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-adverse. 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.