Jeneé Osterheldt

KC mom's family feels the Force of love and courage in 'Star Wars'

In the backseat of her parents' canary-yellow Comet, the 3-year old slept in her pajamas alongside her younger brother.

It was 1977 in a Carrollton, Mo., drive-in. She woke up in time to see the second half of a double feature:

"Star Wars."

"I saw Leia holding her storm blaster, peeking out from her hiding space."

This is Karen Rogers' first and earliest memory. Leia became her hero in that moment. And she's been a member of the "Star Wars" fandom ever since.

On Thursday, "Solo: A Star Wars Story" became another family affair. This time around it's Karen and her husband, Doug, with son Alex and daughter Audrey.

"My faith and my family are my strongest influences," she says. "But 'Star Wars' is a component of that. The idea of standing up for the powerless, loving people, having hope and keeping courage in difficult times. There are so many real-world themes boiled into 'Star Wars.' It's just fun for us to watch it together."

They are all fans and have their own ways of showing it. Doug has a remote-control BB-8 and Millennium Falcon. Ten-year-old Alex is into graphic novels and Lego "Star Wars." He holds up Jabba the Hutt's sail barge for me to take a closer look, explaining how it once broke in half but he found a way to put it back together.

"I like to see the star ships in action and all of the mechanics," he says. "I really like the mechanics."

Audrey, 6, reads "Star Wars: Forces of Destiny," watches the animated shorts highlighting the girls of the galaxy and has a few Forces of Destiny dolls, too. Her fave: Ahsoka, "The Clone Wars" hero so Force-strong she rocks two lightsabers.

"She can do all things," Audrey declares, holding the doll up high, re-enacting a fight against Darth Vader.

But Karen is the mother of all fans in the family. The 44-year-old still has the 1983 kids book "Return of the Jedi: The Storybook Based on the Movie" from her childhood. Now it's part of a family collection of about 70 "Star Wars" books in their Northland home. They have a special "Star Wars" edition of both Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit.

Her wardrobe includes skirts, shirts, sweaters, handbags and accessories paying homage to "Star Wars." She has a Her Universe Ahsoka sweater, a Rey-inspired jacket by Elhoffer Designs and a Rebel Scum sweater by We Love Fine.

In a guest room/office, her Rey lightsaber sits atop a bookcase filled with Funko Pop! "Star Wars" bobbleheads and an assortment of action figures and dolls. A collection of Hallmark "Star Wars" Itty Bittys plushy toys is on display nearby. She keeps her pins and buttons — about 100 — in a shadowbox.

The most prized possession: a framed selfie of her and Carrie Fisher. Karen and her family were staying in the same D.C. hotel where Nerd Prom 2016 was held. Fisher happened to walk into the lobby, Karen spotted her and the magic happened. Fisher died later that year.

In that first "Star Wars" movie, Karen tells me, "they came to rescue Leia, but Leia rescued them. Leia does that. She stays strong. She loses so much but keeps going."

Karen Rogers couldn't wait to see Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian and find out how Han Solo gets the Millennium Falcon. Lucasfilm Ltd.

What's remarkable about her collection is the diversity. She has Rose, Finn, young and old Lando. She's found ways to pay tribute to every lady we've seen on screen and as many as she can find from the books. Even the female droid, L3-37, gets love. She's slowly amassing artwork featuring the women of "Star Wars" to hang on a wall.

"The diversity in 'Star Wars' is growing, but it could still be better. It's a process. I was beside myself when the saber went to Rey," Karen says of a pivotal scene in "The Force Awakens." "I'd never seen a girl wield a lightsaber. It moved me. And having a daughter see that representation was powerful. It's disappointing there are people who don't like it, who say the films are all social justice now.

"People don't want change. But I love what Lucasfilm is doing. 'Star Wars' is for everybody, not just the white male. Why can't they see themselves in other people? Other people have been expected to see it through your eyes their whole lives."

Her entire career, she's fought for equity of others. She's been a civil rights attorney and an education lawyer. Now she's the Missouri statewide legislative-lead for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

"It’s Christ first and foremost, but 'Star Wars' helps you see yourself as someone who can go out and help people and fight for freedom."

Alden Ehrenreich plays a young Han Solo, and Joonas Suotamo is Chewbacca in "Solo: A Star Wars Story." LucasFilm Ltd.

But she says it's not all about the moral integrity.

"Space is fun," Karen says, laughing. "It's just cool. I am so excited to see Donald Glover as Lando, to see how Han Solo came to get the Millennium Falcon from him. And I want to see his capes. This world is fun."

She hands me the lightsaber, presses the button and steps back while it glows blue. As I get in my Jedi stance, she bursts into giggles. Her freckles and sandy brown hair almost seem to dance around with her, filling the room with warm energy.

Is this what the Force feels like?

Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star culture columnist. On Twitter: @jeneeinkc