Happy Mother’s Day! Let’s take this as an opportunity to explore the only real continuity hiccup that exists in Lucas’ two-part saga.
LUKE: Do you remember your mother? Your real mother?
LEIA: Just a little bit. She died when I was very young. […] Images, really–feelings.
Now, the fact that there’s only one hiccup in a saga written over three decades, that’s impressive and nothing to knock Lucas over. But it still warrants explanation: who is Leia talking about here? Can she be referring to Padmé? I argue: no. In spite of anything you’ve heard or read, this line positively refers to Breha Organa. I’ll prove it.
First, to deal with authorial intention: Yes, in in 1983, George Lucas intended Leia to be recalling her biological mother who was also Luke’s mother. He once remarked that he had never considered the character of “Mrs. Skywalker,” who she was, what she was like, where she came from, not until he started writing the prequels. So when Return of the Jedi came out, he clearly had a loose idea of Leia having spent her first years with this “Mrs. Skywalker,” but by 2005, the story couldn’t sustain that. Padmé had to be dead at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and the line could no longer refer to her.
But to be frank about it, this didn’t introduce any sort of contradiction. At the end of E3, Bail Organa makes it clear that he and his wife will raise Leia as their own. Leia never had any idea that she was adopted, not until Luke said she was his sister and his father was Darth Vader. Her mourning in the Ewok village that night, and her struggle throughout the Bakura Crisis, revolved around her trying to reconcile her blood being Darth Vader’s and not Bail Organa’s. Furthermore, when such care had been taken to make Padmé still appear pregnant at her funeral, Bail would never have risked Leia’s anonymity by telling her she was adopted.
Not only can we be confident Leia never knew she was adopted, we can also be confident that Breha died sometime during Leia’s very early childhood. When Leia thinks back to the destruction of Alderaan, she mourns for her father, her aunts, and her cats, in that order — no mention of any mother, so Bail was a widower by the time Alderaan was destroyed, and the woman Leia thought was her mother died when she was “very young.”
It’s worth mentioning at this point that 2013’s Scoundrels makes a reference to suggest Breha and Bail both died at Alderaan’s destruction, but there’s 30 years of publications before it that emphasize Leia had no mother and felt the loss keenly. This was a merely unfortunate slip not uncommon in late publications of the EU.
Just because we knew who Leia and Luke’s mother was, it’s extreme on our part to insist that Leia’s “images, really–feelings” must refer to Padmé. Remember that statements must mean something to the characters who make them; we the audience are mere eavesdroppers, and characters do not automatically have access to the knowledge we do. So while we can look at the comic illustration there and say, “See! It’s a picture of Padmé!”, we need to remember that Leia doesn’t know who Padmé is, and the picture could just as easily (and far more logically) be of Breha.
Nevertheless, there are some extreme attempts to force “[I remember her] just a little bit” into meaning “I, Leia, have retained memory of Padmé Amidala.” So I’ll rebut those claims now.
One claim is that the Organas told Leia she was adopted and even go so far as to suggest Artoo even showed Leia pictures of Padmé. While this is an amusingly literal interpretation of “[I remember] images,” I feel I’ve already countered it: the Organas never told her she was adopted. It would be pointless to the point of foolishness. And while I’ll never understand why Lucas ham-fistedly had Artoo exempted from memory wipe at the end of E3, Leia never spoke to, communicated with, or even “met” Artoo before the events of E4. I’m confident Artoo was wiped at some point (why arbitrarily “spare” one computer from a defrag and not the other?), and he did not play clips from the PT for young Princess Leia.
The more common argument is that the Force, acting as an all-encompassing magic wand, somehow granted prenatal Leia with superhuman awareness and memory capability. Embryo Leia was therefore able, through the course of ~37 weeks long before the human mind develops long-term memory, to forge such a strong bond with her mother that she retained memories of Padmé’s kindness, beauty, and sadness well into adulthood, and keep those impressions fully separate from her impressions and memories of Breha. Breha, who was omnipresent in Leia’s life for some three years after the point when long-term memory develops, and who was also certainly kind, beautiful, and sad.
Leia’s connection with her prenatal twins is often used as evidence to show that this is possible, though what gets ignored in that it is Leia, as a mother who is Force-sensitive, who forms that bond. It doesn’t originate from the twins, but rather the twins develop it after her influence. Padmé was not Force-sensitive, and while I’m confident Luke and Leia had a strong bond through the Force while they were in the womb, there’s simply no way Padmé entered into the equation.
Speaking of Luke — I’m actually not skeptical about the ability of Jedi-in-embryo to use the Force to create bonds and even form memories, even to the extent of maintaining those memories after a span of time medical science would consider impossible. But Luke’s emphatic statement of “I have no memory of my mother; I never knew her” precludes any possibility that Leia could have performed this incredible feat of Force-sensitivity.
Throughout the EU, Leia expresses frustration that her Jedi training is waylaid, that she can’t do the things Luke can, that her skills in the Force are weak. And while Luke eventually realizes that she is simply talented in a different aspect of the Force, for embryonic Leia to accomplish this amazing thing would have made her a Jedi prodigy of unbelievable skill! For Leia to instinctively use the Force, without training, before conscious human reasoning has even developed, to filter and separate her memories of Padmé and Breha–to say “this memory is of the dark-haired, dark-eyed, sad-looking woman who taught me to walk, and this memory is of the dark-haired, dark-eyed, sad-looking woman who died one second after I was born”–she would never have doubted her skill or connection to the Force! In reality, five years after this conversation, she lamented never having time to hone her skills at all.
So in conclusion, the simplest explanation, the explanation that would have the most meaning in context for the characters who actually speak the lines, is that Leia is remembering Breha Organa. Neither Luke nor Leia have any recollection or knowledge of their mother, who remains as unknown to her children as she did to all fans before 1999. And that is the tragedy of Padmé.