In 1990 my 3-year-old brother Jimmy disappeared at the Paramus Park Mall in New Jersey. As the minutes passed, people warned my mother things “didn’t look good,” implying there was a chance he’d been kidnapped, the collective imagination reaching such heights that his head had been shaved or hair dyed before he was taken out of the mall and trafficked off to God-Knows-Where. It was the ‘90s after all — the peak kidnapping decade. After an hour of searching, my brother was found at the other end of the mall gawking at a statue of a Lenape boy riding a wild turkey. His hair was still its natural towheaded blonde, and he was completely unaware of the crisis he created.
An incident like this would compel some mothers to avoid taking us to a mall again, instead favoring parks or playgrounds. But this was New Jersey, and my mom was decidedly not a parks person. The mall was a constant and we had to adapt. Her solution: buy us leashes and keep us tethered to her at all times. This four-foot radius of “freedom” deeply embarrassed me, but it granted our mom a rare sense of control over two curious, prone-to-stray children. While securely attached to her waistband we’d throw pennies into the two-story waterfall fountain, ride the Merry-Go-Round over and over, then head to Chick-Fil-A or McDonalds when it was time for lunch. Our mom would take us to the mall for fun, not as an errand; it was our Disneyland.
When I was 11-years-old I persuaded my mom to take me to my first concert. Hanson was playing a free show in the mall’s food court and I had to be there. I wrestled my way through the high-pitched cacophony of airbrushed-t-shirt-wearing-pre-teens until I was a mere three feet from the brothers. Through her eyes, this mother-daughter moment was “terrifying fun.” Her growing pride that I was maturing was only occasionally interrupted by an irrational fear that the balcony would crumble under the weight of hundreds of screaming pre-teens.
As I got older, the mall continued to serve as a meeting place, concert hall and go-to mother-daughter bonding destination. My mother is a magnetic woman, and her energy is contagious. The simple act of following behind her into Lord & Taylor — our oasis — was exhilarating. On the other side of the heavy, brass-trimmed doors was a neatly organized mecca of beautiful indulgences all set to classical music performed live on a grand piano near the escalators. I would mimic the deep breath my mother took as she walked across the white marble threshold, both of us readying ourselves for time spent happily distracted by floor after floor of pretty things. My mother would run her hands over cashmere sweaters as if beauty was earned through osmosis and she needed a refill.
At 18 I applied for, and was inexplicably given, a Lord & Taylor credit card with a $2,000 limit — despite my monthly income being roughly $400. My Lord & Taylor credit card felt like the first step toward becoming the kind of woman I imagined my mom to be: someone beautiful who deserved fancy garments and shiny baubles. The moment I walk into any mall, anywhere, I swear the hum of the shoppers set to a backdrop classical music immediately brings me right back to childhood, watching my mom meander around the shoe section, or test countless lipstick samples in her signature coral shade.
After college, I bought a one-way ticket to Chicago with little idea of what I was going to do when I got there. The first few months of adrenaline and spontaneity quickly wore off, leaving me more homesick than I’d expected. Before I moved, my focus was on where I was going, not who I was leaving behind. The distance between my mom and I could now only be shortened by airplane or road trip. Technology was there to ease the burden, but replacing standing dinner plans with the dings of Facebook Messenger chat could barely scratch the surface of my homesickness.
One afternoon when the longing for a sliver of familiarity hit me hardest, I decided to head into the suburbs of the Northbrook Court Mall. As I pulled open the doors to Lord & Taylor, the familiar sound of classical piano music came pouring out. Once again, I was surrounded by racks of beautiful things being caressed by mother-daughter shopping teams. Making my way through the maze of ready-to-wear, handbags and make-up counters, I headed toward the sharply dressed man sitting on the piano bench. He was providing the most essential, but often overlooked component of the mall shopping experience: that music. I found a leather arm chair and took a seat.
In the ensuing years, I watched mothers and daughters purchase prom dresses, perfume and Kate Spade handbags from this familiar post. The seasons passed, holiday decorations went up and down, the excitement of shopping ebbed and flowed with the crowds. Eventually, I moved again; this time to South Carolina, then New York, ultimately finding a more permanent home in Los Angeles. Regardless of the city, anytime I miss my mom, or New Jersey, and feel that sharp ache for something familiar, all I need to do is find a way back to our shared air-conditioned sanctuary — back to Lord & Taylor.
Years ago when my mother’s father, my beloved grandfather passed away, I was confronted by the ever present, unshakeable truth that one day I’d find myself in her position: mourning the loss of a parent, lamenting time wasted arguing while scavenging for memories to hold onto. I used to wonder if I’ll regret moving so far away from the person who gave me life and whose presence near me always felt most like home.
But moving across the country, the physical distance between us feeling farther everyday, has compelled me to embrace the connections we do have. Staying close to someone, regardless of distance, is a game requiring multiple strategies. Now that I’m in my thirties, my mother and I have eased into a rapport guided along by an inherited silliness (a shared habit of talking to inanimate objects, for example) and love of all things luxurious (yes, I am a Taurus). Some physical, like being able to walk into any shopping mall and be transported right back to my mom’s side, gracefully caressing cashmere. Others are less tactile.
While writing this, I can hear someone in my apartment complex playing a piano in the distance and I’m once again transported back to Jersey. If I close my eyes and focus on the concerto, for a moment I’m home, only to be shaken out of my fantasy by a Facebook messenger chat notification sent from thousands of miles away. “Come home to me” my mother demands. Smiling, piano still playing in the background, I quickly type a response: “I never left.”