I raised my child in a shopping mall.
Not the kind of my youth: An enclosed, 1980’s dark-floored cave with a Spencer’s and The Limited, Orange Julius, and Chick-Fil-A; a constant fountain whooooooshing in the background.
No, this shopping mall is a modern, outdoor arrangement with a small fountain in which people throw pennies along with doomed and prophetic wishes. It has every conceivable type of food, a bookstore, Best Buy, Chuck E. Cheese, and more boutiques and large brand names than anyone could ever shop in a day.
This all occurs to me as my now-19-year-old daughter, Isabel, gets ready to graduate from college. She was raised in a shopping mall, I think. I did it!
I often tell her that her life would be great fodder for a children’s book. Eloise-level fantasy. How many children, I ask, end up living in a shopping mall?
To be clear, we didn’t live in one of the stores. That would be both wonderful and ridiculous. We live just feet away, though, in a condo complex in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where we still live.
The problem with this, I have often noted, is that when you live steps away from an ice cream store, cupcake shop, and chocolate boutique, the temptation is to go there all the time. We did not do that and, instead, would often end up walking two minutes to the bookstore and spend whole mornings and weekends there. It is still our sanctuary.
During the early days of the pandemic, we window-shopped, thinking about the clothes we saw and what events we might wear them to, if there were anywhere we could go. How lucky we are! we would say to each other, to have so much to look at when the world has stopped in time. Many people have only their homes and grass and trees.
We have a kingdom.
Isabel has always been funny. Years ago, she cradled a giant sandwich like a baby, in front of the mall stores, steps away from our condo. It made me laugh.
We landed in this place right after the 2011 tornado super outbreak destroyed our home. Almost 30 percent of our city was gone too and the run on rental housing was a fierce battle since we live in a college town.
I managed to find this condominium, as I told a friend-of-a-friend stranger — who had a condo to rent — through tears, that “I.” sob and gasp “Need.” sob and pause to control shaky voice “To get. My child. Out of a hotel.” And into a real home, even though I didn’t stop to consider that living in a shopping mall is not, in fact, what most people would call a real home.
And that became part of our problem.
“You should live in a house!” people would tell me. “She needs a yard to play in!” her father, my ex-husband, would say, in shock, as if I was raising her in an alleyway behind a strip club.
I hesitated and hedged, tried to explain my actions and defend them, all along feeling like something was off. After enough of this, I pinpointed it and it was one word: should.
I was an English major in college and I teach students language and editing. I often think about words and their meaning. But the word “should” snuck into my subconscious, propped open a tent, and encamped before I even knew it was there.
While people told me what I should do, Isabel and I lived our lives. We had so much fun!
We swam in the condo complex pool, hosted many parties in the clubhouse, played on the mini putting green, and pretended to work out in the workout room, as we played with medicine balls and walk-raced on the treadmills.
We walked our neighborhood, including the stores in the mall. We learned about every local tree and flower. We watched neighbors walk every conceivable kind of dog and even a few cats. We got to know neighborhood strays. We played ball in the courtyard. We made up our own games. On rainy days we took walks in the various parking decks that connected.
We walked to the rooftop to look out over the city or spot the football stadium. Sometimes we watched the stars. On the rare occasion that it snowed, we ran to the roof, breathless, to get a bird’s eye view of the beautiful snowy Southern city.
Isabel and I in 2021 after rare snow, outside our condo.
After the tornado took us home, nothing was the same. I walked a then-9-year-old Isabel to the shopping mall’s outdoor tree about 30 seconds away. (We didn’t have a tree yet because ours got crushed in the garage.)
The shopping mall’s outdoor tree, became “our” tree.
Close your eyes!” I said. When she opened them: “This is our tree this year,” I told her. She marveled. Last Christmas we walked by again.
“Mom, it’s still our tree,” she said. I held back tears.
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We took wildly long road trips prompted, I’m sure, by the fact that living in a snow globe of a shopping mall can make you want to travel from time to time. We saw the country. Almost all of it.
Sometimes when we were in a remote place, like a desert or national forest, we would long for home.
“I miss being around stuff,” Isabel would say, emphasizing “stuff,” having grown accustomed to being a mile from everything in our world. Other times, being away from 50% OFF EVERYTHING signs was a welcome reprieve.
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In this place, we recovered from the trauma of the tornado and survived a brutal divorce and a pandemic. Isabel was diagnosed as autistic and came out as bisexual. In this place, she and I won awards for various talents. I home-schooled her here. We lost two close friends and an acquaintance to suicide.
In this place, I learned how to be a good teacher and taught thousands of K-12 and college students. I wrote. We lost a beloved pet. I lost myself and found myself again several times. I wrote some more. She started a worldwide youth activist organization.
I raised a kind-hearted child. My kind-hearted child gently pushed me to expand my life in this place; this small condo in a shopping mall.
As she gets ready to graduate I watch her work on her last assignments for college, cocooned in her bedroom, away from the maddening “Weekend Sale!” mobs yet only steps away.
The word “should” is the enemy of all good things. This is what I teach her. When someone says you should do something, question why. Question the value of the person who is telling you that. Question the word should, always.
People said we should move. They said we should buy a house so I could get her out of this shopping complex. They told me we should move to a “real” neighborhood, whatever that is.
Yet we have had the time of our lives here. Memories were made in the small moments that turned out not to be small at all.
I raised my child in a shopping mall. If I could do it over, I should.
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Meredith Cummings is a journalist and college journalism professor whose work has appeared in media across the globe. Visit her blog, Woman of a Certain Rage, her website, or follow her on Twitter.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.