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. 

Let’s Party Like It’s 1979

One day, for no particular reason my son said, “Mom, I think you were born at a good time. You know, before electricity. And then you got to have electricity.” I asked how old he thought I was. My son shrugged.

I was born before a lot of life changing things were ubiquitous — cell phones, the internet, video games, tv remotes, MTV (do they still have MTV?) But one thing I wasn’t born before is electricity. Thank gawd he didn’t say indoor plumbing or ask about my pet dinosaur.

My childhood took place in the 70s, I explained. NOT the 1870s. And we did things a little differently. Most notably, hours went by without my parents having any idea where I was, what I was doing or whom I was with. I had boundaries — the busy streets that bordered my neighborhood — but this left blocks and blocks of territory to roam. I was most likely riding my bike downhill with no hands and without wearing a helmet.

I ate garbage. Not literal garbage but ravioli from a can, cereal with the brightest colors and a lot of Jay’s chips. My mom had a crate of flavored pop delivered to our house once a week and I slurped down the orange ones. Now I won’t buy anything in a can (chemical liners), bright cereals (artificial colors) or pop (sugar).

There were only a handful of channels on our television, which was a giant wooden piece of furniture in the corner of the room, and no remote control. Sometimes my dad shouted from the window for me to come inside to switch shows for him. Today my son speaks into a remote that understands english and changes itself from among hundreds of channels.

boy-sitting-in-grass-clip-artEverything was simple. I don’t remember feeling overstimulated, stressed out or FOMO, which are things my son feels strongly. I often used my imagination rather than electronics to pass the time. I didn’t have expectations of being constantly entertained. A favorite pastime was to stare at the clouds and find animals. I filled a lot of afternoons doing nothing. Yet it was enough.

I don’t think my son feels the same way. He has anxiety from having too many choices and a surreal awareness of the ticking clock hanging over his childhood. He thinks about the choices he didn’t make, things he doesn’t have and the experiences he didn’t create. Nobody escapes this thought loop these days — I certainly don’t — but I don’t remember thinking like this as a kid.

board-game-pieces-clip-artI suggested to my son we have a 1970s day, which meant we eat food I ate at his age and play outside. This was met with little enthusiasm. Canned Italian food was declared “gross” (it is) and going outside was “not good for our skin” (kind of). The whole experiment fell apart after I dug up my old Merlin and showed him what hand-held computer games used to look like.

It’s a vastly different world, and pretending the fun I had in 1979 is relevant to my son now is silly. His life would seem crazy to eleven year-old me. He suffers through brutal amounts of homework that’s more complicated than mine ever was, and I can’t imagine the stress of living with social media during the awkward tween years. (Is tween a new word?) When I put myself in his shoes (which actually fit my feet) I realize I have no idea how he does it. How is he growing up normal and sane with all these distractions? How is he not royally messed up from the pressure?

And when did my cute little baby boy become a tween with his childhood half over? I hate that he’s growing up so fast. It’s like somebody pressed fast-forward on our lives and then one day he woke up taller than me.

But he will always be my baby boy, who somehow thinks I did my homework by lantern light, yet knows too much about other more important things.