carrie to be really happy with me,” Reynolds told People in 1988. “I don’t know what the problem ever was. I’ve had to work at it. I’ve always been a good mother, but I’ve always been in show business, and I’ve been on stage and I don’t bake cookies and I don’t stay home.”
That backstory is what makes Fisher’s introduction of her mother at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards — where Reynolds accepted the organization’s lifetime achievement award — so touching. Fisher speaks with honesty, admiration, and love; she also cracks jokes that might make you wince at their truth, but also laugh at their humanity.
Actually, she has been more than a mother to me. Not much — but definitely more. She’s been an unsolicited stylist, interior decorator, and marriage counselor. Prior to our original introduction, Debbie Reynolds was already the voluptuous, fertile half of America’s sweethearts, Elizabeth’s Taylor’s matron of honor, and a baton twirler and French horn player. Admittedly, I found it difficult to share my mother with her adoring fans who treated her like she was part of their family.
She has led two lives — public and private — sometimes concurrently, sometimes not. One life is there for leading, the other to follow around. Within those lives, she is a movie star, recording artist, television actor, nightclub entertainer, Broadway performer, best-selling author, dance studio owner, preservationist of some of Hollywood’s most priceless artifacts, and co-founder of the Thalians, a group that has raised more than $30 million for mental health and mental health–related causes, and four and a half million of that money is allocated just for me.
This is an extraordinarily kind, generous, gifted, funny woman who would give you the shirt off her back if Vivien Leigh hadn’t once worn it in Gone With the Wind, and it’s the Debbie Reynolds of the big screen who made it all possible.
There are myriad reasons why Reynolds and Fisher’s deaths hurt so much as 2016 comes to a close, but they’re all rooted in what the two shared with each other and what they shared with the world. They were living proof that parent-child relationships can be complicated, ugly, painful. But they were relatable and aspirational, too, showcasing the beauty and humanity that comes with surviving life’s toughest trials.