Searching For My Mother at the Sale Racks at Marshall Fields

I’m eleven. I’m sitting on the floor in a dressing room at Marshall Fields, Skokie,girl-dressed-like-mom looking for straight pins stuck in the ivory shag carpet. This is what I do to pass the endless hours while my mother works her way through a pile of skirt suits from the sale rack. Back then, my mother has only two weaknesses  — pecan pie from Poppin’ Fresh and the sale rack at Marshall Fields. She has no willpower in the presence of either.

My mother buys skirt suits to wear to Temple on Friday nights. She is sophisticated and business-like and elegant. My outfit for services is a lavender plaid A-line skirt, a matching lavender fuzzy sweater and chestnut leather zip-up boots with a chunky heel, all from Marshall Fields. I wear this same outfit nearly every Friday. 

As an adult, when I have insomnia, I like to walk through certain places in my mind. I imagine I’m in my childhood elementary school, where I pass through florescent-lit hallways, the gymnasium, and cafeteria. By the time I arrive at the outside playground, I’m asleep. Other times I walk through my childhood Temple. I open doors, look behind curtains. I know every shortcut in the entire building, and I take them. I go to the choir room, the kitchen, the teen hangout with the broken foosball table, and the other kitchen. I stop by the office where I see photos of smiling Hebrew school students on the wall. 

When I don’t walk through my grade school or Temple, my mind heads to the mall of my youth, Old Orchard, where I stroll through Marshall Fields. Not the kids department — but the racks of women’s ready-to-wear and sportswear because I’m shopping with my mother. We walk the racks together in search of bargains in my imagination. 

My mom passed away from cancer when I was seventeen. She had been ill for three years prior, and, obviously, we didn’t do much shopping during that time. Shopping may seem frivolous, but it was her happy place. She’d relax while she methodically slid hangers across the metal bar, one after another, then was rewarded once she’d find a seriously marked down treasure. Some mothers pass down heirlooms, or beauty, or property. My mother passed to me her meditation ritual called shopping. My sister, on the other hand, is shopping-averse. She has anxiety in stores and hates to try things on. She’d rather be at the dentist than in a fitting room, and she thinks this is from endless hours spent waiting in the dressing room at Marshall Fields. To cope, she whined rather than give up and count straight pins. 

Years later, there is no such thing as Marshall Fields anymore, and this makes me sad. When I feel nostalgic, I sometimes wander around Macy’s (who took over the store) but it’s not the same. They sell Frangos, but the candy tastes different. I visit the Estee Lauder counter and smell the scent of the face cream my mother wore. Or maybe I scoop up a pile of clothes from the sale rack and lock myself in a fitting room for way too long. I take my time while I look for a great outfit, but I will only buy it if it’s on sale. I am, after all, Elaine’s daughter. 

I have my own daughter now, who is a great little shopping partner, but I don’t take her to Macy’s or even the mall. Instead, our favorite shopping is at thrift stores. I’d rather spend time with her eye-balling racks of random things in search of something worth buying than be overwhelmed at a sprawling department store. I like that she learns discernment, recycling and patience at a thrift store. And hopefully, how to get lost in her own thoughts. 

Mommy’s Magic Eye

A great thing about little kids is they believe everything you say. They think a fat old man breaks into our homes once a year and leaves a pile of presents in the living room. They think a fairy flies all over the world collecting bloody, used teeth and in exchange leaves money under the pillow. (What could The Tooth Fairy possibly do with those teeth? It’s creepy.) They also think a giant bunny sneaks into the house every spring to leave a basket of chocolate on the kitchen table. Each of these scenarios takes place in the middle of the night — It’s a miracle children sleep soundly with the rash of break-ins going on.

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I’m just as guilty as any parent who perpetuates the legends of Santa, The Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny, but I go even further. I doubled down against my kids’ gullibility and invented the myth of Mommy’s Magic Eye, an all-knowing and all-seeing superpower designed to keep my kids in line when I’m not around. For a good chunk of their childhood, my sons believed I’m part psychic and part wizard with the ability to know if they committed no-nos without me being present.

I’m pretty sure people behave better if we think our mother is watching. My idea was to instill a little dose of healthy paranoia, much like Elf on a Shelf tricks kids into believing the strangely dressed toy has a direct line to Santa and is filing numerous behavior reports prior to Christmas. The difference is Mommy’s Magic Eye works 24/7 and has a direct line to me, my kids’ ultimate boss.

You’d be surprised how effective this was, but eventually things took an unexpected turn. My second son believed in the power of Mommy’s Magic Eye so deeply that for him it evolved into a cross between a Magic Eight Ball and a personalized Google Search. He asked questions like, “Does your Magic Eye know if I’m getting a Happy Meal today?” or “Does your Magic Eye know if we’ll have outside recess?” Then, after losing his older brother, my little guy became anxious and relied on Mommy’s Magic Eye for reassurance. His questions became more existential and worrisome. He’d ask, “How long am I going to live?” or “Is anything bad going to happen today.”

For him, the power of Mommy’s Magic Eye went beyond what I originally intended and I realized it could have therapeutic potential to give him comfort. I used it to calm his fears, of which he had many. I assured him my Magic Eye knew there would be no car accidents, no diseases or tragedies, and everybody we love will be fine. He’d calm down and believe what Mommy’s Magic Eye saw.

There are little lies we tell ourselves to get through our day (this piece of dessert won’t matter, this shirt looks good on me). There are little lies we tell others to help them get through their day (that piece of dessert won’t matter, that shirt looks good on you). Then there are little lies we tell our kids designed to enhance their childhood or make them better people. I’m not sure exactly where Mommy’s Magic Eye fits into all of this, but I wonder — are lies always bad? Maybe not in the moment, but even the most well intentioned lie can boomerang years later.

My oldest son was four when we sat with him by the picture window at his grandparents farm on Christmas Eve to watch for Santa Claus. After a few minutes we saw a figure in a red suit with a large sack slung over his shoulder walk across the meadow and leave footprints in the snow. My son stared, his mouth open in disbelief, too overwhelmed to utter any words. He later told his friends at preschool about the Santa sighting. He was a firm believer for years — after all he saw him with his own eyes.

When he finally learned the truth — that “Santa” was actually his grandfather — the look on his face was devastating. Sure, he was upset to learn Santa wasn’t real, but he was more crushed that I lied to him. My heart sank as the little boy who believed everything I said now saw me in a different light.

You’d think I’d learn my lesson, but I’m a slow learner.

My daughter is starting to potty train. I told her I’d get her anything she wants once she learns to pee and poo in the potty. Without hesitation she said she wants to fly. Now I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want to pilot an airplane — she’s talking about full-on Peter Pan levitating. I told her she can start lessons as soon as she gives up her pull-ups. I consider this lie a necessary step in our negotiations. For a little while I will let her believe that learning to fly is a possibility, and then I will gracefully exit our agreement when I tell her the local Park District catalogue doesn’t offer flying lessons.

I haven’t yet told my daughter about Mommy’s Magic Eye, but I doubt she’ll believe me anyway. She surprises me each day with her outsized sense of self-assuredness and sass, so I’m guessing she’d just tell my Magic Eye to buzz off, and then do her own thing like count her teeth and plan what she’ll do with the money from The Tooth Fairy.

When my second son got older I decided it was time to fade out Mommy’s Magic Eye. I told him it got “tired” and couldn’t see the future anymore. Eventually, he caught on and confronted me. I asked if he was mad that I tricked him into believing I had a superpower and he said he wasn’t sure, he’d have to ask his Magic Eight Ball.