HOW A WALK TO THE MALL HELPED ME FIND MY ROOTS

It was a cloudy spring day in 1976, the United States Bicentennial, and I wanted to go to the mall. Woodfield Mall, one of the largest in America and a short drive from my house in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. But public transit in our little suburb west of Chicago didn’t exist, and my friend Sue and I couldn’t get a parent to drive us. For most twelve year-old girls, the lack of transportation would have put an end to a mall excursion. I, however, did not like to give up, even if it meant risking life and limb. After all, to a pre-teen girl, the mall was a utopia, a paradise of trendy clothing (guaranteed by Seventeen magazine to hide unwanted bulges and enhance our undeveloped figures), a dreamland filled with boys we didn’t know which made it safe to practice flirting techniques, a mecca of fast food we could afford with our babysitting earnings, a sprawling nether world where we could imagine ourselves as independent women, free of parents and annoying siblings. What’s not to like?

Undeterred by the fact we had no means of getting to the mall, I suggested we walk. No matter that the mall was several miles from my house. And that it meant hiking along the I-53, a busy highway that ran perpendicular to my house. This was the only route I knew, the only route my mother took. In the car. I’m pretty sure Sue readily agreed to my plan. I don’t remember arguing with her. And so we set out along the shoulder of the interstate, with cars and trucks rushing by, so close I could feel their heat and smell the gas.

After a few minutes, we heard a siren and turned to look. A police car, red lights flashing, had pulled up behind us. A tall policeman jumped out of the car with an incredulous look on his face, a look that said, what the hell are you thinking? (He might have actually said this out loud, but I was too frightened to notice.) All I could think about was how mad my father would be when he found out I was arrested, that his daughter was a twelve year-old criminal.

“What are you doing on the highway?” he asked us.

“Going to the mall,” I said meekly. I figured humility would be my best defense.

I don’t think Sue said anything, but again, I was terrified so my memory might be distorted.

I haven’t thought about this day for years. It had sunk back into the recesses of my brain the way childhood memories do. Then I re-connected with Sue, three days ago, after finding her on Facebook. And it all came rushing back. Saturday night sleepovers watching The Loveboat. Sunday mornings at the local ice rink where my brother played. The sweetness of honey glazed donuts, the smell of stale coffee, the glut of teenage boys, ambling by, oversized in their hockey equipment. Swimming in her aboveground pool in her backyard, the crush I had on her older brother, working as lunchroom helpers at Carl Sandburg Junior High so we could get free ice cream sandwiches. How I learned about Mormonism reading interviews with Donny Osmond in Tiger Beat. The party she had for me when I announced my family was moving back to Canada. The “Thank You for Being a Friend” 45 record everyone gave me. Her trip with us back to Canada, when we moved the summer before grade nine.

We saw each other twice after that. Once, when I was in high school and went back for a few days. It was a terrible visit for I was into alcohol and drugs, self-medicating my angst and loneliness. The next time, I was in university. Sue had a baby and was married. We were in different places, worlds apart. We lost touch, separated by hundreds of miles.

As the years rolled by, my past started to become more important to me, especially my time in Rolling Meadows. Where my roots were planted and then dug up. As a writer, I found that my words were shaped by my Illinois years. In fact, Carl Sandburg Junior High was the only school where I started and finished with my classmates, completing grades seven and eight there. No surprise as it was a two-year school and I switched schools every two years. Still, when asked where I came from, I’d answer, “Here and there, all over the place.” Because I’d only lived in Rolling Meadows for six years, I hesitated in calling it home. (Plus it sounded a little exotic, coming from nowhere and everywhere at the same time.)

Through letters, I’d kept in touch with another good friend from Sandburg, Debbie, and visited her when we both had small children. She had two boys and I had two girls. Our oldest kids grew close during our time together, and cried when we left. As we drove the nine hours back to Ontario, I wished Debbie and I lived closer, that our children could be friends the way we were.

Years went by. I published a book and travelled back to Rolling Meadows to speak about it to grade eight students at Carl Sandburg. Debbie came with me and we toured the school after my presentation. Memories came flooding back. I looked for Sue’s name in the yellow pages, online, but came up with nothing. It was as if she’d vanished.

Last year, another book of mine was published and while making plans to return to Rolling Meadows, I decided to look for Sue one more time. After typing her maiden name in Facebook’s search, her face appeared. She looked exactly as I remembered. Short, golden hair in a bob cut, brown eyes that squinted with her smile, olive skin that I’d envied for its ability to tan. (My fair skin burned to a nice crisp every summer while hers turned a deep brown.)

Turns out Sue’s been married three times and is living in Kentucky. No wonder it’s been so hard to find her! I sent her a Facebook message. Then I started worrying that maybe she wouldn’t want to hear from me, that she didn’t want to be found and reminded of her former life. For two hours I waited, checking every message, becoming more disappointed as the minutes ticked by. Then this: “Holy cow! Hello my long lost friend! I have tried over the years to find you here! So much to catch up on, we need to Skype or something and soon!!!”

We ended up Skyping that night, for two hours. We even toasted our reunion with wine. (Amazing how we could see one another, inside our homes, 483 miles apart.) You can’t fill in the gaps between the years in two hours or even two years. But we did manage to give each other the condensed version of our lives—the highs and the lows—and we shared memories of people and moments back in Rolling Meadows.

As we talked and laughed, it struck me that my Illinois roots were deeper than I thought. That I had arrived as a child and left as a young woman. That my life was intertwined with many people and events. That I was from Rolling Meadows and could call it home.

“Do you remember walking down the highway to the mall?” I asked Sue.

“Of course,” she replied, laughing. “The officer was so nice.”

Was he? I didn’t remember anything but being scared to death.

“He brought us to the mall, right?” she continued.

I thought he’d brought us home. I seem to recall my mother answering the door, seeing me and the policeman, and giving me a look that twisted my stomach.

Now, it doesn’t really matter which ending is true; we both know it happened. And we were both there to share the moment, bad as it was.

We’re going to get together in Rolling Meadows this summer and I can’t wait to see Sue. I’m thinking we should go to the mall, only this time I’ll drive.

 

 

 

 

 

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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